Jaipur: splendid fort and stubborn castes

21 May

A first time travel to India inevitably mean first impressions. The country is so diverse and vast that it is hard to pin down and it does not lend itself easily to generalisations. Just the few hours drive from Pushkar to Jaipur felt like time travel through a few centuries. Within a matter of hours turbans turned to helmets, women carrying water on their heads were nowhere to be seen, and carts pulled by camels on dusty roads were replaced by cars, mopeds and traffic signs.

Driving into Jaipur, I thought back to the disappointed Swiss couple we had met in Pushkar. Their first stop in India had been Jaipur, which they described as a “dirty and busy city where people came up to us all the time”. I can easily see that arriving directly to India from Switzerland, perhaps the most orderly society in the world, would prompt a negative first reaction. Yet, I found Jaipur to be a rather charming city. After one month in India, both my boyfriend and I have become rather unfazed by attempts to sell us souvenirs, a ride in a rickshaw or questions for money or a pen.

Rightly enough, the state capital of Rajasthan is a rather busy and congested city. Half a million of the 6.5 million residents live in the old walled quarter, where most tourist choose to stay. The old town is also what gives the city its nickname of the pink city. While my guidebook explains the colour pink as a camouflage for poor-quality material used for the buildings, our local guide had a more cheerful explanation. In 1876, the ruler at the time, Jai Sing, had the entire city painted pink to welcome prince Albert of England when he paid a visit. Only his own buildings were spared from the pink, reportedly to separate his own properties from that of the commoners.

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One of them, the yellow-stone Amber palace and fort, sits high on the edge of a rocky hill just outside Jaipur. Our visit to the fort was not only a glimpse into the splendour of Jai Singh, but also into how the caste system still holds sway in this country.

In the early morning, elephants were making their way up to the fort from the “ELEPHANT PARKING” (funniest Indian sign to date). For the first time since we started our journey, we also saw more than a handful of tourists. Jaipur is one corner of the tourist trail known as the “golden triangle” that also includes Delhi and Agra. But nonetheless, the five Chinese on top of waddling elephants and the two French tour groups were far off the average 10,000 tourist that come during high season.

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As elsewhere in Rajasthan, the palace ceilings were painted with gold, the windows were of glass imported from Belgium and Italy during the time of the Silk Route; and entire rooms were made of solid marble. Yet, the palace took on a surreal atmosphere when I heard that people lived here – like in the middle of an ancient history book – until the 1960s. Today the royal descendants, including the 15-year old currently holding the title of king, live in the City Palace in downtown Jaipur.

Facing the Winter Palace, our local guide Mukesh, a man in his late thirties in in suit trousers a few centimetres too short and white tennis socks, told us there may have been 90 toilets in the fort, yet no sewage system. “At the time, untouchables collected and removed the royal disposables”, he explained. The term “untochables” refer to India’s caste-offs – the dalits – and is now taboo in public. Or so I thought.

“Like these two”, Mukesh said. I looked around the pillar and saw two bent backs with brooms, sweeping the floor. A group of picture-taking French tourists nearby had spotted the two women’s brightly coloured saris.

“How do you know that they are untouchables?” I asked.

“Because they have brooms in their hands. People sweeping the floors, cleaning toilets, they are all untouchables. Some will have government jobs, but the people cleaning will always be untouchables”.

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The caste system is officially abolished and job reservations have been introduced for lower castes to push through changes. But centuries long traditions of ranking and dividing people is not easy to outlaw. As we entered the women's quarters, made up of apartments for 12 wives and living quarters for 300 concubines, I asked Mukesh about caste and marriage today in Jaipur.

“90 percent look in their own caste. But, if you fall in love, there is no caste system. If parents don´t accept, you can run away from home, have a couple of kids, then go back and they will accept you”.

Later that afternoon, when we walked down towards the car park, I was again reminded how Indian society is socially hierarchical. Both my boyfriend and I were taken aback when Makesh let out a one-syllabus bark and an impatient wave with the hand to indicate to our driver Balu, seated in the shade of a few trees, that it was time to go.

Back in the car, the chummy tone we have had for two weeks with Balu was gone. Instead, he now couched his replies to Makesh in a deferential manner. Although in Hindi, it was noticeable across the language barrier that the guide spoke back in an air of superiority.

But, when the guide took on the task of acting as go-between (“where do you want to go?”), it was however time to reintroduce the more egalitarian Nordic approach.

“It is okay”, we protested. “We can speak directly with Balu”.

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