As we traveled from Agra to Jaipur, Neda and I were still feeling exuberant from the amazing sites of the day
, but were starting to grow restless at the one-dimensional relationship we seemed to have with every Indian person we met. In Delhi and Agra we found that every single interaction we entered into culminated in someone asking for money, for us to buy from their store, or was some other attempt to extricate money from us.
Jeff with Saleem and his son Kabir
In Jaipur, that all changed. We had sent out some couch requests on our favorite website Couchsurfing.org
. Some people warned us this was a bad idea in India, but CS’s format of screening people through past references has always worked well for us and it seemed that India was a place where we would really benefit from having some authentic interactions. We were accepted by Saleem Khan and his wonderful family, who live in a 300 year old home in the old city of Jaipur. I can tell you that our driver seemed pretty surprised when Saleem met us at one of the city gates and then spoke to him briefly in Hindi before leading our car through the winding alleyways that led to his family home! Once at the house, we were greeted to delicious chai (black tea, milk, and a bit of sugar) and mutton briyani, complements of the various ladies who live in the house. Saleem’s house is bursting with the energy of family – himself, his wife and kids, as well as his mother and various brothers and sisters and their family all live there.
Neda with all the kiddos!
Jeff cooking up a storm!
In total, 15 people reside here daily and even more were in town for the Diwali festival as guests. We were among those guests and loved the time we spent playing with the children, talking over chai with Saleem and his genial brother Kabir, and watching the workings of the bustling household. On our 2nd night there, we were invited to help cook a delicious Mutton Korma from scratch, watching as cooking expert Jeckie cooked down the onions in ghee, added a variety of fresh spices, mutton, and milk in order to create a creamy and spicy delicacy. We ate the meal on the family’s rooftop, where a typical night of winter dusk sees thousands of kites being flown by children from the rooftops and where during the Diwali festival the sky erupts with fireworks launched from all over the city.
During the days we did sightseeing with our driver. He drove us up to the picturesquely situated Amber Fort – which lies on a hilltop 11km outside of town. Built in 1592 by Maharaja Man Singh, a general of Akbar’s Army, the fort boasts the furnishing of a palace, with the impressive Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) inlaid with mirrors along with intricate carvings that catch the eye in a thousand places. Amber Fort is watched over by the even higher situated Jaigarth Fort. Jaigarth’s interior is not as impressive as Amber, but the watchtower there affords splendid views of Amber and surrounding countryside. On the way back from the two forts, we stopped at the Jal Mahal (water palace), a beautiful sandstone building which seemingly floats in the middle of a dam-produced lake that was created in the 16th century. It is said to have been created to house the Maharaja’s harem so that they would be separated from all possible corruptions.
Jaigarth Fort view from Amber Fort's gardens
Jantar Mantar Observatory - biggest sundial
Heading back into town, we visited Jantar Mintar, the royal observatory. It consists of an open-air plaza full of giant instruments that take varying measurements of the nighttime sky, including the most massive sundial we have ever seen, the 90m high Samrat Yantra. Using all the different instruments together, has the ability to glean a comprehensive picture of the celestial sky. Across the street from Jantar Mintar is the City Palace, the home of the Rajasthani Maharajas ever since Maharaja Jai Singh decided to move from Amber Fort and founded the city of Jaipur. It contains a textile museum explaining costumes of the region and rulers over the years as well as an interesting hall showing the history of the different Maharajas from scholar kings to warriors. At Pitam Niwas Chowk square, the beautiful painted peacock doorways enchant visitors while the private royal palace of the Chandral Mahal looms in the background.
The main event was the night of the 13th, the celebration of Diwali. Diwali, or the festival of lights (http://www.diwalifestival.org/diwali-new-year.html), marks the Hindu New Year and is one of the most major celebrations in India. Hindus believe that Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and luck, visits home that are brightly lit and so the whole city comes alive with light. Children make “deeps”, or small clay lamps to attract the goddess to their homes in the hopes of new clothes and toys. In Jaipur, Diwali is taken beyond just individual homes as the city’s many bazaars are garishly decorated and illuminated in a display that makes Christmas look like childsplay!
Jaipur City Gates decorated for Diwali
On Diwali night, our host Saleem and one of his good friends Asif honored us by driving us through the whole city on their motorbikes. Neda sat behind Saleem and I sat behind Asif as we cruised from bazaar to bazaar watching the kaleidoscope of lights. I think the star of David is also an ancient Hindu symbol, because some streets were just lined with hundreds of them, confusing me for a moment into thinking it was a different festival of lights! The gates of the old city were also lined with lights, making for a dazzling entranceway into the bazaars. We rode alongside whole families on single motorbike (with the women and girls dressed up in their fancy Diwali dresses) and behind autorickshaws packed with 4 or 5 kids in the back, their slack face jaws staring out at the iridescent scene. Jeff managed to take a few videos of the whole scene, click here
to see one of them and the rest are on flickr. For a little while as we cruised along the streets, we blended in with the crowds and felt like we were a part of the whole scene and not just tourists there to observe from the outside. This was the most precious gift that Saleem and Asif could give us.
After leaving with a joy from Delhi, we left Jaipur with heavy hearts. In just a few days we felt like we had become a part of the family, and we knew we would miss the close knit community that Saleem was a part of. It really contrasts with our loosely knit family and friends – spread out everywhere from Philadelphia to Saint Louis to Boston to Austin to Bulgaria and another half dozen other countries as well. But for a brief moment to be a part of someone else’s quilt brought a warmth to our hearts we know will stay with us for a long time.
In 2012, we have celebrated 3 New Years so far. The Western New Year
found us in a mountain lodge in Stara Zagora with Neda’s old friends, a raging fire and snow falling around us. The Thai/Lao New Year
found us dancing in the streets of Luang Prabang, soaked to the bone with all the splashing water and a bit inebriated from the generosity of the local folk there. And finally, the Hindu New Year found us surrounded by a surrogate family amidst the glow of millions of lights. If that’s not what travel is all about, I don’t know what is!
To see all our pics (and videos!) of Jaipur and Diwali – click here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/67011297@N07/sets/72157632011293721