For 20 years I spent a month every year at the guesthouse of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh Vidyalaya in Jaipur. The three-foot-thick walls kept out the heat but they couldn’t subdue the piercing, plaintive cry of the peacock every morning. And as the heat gave way to sultry monsoon days, the trees in the garden would shake their wet leaves in the delicious breeze, brooding clouds overhead. Winter and Jaipur would take on a completely different hue, as sodium vapour lamps draped the pink painted city in a surreal light. Jaipur, for me, remains that building in the Mughal miniature: perfect, painted, only two-dimensional, a pavilion set in a garden. Exquisite.
And as I worked in this charming city over 27 years, spending a month each year, I got involved in projects that allowed me to understand its genesis and vitality.
Jaipur came into being in 1726AD when Sawai Jai Singh II decided, for the first time in Indian history, to build a city on the plains, without much fortification. For the previous two centuries the Kachwaha Rajputs of Jaipur had worked in the Mughal court, mainly in military posts. Most ancient Indian cities developed around a shrine. First there was the dargah (shrine) on the dariya (stream) that, in turn, drew daulat (wealth) to it — and then, around this pilgrimage centre grew a commercial township. But Jaipur was built where nothing existed before; it skipped the process of how cities normally develop: a village, a local shrine, a centre of trade developing over a millennium into a metropolis.
Traditionally, it was believed that till the seven trades do not come and settle in close vicinity, a village or a town cannot really be called a city. These seven trades are panigers (makers of the gold and silver leaf used in architecture and even on paans and mithais ), nilgar (dyers), karigar (to build houses), shorgar (to make firecrackers), kamnigar (workers), sikligar (sword makers) and namdagar (to make a kind of a felt rug).
Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh invited all these different trades to come and settle in Jaipur from the existing trade centres of North and Eastern India. Merchants, bankers, artisans, shopkeepers flocked to the new city of Jaipur in the middle of the 18th century. They came on Jai Singh’s invitation, and were allowed to build havelis in their own design as long as they conformed to the master plan of the city. Jaipur plunged swiftly into an urban reality, the citizens having to learn how to live together as a well-knit unit, under the watchful eye of the king.
Certainly Sawai Jai Singh II did not have as much money at his disposal to build Jaipur as the Mughals had in building their luxurious palaces, forts, mosques and mausoleums. So he thought of an ingenious way to cut costs with no loss of style. Quartzite stone from the local hills of Nahargarh, Amargarh and Jhalana was used as the basic building material. This was then coated with a layer of lime-mortar, followed by geru — a creamy yellow wash. In this way, without actually using sandstone or marble, the effect of sandstone and marble was created. Over these surfaces, drawings were made in white lime to give the impression of marble inlay, .
Similarly the jali work of the windows and jharokas was not really sandstone but lime mortar. Araish work — lime mortar surfaces polished to resemble marble — reached its peak in the building of Jaipur. Even today the city flourishes on a town plan that was laid down in 1726 — shops on the ground floor, broad terraces above, flanked by the residence of the shop owners.
My work in the walled city for several years, with the Jaipur Virasat Foundation, brought a different urban reality to life for me. I started to understand those carrying out ancient crafts and trades on the street itself. The Thateron ka Rasta, where traditional utensil makers still rhythmically beat brass into cooking pots; Maniharon ka Rasta, where legendary Hajjan Lalli Begum spins out her lac bangles over a tiny flame. And the endless galis with shops that specialise in leherya dupattas for the monsoon, gota garlands for weddings and flowers for worship. Snaking out from Badi Chaupa in the centre of the old city is a warren of streets, each still practising its traditional trade, 280 years after it began. And here you still can smell the bazaar bouquet of roasted cumin, jasmine flowers, sandalwood and frying onions.
Last month, I returned to the city with colleagues to begin an exciting new project that looks at the interface of ecology, culture and lifestyle in different pockets of India. With us were a host of local experts, drawn from different parts of Rajasthan: the lush Braj region, the dry desert of Bikaner and the tribal areas bordering Gujarat. Fortunately, Jaipur, unlike other parts of India that are turning into anonymous urban clusters, continues to be home to an extraordinary range of social, cultural and economic assets. In its traditional knowledge systems, oral traditions and in the skills of art and craft.
And while our workshop carries on indoors, outdoors in the garden, a lone peacock welcomes the first clouds of the monsoon with a plaintive cry.
(In this monthly series, authors chronicle the cities they call home.)
( Feisal Alkazi is an educationist, theatre director, author of 'Srinagar; An Architectural Legacy' )