Though it is no longer a seat of power, royalty still defines Jaipur, a city known for its palaces, forts, slow-moving elephants, colourful puppets and vibrant bazaars. The Rambagh Palace, once the formal residence of the maharaja, is now a luxury hotel, but on a wall hangs a painting of the late Maharani Gayatri Devi, described by Vogue in 1940 as one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world. Born Princess Ayesha, her grandfather was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite maharajas.
Less than 200 miles from my home town of Delhi, Jaipur was a favourite long-weekend holiday destination for my family when I was growing up. Not for us though, the luxuries of the Rambagh Palace, a place too exclusive for my father to ever afford.
For the past few years, I have returned almost every year for the Jaipur Literature Festival, which brings authors from all over the world to what is known as the ‘Glastonbury’ of literature festivals. The opening night reception is always held in the gardens of the Rambagh Palace and I found myself this January searching out the portrait of Gayatri Devi. With a footfall of 500,000 over five days, the festival is a destination for book lovers, authors and publishers and has put Jaipur firmly on the literary world map.
Built in 1726 by Maharajah Jai Singh II, Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, and forms part of the so-called Golden Triangle with Agra and Delhi – dubbed so because of the extraordinary cultural and historical splendours found in each of the three cities.
In 1876 Jaipur was painted a shade of terracotta pink to welcome the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), giving it the name of the Pink City. Riding a rickshaw through the old town today is a sensory feast. The shops sell everything from colourful textiles, silver jewellery and leather sandals to gleaming steel and copper pots and speciality pickles.
One of the architectural wonders of the city is the Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds), a sandstone building with 953 carved windows, from behind which the ladies of the palace would look at the public festivals and processions on the main road below. Another highlight is the Jantar Mantar, a collection of terracotta astronomical instruments built in 1734. These devices – which form a Unesco World Heritage Site – are large structures built of stone and marble, including a sundial, which measures 27 metres tall.
Perched on a hill around 7 miles from Jaipur, the majestic red sandstone Amer Fort is a must for tourists, who can ride to the top on the back of an elephant and take in the views. For a magical experience, ask the guide to light a match in the glittering Sheesh Mahal, a room whose walls are covered entirely with tiny mirrors, so you can see the reflection of a thousand dancing flames.
Jaipur’s City Palace Museum (also known as the Maharaja Sawai Mansingh II Museum) is based in a complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings that is still partly a royal residence. Look out for the enormous tent-like pyjamas worn by Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh I (he was reputedly 3.9ft wide, 7ft tall and weighed 250kgs).
The museum also houses the enormous silver vessels that Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II carried to England when he travelled there for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. The pots were filled with 900 gallons of holy water from the Ganges, so he would not be polluted when he crossed the seas.
For those who love textiles, Jaipur is the place to buy clothing or linen with the Jaipur block-print. Take a trip to the village of Sanganer, 9 miles away, to stock up on handmade paper. Jaipur has geared up to meet its tourists over the years. Old havelis (family homes) have been converted into charming boutique hotels. Yet no matter where you are staying, you will be entertained by a puppet show and the traditional ghoomar (whirling) dance. Music is part of Rajasthani folk culture, reflecting the songs of the desert. Singers are accompanied by string instruments, castanets and dhols (drums) and the pieces usually reach a heady crescendo.
When it comes to food, most of the residents of Jaipur are vegetarian as they follow the ancient Indian religion of Jainism. Dive into the busy Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar, a well-known hotel, restaurant and sweet shop in the heart of Johri Bazaar, for a vegetarian thali and the signature Rajasthani dish, dal bati churma – a deep fried ball of gram flour, eaten with dal and a large dollop of ghee (clarified butter). You should also try some street food at Rawat, a popular takeaway opposite the main bus stand, where you will see locals eating the famous kachoris (deep fried lentil and onion balls).
For an exotic dining experience, visit the opulent AD 1135 restaurant in Amer Fort, where the lal-maas (lamb in a red curry sauce) is a speciality. Converted out of the rooms in the fort, this is for those who want to dine like the maharajas. Thankfully, there is a decent road to the top, so you won’t have to travel for dinner on an elephant.
Shrabani Basu’s most recent book is Victoria & Abdul (The History Press, 2017).
This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine