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Romantic Rajasthan

By Diana McLeod

THE FABULOUS PINK CITY OF JAIPUR is a lady well past her prime, but every so often you catch a glimpse of the breathtaking beauty she once was. They call her the "Pink City" because one of the Maharajahs decided to paint the entire city pink, during a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1853. The soft salmon rose hue suits the historic district of the city very well. The older buildings are crowned with domes, minarets and latticed balconies. Markets abound everywhere, and you can buy everything from brightly colored bangles to fine jewelry, from colored turbans to dazzling wedding saris. The food is rich and aromatic and the spice markets tempt the nostrils with dozens of competing fragrances. There is a huge jewelry market with tightly packed shops, glittering with colored gemstones and antique Rajasthani tribal amulets. Even though the city is growing exponentially, with a fast growing modern urban sprawl surrounding her pink walled center, you can still see plenty of the romance of old Rajasthan, if you look hard enough.

FESTIVALS are regular occurances in Rajasthan. There are plenty of religious events of all kinds. Decorated chariots with images of Hindu Gods are paraded through the streets, accompanied by music and dancing. Many of these celebrations have uniformed brass bands, professional dancers, and people dressed in spectacular traditional costumes. Male participants often wear fancy dress turbans, silk dress jackets, swirling “skirts” with white leggings, and many still sport the traditional Rajasthani mustachios; extra long, extra bushy, and curled with wax.

A good festival always has elephants. The mahouts decorate their elephants with colored chalk, painting them with bright swirling floral patterns. They add glittering blankets, jeweled headdresses and golden howdahs, reminiscent of the old days, when Maharajahs kept stables of elephants for riding and hunting.

THE TAJ MAHAL The elegant white onion dome, translucent pierced marble screens and sculpted minarets of the Taj Mahal are heartbreakingly ethereal. Never in the history of the world, has there ever been another building that seems to float in the air like a waking dream the way the Taj does. The Taj Mahal is actually in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, but at heart it is pure Rajasthan; both architecturally and romantically. It was built by one of the great Mughal Emperors, Shah Jehan, who was devastated by the loss of his favorite wife, the lady Mumtaz. The shimmering white masterpiece is, in fact, a tomb. The heartbroken Jehan spent the end of his life simply gazing at the glorious monument he built for his lost love.

THE RAJPUT KINGS took the Muslim influenced architecture of the Moghuls and decorated it, building imposing palaces and fairytale castles all over Rajasthan. Even today, the crumbling architecture of the area's romantic past has the ability to charm thousands of tourists. From the imposing Amber Palace, built on cliffs near Jaipur, to the Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur, people come to experience the Arabian Nights atmosphere. It is easy to visualize the great palaces in their heyday, with their soaring towers, marble halls, throne rooms and secret harems. They are immortalized in the famous Moghul miniatature paintings, which depict pampered Princes and Princesses reclining on silken cushions. They enjoy the sunset from delicate balconies, gazing out over the palace gardens, with peacocks strutting in the background.

Of course, there was a dark side to all the historical romance, especially for the women. Wives and concubines were kept behind closed doors. Hundreds of women languished in harems from which they could never escape. Not all were as favored as the lucky Mumtaz. Some were wed in politically arranged marriages, and many of these women hardly ever saw their husband again after the initial bedding. Others caught the eye of the Maharajah and were subsequently torn from their families by royal command. Many were traded by their own fathers, in return for lands or other imperial favors.

The Emperors and Maharajahs kept their women locked up tight. Some were confined in inner courtyards with no view of the outside world except for the sky above. The Maharajah of Jaipur generously built an elegant “building” for his ladies, just so that they could peer out of latticed windows and watch the busy city street below. But behind the fabulous sandstone “Palace of the Winds,” there isn't a palace. It's just a façade. There are narrow spaces behind the "palace" wall so that the women could sit and watch, and that’'s all.

Evidence of the cruelest custom of all is still visible at the gates of many of the old walled cities. If you look carefully, you can still see handprints laid into the brickwork of the old elephant gates. These were the handprints of the Maharajah'’s wives, imprinted as a remembrance on the day of his death. The wives were expected to walk out of the gates of the city, and down to his funeral pyre, to throw themselves into the flames as an act of devotion to their husband. This practice was called Sati. It was banned years ago in India, but every now and then it still is rumored to happen, even today.

YOU’'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY: Last year, I met a very liberated young woman on the Pink City Express train. She was studying brain/computer interface, with a Masters degree. She was now working on her P.H.D. The Indian government was giving her a full scholarship, due to her ranking, and she was planning on becoming a research scientist. She had eloped with her husband (shocking by Indian standards, since most young people are still wed by arranged marriage) When I asked how she would fit children into that equation, she replied that her husband was going to be the housewife, while she went to work. I looked at him in surprise, wondering how much she had told him of her plans, but he nodded, smiling. “"There is no stopping her,"” he said, "“And I don'’t mind. I support her. She should have a chance."”

She was extraordinary. He was even more so. I was stunned to meet an Indian male who was willing to let his wife live a dream like that while subjugating his own aspirations. I knew, (as did he, I was sure) how much derision he would receive from his male friends for his act of love. And this, in a country where, only fifty years ago, prominent men still kept their wives locked up in Purdah, unable to leave the house freely, and hidden behind latticed screens when male guests were present!

I confess I am in love with the romance of old Rajasthan. But I also applaud the new Rajasthan, if it is producing liberated people like these two. Hopefully, the city fathers will repair the aging monuments and palaces, and save as much of the traditional charm as possible in the future. Then we can enjoy both the romance of the old days and the benefits of modernization at the same time.

Thanks for reading! Diana

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