Hands off my Haathii!

Amber Fort – Amer

Early the next morning, I was awoken by a tap, tap, tapping at my door. It wasn’t a raven but Nikesh, eager to serve me breakfast in my salon and lay out my clothes for the day. This was at 6:30 am, and the train was only just pulling into the station! I thought it was a bit too early, but Nikesh insisted that it was traditional for guests to be served a wake-up meal, and then take a shower before being escorted to breakfast proper in the dining car at 7:30.

I managed the pot of tea, scrambled eggs, croissants and toast in my salon, but passed on the full English Breakfast of fried bacon, eggs, sausages, fried bread, baked beans and mushrooms in the Dining Car. Naturally, Mick and Ravi took full advantage though, and Ravi even had a bowl of porridge as well. God knows where he puts it! Even now, he makes Gandhi look fat.

After breakfast, our porters escorted us from the train and led us along the platform to board our transport. As we approached the luxury coach, conveniently parked at the front of the train, we were greeted by a welcoming party that included a group of locals playing traditional Indian instruments, jugglers, acrobats and even an elephant in full regalia. There were also yet more attractive young ladies in full saris whose job it was to place fresh garlands of spider lilies, jasmine and marigolds, about our necks and dab a Bindi in the middle of our foreheads.

A Bindi is a coloured dot that has many traditional meanings, with the main one for westerners, being that it is, supposedly, a representation of the “Third Eye.” Ravi and I received red ones whilst Mick was honoured with a yellow one. We couldn’t resist telling him that ours recognized us as being Brahmin, whilst his yellow one indicated that he was gay. We told him he shouldn’t rub it off, as that would cause offence and bring him bad luck for the rest of the trip. Ever the cynic, he tried to rub it off anyway and was left with an indelible smudge that lingered for days. Perhaps that was the root of his misfortunes later in the holiday.

To make matters worse, he then reached out with his newly inked fingers to stroke the elephant’s trunk, thereby anointing it with its own indelible gay marker.

“That will be $20 sahib,” declared the Mahout.

“What the F!!! for!”

“You touched my Haathi! For $30 more you can take your photograph stroking it.”

 “I did no such thing you [numerous expletives deleted],” stormed an affronted Mick.

It took five minutes for Ravi, a fluent Hindi speaker, to calm Mick down, and explain to him that Haathi is the Hindi word for Elephant.

Eventually, a fine of 100 rupees was agreed and paid, after which we were permitted to board the air-conditioned coach and head off to the city of Jaipur. Just goes to show though, you should always ask before you touch another man’s Haathi, especially if you have a yellow Bindi on your forehead. Still, I would love to have had a photo of Mick stroking a Mahout’s Haathi!

Jaipur is the capital and largest city of Rajasthan. According to our guide, it was planned and built by the Maharaja Jai Sing 11 in 1727 and laid out in a grid system when he decided to move his capital from Amer.

In 1876 the entire city was repainted in a pale pink to welcome the visiting Edward V11, who was then the Prince of Wales, and it has been known as the “Pink City” ever since. Given the Prince’s reputation as a womaniser, I have no idea why they chose pink. Perhaps it meant something different in those days, or perhaps he couldn’t keep his hands off the Maharaja’s Haathi.

The Palace of Winds – Mick and the amorous Monkey

The Palace of Winds

The first stop on the tour was the Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds, an elaborate five-storied, multi-windowed, building in the shape of a scallop shell, constructed of pink sandstone. From across the street, the Arabic windows and lacework stucco reminded me of the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain. The guide informed us that what we could see was just a façade, and all there was behind it was a series of steps leading up to narrow terraces behind the windows, from which noble ladies could watch parades without themselves being seen. Remember the Mogul Lords were Muslims and very protective of their ladies’ honour.

As mere commoners, albeit supposedly VIP ones, we had to admire the palace from the sidewalk on the other side of the street. Behind us was a parade of shops and stalls selling carpets, cloths, fruits, candles, pots, utensils and all manner of small birds and animals in cages.

Mick made the mistake of standing too close to a monkey chained to a shoulder-high perch. Now, I don’t know if it was Mick’s golden locks, or merely the yellow Bindi on his forehead, that inflamed the monkey’s libido, but seconds later it was on his shoulder, attempting to hump his right ear. Ravi and I would have liked to have come to his aid (Mick’s not the monkey’s), but unfortunately, we were too busy laughing and taking photos. Luckily, the monkey’s owner was on hand to recapture the randy creature and lead it away. Given the foul mood Mick was in, the monkey keeper wisely decided against asking for a stud fee.

Amer Palace – Baba and bewildered Farts

After the Hawa Mahal, it was back on the coach for the short trip across country to the hill town of Amer and the Amer Fort which is also known as the Amer Palace.

The fort/palace complex stands on a hill above the town and Lake Mahota, from which it draws its water. The only way up is via a steep path that zig-zags back and forth across the face of the hill to the top. These days it is considered ethical to take a 4 x 4 jeep, but back then the preferred method was in a Howdah on the back of an elephant. The word Howdah derives from the Arabic word Howdaj, which means a bed on the back of a camel, but in India, it refers to a sort of 4 to 6-seater platform on the back of an elephant. In the days of the Raj, the British used to hunt tigers from them. Not my idea of sport. The Tigers had no chance!

Elephants at The Amber Fort

You mount your ride by climbing a set of wooden stairs to a platform, from which you can step into your howdah. Indian elephants are not as big as African ones, but it still seems a long way above the ground once you get up there.

At a blast from a Shenai trumpet, our Mahout, who sat on its neck, whacked his Haathi on the ear with a whippy pole and off we lumbered. In the heat and on the steep slope, I pitied the poor beasts in our caravan, but they didn’t seem to be suffering. In the wild, they walk many miles each day, over all sorts of rough terrain, so maybe it is second nature to them. At least they were fed and watered at regular intervals.

As we slowly climbed the path, we enjoyed a magnificent view of the lake and town below, as well as the parched lands beyond all the way back to the pink walls of Jaipur in the distance.

Not having a way of showing off his superior knowledge, Mick resorted to general conversation and pointing out the obvious.

“This is a male elephant,” he knowledgeably informed us.

“How do you know that?”

“I just heard a kid saying….Look at the size of the dick on that Elephant.”

After about 500 yards, our Haathi suddenly stopped, raised his right hind leg, threw back his trunk over his shoulders and let go the most enormous bewildered fart imaginable, followed by an impressive stream that would have overwhelmed all but the largest bonfire.

Dave and Ravi: (In unison) “More Tea Vicar?”

Even Mick had to smile, but it earned poor Babar another whack from his mahout. I wished I could have given him a taste of his own medicine, but we were guests in his country, so I had to hold my peace. In any event, for all I knew, Babar might have been trained as an attack Elephant.

Eventually, we arrived at the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate), which is the main entrance leading to the first courtyard where we dismounted. I annoyed our mahout, by buying a bunch of bananas from a street trader and feeding them to our mount. I didn’t tip his master though, which is considered bad form, but I didn’t care. I just hope he didn’t take it out on Babar.

As our group regathered, we were introduced to our local guide, Kumar. Kumar was a local and could have been any age from fifty to one hundred. Wrapped up in the traditional local attire, and with a face tanned and wrinkled by the sun, there was no way of telling.

Kumar led us through the Suraj Pol into the first courtyard. Here he told us about the history and layout of the site. It goes a little like this: –

“There is evidence of human occupation at Amer going back thousands of years, but the earliest recorded settlement was that of the Meena tribe led by Raja Alan Sing in 967 CE.”

“The current fort was founded by one of Akbar’s leading generals, the Amer king, Raj Man Sing, in the 1600s. Later it was further expanded by Jai Sing 1 and his successors over the next 150 years.”

At the mention of Akbar, Mick’s ears pricked up. Hadn’t he been reading about Akbar just the other day?

“Amer remained the seat of power in Rajasthan until Sawai Jai Sing 11 moved his capital to Jaipur in 1727.”

“I knew that,” interjected Mick.

Kumar continued. “The Palace is divided into six sections and four courtyards. The courtyard we are in is called the Jaleb Chalek, and it is the main entrance to the Palace. It was here that returning victorious soldiers would parade before their Maharajas. Safe from the prying eyes of the public, the Maharaja’s many women, both Maharinis and Concubines, would watch from the narrow windows of the Palace above us.”

Doors of Sila Devi Temple

“To the right is the Sila Devi Temple. Note the magnificent double doors covered in silver leaf and embossed with various images of the deity. Sila Devi is an incarnation of the Goddess Kali.”

“There are many stories about the founding of the Temple, but my favourite concerns Raj Man Sing. The legend is that when the Maharaja was at war with the Raja of Jessore, he called upon Kali to grant him victory. She agreed but only if he promised to retrieve an ancient statue of her from the sea, bring it to Amer and worship it.”

“Ran Singh willingly agreed and when he subsequently won the battle kept his promise by salvaging the statue and bringing it back to his palace. There he built the temple to house it, and it has been there ever since. The temple is named Sila Devi because the idol is carved from a single slab of stone.”

“Now please follow me up the steps and I will show you the second courtyard.”

As our group complied, Mick took the opportunity to engage Kumar in conversation.

“Are you a full-time guide?

“Oh no, not at all Sahib, I have many talents. I am a Scholar, an Astronomer, a Mathematician and a published author. I am also a linguist and have translated many works into a variety of languages.”

Impressed by this self-confessed polymath, Mick moved a little closer. Perhaps he sensed a man after his own nature.

Second Courtyard

Hall of Public Audiences – Amber Fort

As we entered the second courtyard, Kumar pointed out the Diwan-I-Aam, or Hall of Public Audiences to our left. The Diwan is a hall pavilion on a raised platform. Other than reporting that each of the many columns that support the galleries is topped by a capital in the shape of an elephant, there is not much to be said.

Third Courtyard

The third level is approached through the three-story Ganesh Pol, meaning, as you have probably worked out by now, Ganesh Gate. Simple, Hindi, when you get the hang of it.

Ganesh is, of course, one of the Hindu gods. Among his abilities is that he removes the obstacles of life. For this reason, every entrance into the private palace of a Maharaja has a Ganesh Gate. The God is often depicted with the head of an elephant, and so many of his gates and temples are also adorned with sculptures, mosaics and paintings of elephants.

Charbagh garden -Amber Fort

The centre of the courtyard is taken up with an expansive Mughal garden, known as The Garden of Pleasures and set out with various pools in geometric shapes such as heptagons and stars.

Kumar pointed to the building on the right and informed us that: –

“That is called the Sukh Mahal or Hall of Pleasures. Inside, the walls are decorated with erotic art, and a piped supply of cold water in open channels keeps the rooms cool. It is where the Maharaja’s enjoyed the pleasures of their many women.”

I wouldn’t have minded taking a look at how the other half indulged their more carnal urges, but instead, Kumar led us to the left and into the building known as the Diwan-e-Khas or Sheesh Mahal. The former name means Hall of Private Audiences and the latter Hall of Mirrors.

Wow! All three of the Amigos were gob-smacked by the sight that greeted us. Inside, every wall was embellished with inlaid coloured mosaics and the finest glass mirrors; every nook and cranny gilded in silver. Even the ceiling shimmered in heavenly glories, like the myriad stars of a clear desert night. Forget Timothy Leary and the Spice Market! Visually, this was the inside of brightly lit Kaleidoscope.

Beautiful as it was, it was too much to endure for more than a few minutes, and we quickly followed Kumar through the exit to the next room. I can only assume that the Hall was more bearable when lit by flickering candles, rather than modern incandescent bulbs. Either that or the Mughals had access to sunglasses long before the West.

Above the Sheesh Mahal is the Jas Mandir, another private audience hall. I suppose it was impressive in its own way, but after what we had just experienced, interior design would never be the same again. It does, however, afford a terrific view of Lake Mahota far below. This is through a delicate marble screen which also directs a fresh breeze into the room.

Fourth Courtyard.

Finally, we reached the fourth section of the Palace, where the Zenana (women of court) lived or, more accurately, were kept. This courtyard is surrounded by many private rooms where the Queens, Concubines and Mistresses resided. According to Kumar, the benefit of this was that the Maharaja could visit individual favourites of his choice, without the others finding out. I suppose even a Maharaja needs a break from his man-camp of pleasure sometimes.

Rajasthali – The only Rajasthan Government Emporium.

As with all tourist attractions worldwide, you don’t get to leave without passing through the Museum shop. The Amer Fort and Palace is no different, but at least this one was, supposedly, authorised by the government, and featured fixed prices.

As usual, the goods on display were a load of old tat, and there was nothing of interest on display to Ravi and me.

Mick, however, did snap up a collection of flimsy paperbacks authored by Kumar. He was sorely disappointed when he found out later, that when Kumar said he was,  an “Astronomer and a mathematician,” he meant “Astrologer.” When he said he was a Linguist, he meant he could speak English, Hindi and Urdu (which Ravi tells me are pretty much the same) and several local dialects. And when he said “Scholar,” he meant someone who studies the Koran. All of these are pet hates of Micks, and so I am not sure any of the books made it back to the UK.

When we made our escape from the shop via the rear gate of the Palace, I was relieved to find a convoy of open Jeeps, waiting to take us back down the hill to the town below. My feet were hurting, and all I really wanted was a cold beer.

I don’t know how the elephants got back down to the town. We certainly hadn’t seen any coming the other way as we went up. I speculated that maybe they were given roller skates, or in the case of the more agile ones, skateboards, but it seemed unlikely. I would have paid extra to have seen it though!

Lunch at Jai Mahal Palace Hotel

Taj Palace Hotel – Jaipur

Back at the base of the hill, we boarded our coach and returned to Jaipur and Jai Mahal Palace Hotel for lunch.

