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A royal jaunt in Jaipur

The capital of Rajasthan offers striking palaces, sumptuous food, superlative crafts and, for the first time, a suite in the royal residence for tourists

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Feng Zengkun on 05 Jan 2020

The Straits Times

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When we arrive for dinner, there are dancers, musicians and firebreathers.

 

Uniformed waiters swirl around me and the others, platters of traditional Indian snacks held aloft on single hands.

 

I am at the City Palace of Jaipur, India, where a suite is about to be listed on home-sharing site Airbnb, giving guests the chance to, as the hashtags will inevitably say, #livelikearoyal.

 

The city's king is opening the doors to his home's Gudliya Suite (str.sg/JTbc), which has hosted the likes of Britain's Princess Diana and American television mogul Oprah Winfrey, to raise money for a non-profit organisation that supports rural women.

 

For the princely sum of US$8,000 (S$10,850) a night, guests will enjoy a palatial stay that includes a private butler and guide who will arrange cultural and shopping tours.

 

While my fellow journalists and I are not being put up in the suite, our four-day trip organised by Airbnb to see the suite and city is studded with royal-related experiences.

 

Jaipur was also recently inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site for its architecture and town planning, making it an ideal time to visit the city.

 

THE ROYAL ABODE

 

The city of Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan, which means "the land of kings" and, during my stay, I visit three of its many palaces.

 

The City Palace (str.sg/JTbo), which was built nearly 300 years ago in 1727 by Jaipur's founder Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, is up first. The palace spans seven floors and tours are available.

 

Every part of the palace is gasp-worthy, including the rooftop temple and its lofty views of the city, but it is the fifth floor that gets the most camera time from our group.

 

Its walls and ceiling are covered in blue and white patterns that evoke the sky and we can almost hear the rain when we learn it was the royals' retreat during the monsoon season.

 

On the sixth floor, the guide leads us into a room adorned with mirrors and used for entertaining, and closes the doors, plunging us into darkness.

 

When he lights two candles and holds them up, a section of mirrors on the ceiling glows and ignites a weaker glimmer in the others.

 

"Imagine what this room is like when it's filled with candles," our guide says and for a moment we can see it. It is magical.

 

THE PALACES OF WIND AND WATER

 

When the tour is over, I make my way to the Hawa Mahal, or Wind Palace (str.sg/JTb3).

 

Its back facade, consisting of tiers upon tiers of red and pink sandstone windows, is possibly the most photographed sight in all of Jaipur - and for good reason.

 

It is one of the most beautiful things I have seen, although my admiration is dampened a little when I learn the reason for the palace's existence.

 

It was constructed in 1799 so that ladies of the royal household could watch the life and processions of the city without being seen - hence the screens over the windows.

 

The strict "purdah" system at the time meant royal women should not be seen by strangers.

 

The last palace I head to is the Jal Mahal, or Water Palace (str.sg/JTbi). When the taxi stops and the driver points me towards the palace, I can hardly believe my eyes.

 

The abandoned palace appears to be floating in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake, a man-made reservoir, although the truth is more prosaic and haunting.

 

Many years after it was erected, most likely in 1750 to serve as a lodge for royal picnics and duck-hunting parties, increasingly heavy monsoon rains submerged most of the palace.

 

Today, only the top floor of the sand-coloured palace emerges above the waters, with the other four floors lost beneath the surface.

 

Unlike in the past, there are no longer boat tours to the palace, so I stand on the lake promenade on Amer Road and contemplate the palace's fate in the evening sun.

 

BUSTLING BAZAARS

 

At night, I indulge in another storied part of the Jaipur experience: shopping.

 

When Jaipur was founded, it was intended to be a nexus of commerce, with artisans crafting custom pieces for resident and travelling royals and merchants.

 

Even today, the city is famous for its textiles, particularly block-printed ones, used for shawls, scarves, saris, suits and more. Gemstones and jewellery are other proud products.

 

I dive into the Johari and Bapu Bazaars (str.sg/JTbS), which are local hot spots for jewellery and clothes respectively. Leatherware, snacks, handicrafts and other goods are also sold there.

 

Haggling is a must and, more than once, I perform the choreographed dance of trading offers, turning on my heel to go and being called back with a lower price.

 

Savvy shoppers and seasoned bargainers will also find much to like in the Tripolia Bazaar, which specialises in lacquer bangles, metalcraft and vintage finds.

 

At the legendary Gem Palace (www.gempalace.com) in Mirza Ismail Road, the cut-and-thrust of the bazaars gives way to a moneyed, air-conditioned oasis.

 

The Kasliwal family have been in the jewellery trade for nine generations, since the 1700s when they were appointed as jewellers to the royal court.

 

The Mirza Ismail store, with its pink-and-white facade and delicate minarets, has been in the same location since 1852 and is frequented by celebrities, royalty and heads of state.

 

Even if many of the opulent baubles are beyond my spending limit, the stop is worthwhile for the close-up look at the family's centuries of craftsmanship and creativity.

 

A FEAST TO REMEMBER

 

And then, there is the food in Jaipur.

 

At Baradari (str.sg/JTbp), the restaurant in the City Palace, I try the laal maas, a traditional Rajasthani dish of mutton prepared in a sauce of yogurt and spices.

 

The meat is cooked to perfection, yielding and inviting but with heft, and the sauce is fiery without deadening the tongue and inducing tears.

 

For dessert, I order the apple jalebi with rose petal ice cream. The jalebi, discs of apple dipped in batter and deep-fried, are bursts of sweet crunchiness and soft fruit.

 

The ice cream is the bandung drink in another form and a shot of cool comfort on a hot day.

 

Another highlight of my trip is the Bar Palladio (www.bar-palladio.com), the type of stylish establishment that powers Instagram's food and travel accounts.

 

I sit outside at one of the bar's tented canopies under strings of fairy lights and sip delicious and inventive cocktails, including a gin and tonic redefined with coffee liqueur.

 

On my last night in Jaipur, I go on a street-food tour booked through Airbnb (str.sg/JTbG). Over two hours, in a network of streets near Raja Park, we sample 10 snacks and dishes from across India.

 

The dahi puri, a crispy sphere filled with chopped potato, onion and tomato, yogurt, chutneys, spices and other ingredients, is a mini-explosion of sweet and sour.

 

The paneer tikka, chunks of marinated cheese and vegetables grilled and served on skewers, is another favourite.

 

To end the meal, we have saffron and pistachio kulfi, a dessert made by freezing concentrated milk.

 

The dense and creamy stick caps the night off perfectly.

 

GOODBYE AT THE GATE

 

On my way to the airport the next day, I stop by the Patrika Gate (str.sg/JTbN), a magnificent edifice that doubles as the entrance to the Jawahar Circle Garden.

 

Inside the gate is a striking walkway adorned at every step with vibrant murals depicting stories about Rajasthan.

 

Exploring the gate, it strikes me that it captures the best of Jaipur: the celebration of history and elevation of craftsmanship, exuberance and larger-than-life-ness.

 

Like the gate, the city stamps itself on your senses.

 

When I send a photo of the gate to a group of friends, as I have been doing all week, one of them replies: "Just Jaipur being Jaipur."

 

I laugh and think, "Yes, that's about right."

 

And then, it is time to go.

 

• Feng Zengkun's trip was hosted by Airbnb. He is a former Strait Times journalist and now covers a wide range of topics as a freelance writer and journalist.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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