The hotel was built in 1745 and stands in 18 acres of beautiful gardens landscaped in the Mughal style. The Mughal style was originated by Babur and based on his love of the traditional Persian garden. The major features of a Mughal garden are an enclosing wall, complex geometric layout and running water. Lots and lots of water.

They also incorporate a high level of symbolism, both spiritual, astrological and arcane. This takes the form of mirror ponds in which to reflect upon the beauties of the sky and garden; trees and flowers to represent nature and complex structures laid out with mathematical precision.

Some Mughal scholars claim that the gardens represent the Quranic principles of paradise and that the numbers eight and nine are particularly auspicious. This is often displayed in the number of terraces or shapes such as octagonal pools.

While Mick and Ravi went with the rest of group to enjoy a sumptuous and delicious cold buffet in the banquet hall, I made my way to the Marigold Bar for a cold beer, or two, which I drank outside in the garden sun. Bliss!

City Palace – Just Good friends.

City Palace – Jaipur

After lunch, we were taken off for a tour of the City Palace in the town centre. The palace was built at the same time as Jaipur itself, by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh 11. In common with much of the rest of the city, it is a magnificent sandstone edifice.

These days, it is mostly a Museum, but it is still home to the Jaipur royal family. They no longer have any real power, but they are important for the ceremonial needs of the region. In that respect they are much like the British Royal Family, an institution much derided by Mick, who vehemently considers the Royals as a pointless burden on the British taxpayer.

He wasn’t pleased, therefore, when one of our new-found Aussie friends, Sheila, waxed lyrical about how she had read that Prince Charles and Lady Di were guests at the Palace in 1992, and, even more excitingly, the visit paid by Charles’ mum, Queen Elizabeth 11, in the 1950s. Seems that Sheila and her husband, Bruce, were big fans of the Royal Family.

“Have you ever met them,” she asked on hearing that we were originally from London?”

“No, but I did once screw up their motor cavalcade cycling past Buckingham Palace on my way home from work,” responded Mick through clenched teeth. “I don’t see why my right of way should be disrupted by the police stopping traffic, so parasites like them can get to the West End. They should walk, or take a bus, like everyone else.”

Although the exhibits of art, furniture and textiles in the museum were interesting, the Amigos were more fascinated by the changing of the guards in the courtyard before the huge wooden doors that lead to the private quarters of the occupying aristocrats.

At a barked command from their drill sergeant, the two smartly dressed soldiers either side of the massive doors shouldered their rifles and commenced an impressive series of stomps, spins and rifle twirling.

At the end of this, they again shouldered their arms and at a further command from their sergeant, marched in perfect step across the courtyard as their replacements marched in to take their place.

It wasn’t the perfect co-ordination of the ceremony that impressed the Amigos, but what happened after.

As the new guards settled into their boring duty, and the crowd dispersed, the relieved guards returned and strode casually across the square. It wasn’t how languidly they walked, that surprised us, but the way they were holding hands. They looked just like any pair of lovers on a walk in the park. You need to remember that this was well before the rainbow revolution of the 2010s, so we were all quite shocked.

“It’s not what you think,” declared Ravi. “Boys in India often hold hands.” They are not gay, just good friends.”

“Hmmm!” said I, dubiously.

“Bollocks,” said Mick.

Jantar Mantar – Observatory

Jantar Mantar – Jaipur

Our last stop of the day was across the road to the Jantar Mantar, to view the massive astronomy instruments constructed on the orders of the same Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh 11 who commissioned the building of most of Jaipur. He must have had a fabulous imagination and been quite a guy. I think that I would have enjoyed having a beer and a chat with him.

The observatory is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site and comprises 19 huge instruments built of local stone and marble. It was designed for the sole purpose of measuring the position and movement of celestial objects. Jantar Mantar literally means “Calculating Machine.”

There are giant instruments for measuring the azimuth of the sun, meridian altitude and zenith of celestial objects, as well as many other devices for purposes well beyond my understanding.

To my mind, the most impressive is the Vrihat Samrat Yantra. This is basically a giant sundial with an 88-foot-high gnomon. The steps leading up to the top of the gnomon are angled at 27 degrees. As this is the latitude of Jaipur, its shadow on the bronze scale around the perimeter tells the local time of day. Due to its size, it is extremely accurate, but I wondered what they did at night.

We spent an hour or so wandering around the complex, with Mick reading the descriptive plaques, and then telling us what they said. Presumably, he doesn’t think we can read for ourselves. Oh well!

At last, it was time for everyone to return to the POW, for a well-deserved shower and a lie down before dinner. Of course, in the case of the Amigos, we interpreted this as meaning a quick shower and a beer before dinner. Why do we torture our poor bodies so?

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