Suitcase and World: Incredible Amer Fort.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Incredible Amer Fort.

We spent this morning visiting Amer Fort.  I had also planned for us to visit Jaigarh and Nahargarh Forts but we didn't make it to either.  Sadly, the combination of jet lag and heat did us in.  In any case, Amer (also known as Amber) Fort was worth battling the heat and humidity of summer in Jaipur to see.

We started our day with breakfast at the home of Ankit Patel.  The famed artist did not eat with us but his lovely wife, Manisha, joined us.  Breakfast is suppose to be an extra charge but a few weeks before we arrived, Saskia who is the wife of one of the sons of the Patels, Tarpan, reached out to me asking if I would be willing to switch over to another of their apartments.  They had a renter, a pregnant woman, staying in the unit that I had originally booked.  The woman wanted to extend her stay and given her condition,  Saskia wanted to know if I would be willing to change my reservation.  For the inconvenience, Saskia offered a 10% discount and free breakfast for the two of us.  I had no issues giving up the room so that's how we ended up getting breakfast included with the apartment.

The senior Patels literally live just a couple of buildings down the same alley which is home to just a handful of private residences.

The front door to our apartment building.  We entered using a smaller side door.

Address plates for the 3 Patel families.  As you would expect, husband's name is listed first, above the wife's.  Kassa is the name of the retail store that son Arpan and his wife Aarushi opened up and operate.  

Chantale and I just let ourselves inside the house.  That's how it works here.  Of course, we did announce our presence as we walked inside.  Manisha immediately came out to greet us.  Many of Ankit's works of art are displayed throughout the house.  You can check out a few of his works on his website.

Today, Manisha took a few minutes to explain the meaning behind several of the works.  I though Ankit was a sculptor but it turns out he's also a painter. 

Breakfast was simple fare - fried eggs with toast, butter and jam, juice and fresh mango.  As it turns out, Chantale is a mango freak and here, we were enjoying the famed Alphonso mango which has a very sweet, unique fragance.  The fruit was perfectly ripe so the flesh was smooth and not at all stringly.  As we ate, we got to know the Patels better.   All of them - sons, wives, as well as Manisha are all trained and work as artists.  It's a very talented family! Manisha used to be a textile designer and we found out that many of the photos that hang in our apartment were taken by Saskia who is a commercial photographer.  Her studio is the apartment just below ours.  You can see samples of her work on her website.

We had arranged to meet back up with our tuk-tuk driver, Amar, at 10a.  So, we didn't linger too long over breakfast as we had to go back to the apartment and get ready for the day.  Chantale takes her photography  much more seriously than I do so it takes her a few minutes just to organize her gear for the day.  I just make sure I have a well charged battery and plenty of space on the SD card and then the camera is plopped into my bag.  I am the lazy photo taker :-) 

We made out to the agreed upon meeting spot a few minutes early but Amar was already there waiting for us.  From the smile on his face, I could see that Amar was relieved to see us - we had kept our word that we would be here. 

Once he puts his Gilligan style cotton hat on, he's easy to spot!

And off we went!  It's not easy taking photos from a tuk-tuk but I find the street life in India so interesting, it's hard to resist snapping shots.  I forgot that they drive on the left side of the road here and I was seated on the left so I was on the *right* side to take photos.  I made a mental note to switch positions with Chantale as I know she would be happily snapping a way more than I do.

Amer Fort is located on a hilltop overlooking the city.  To get there, Amar took us back through the old city, passing City Palace along the way.

Somewhere in the old city, Amar stopped the tuk-tuk. He wanted to grab a quick breakfast for the road.  So we all got out.  Chantale was in her element capturing images of the men gathered around one shop buying what looked to me to be like vada. 

Amar's trusty tuk-tuk.

Amar was gone for barely 5 minutes before he was back, vadas in hand, and ready to hit the road.  So we all piled back in and continued our drive to Amer Fort.

It took a while for us to get to the outskirts of town but once we were, it was a different world.  A lot less traffic, a lot more trees and the occasional elephant and camel.

Amar and his tuk-tuk took us through sparsely treed forest.  I recognized Amer Fort as soon as it came into view.

Chantale had Amar stop so we could get out of the tuk-tuk to take a few photos.  We were standing quite a distance away from the entrance but from our vantage point, we could admire the sheer size of this place.  The lake seemed smaller than I had seen in images.  Perhaps because the summer heat has dried it up a bit.  Nonetheless, it should be a nice view of the water from the fort.

Surrounding the fort are the remains of the wall that once protected it. From Amer, there is a 325 meter long tunnel that connects it to Jairgarh.  We didn't have time to explore that today so perhaps on my next trip back to Jaipur.

It was obvious when we were nearing the entrance as the traffic started to get more congested.  Amar squeezed his tuk-tuk alongside the dozen other tuk-tuks already parked here.  He pointed us in the direction we had to go in and then told us to meet him back at this spot.  He didn't ask us so I figured we had as much time to hang around here as we wanted to.

Before we could even cross the road to walk towards the entrance, men were already approaching us offering to take us up to the entrance in their Jeeps....for a small fee of course.  I had read that the way to go up is by elephant so that's what I was hoping to spot.....some place where elephants were waiting for paid customers.

On the other side of the road, we paused to take photos before making our way to the entrance.

Amer Fort most certainly makes for a very impressive view!

The fort is situated on a hilltop overlooking Maota Lake.

Tiny people, BIG fort!

We took the path that looked to lead up the hill to the fort.  There are tourists but not all that many.  I was told that in high tourist season, this place is mobbed!  Sometimes, it's good to come off season - you just have to be able to deal with oppressive heat and humidity.

The path cuts across a well manicured garden called Dil-Aaram Bagh.

We hadn't progressed all that far along the path before Chantale stopped and chatted with a local man.  I had already walked quite a bit ahead and when I turned around and did not see here behind me, I backtracked to find her.  

She was speaking to a very good looking local man who obviously caught her eye ;-)  His facial features and coloring were a reminder that many Indians are descendants of Aryans.

I approached to see what was going on and it turned out to be a mini photo shoot.  They exchanged words between photos.  They also exchanged contact info as he asked if she would send him the photos that she had taken of him  Of course, she agreed.  I notice he had a sketchbook in hand and appeared to be doing a drawing of the fort.  He was in the perfect spot to get the best view and was under the shade of the pavilion to boot!

I had brought along an HP Sprocket but had not prepared to use it.  I thought I would fire it up so we could take photos of the man and his friends and hand them the print vs having to email after but by the time I was ready with the Sprocket, Chantale was ready to move on.  No loss as she'll just email  the photos as she has promised.  Have to say, he's pretty attractive.

We continued our way up to the fort.  Soon, the path wound its way up the hill.  It looked to be a long walk up, made even seemingly longer because of all the breaks I knew I would have to take along the way to catch my breath. 

Even the goats were attempting to shield themselves from the sun!

Patiently, I made my way to the top and the large entry gate known as Suraj Pol, the Sun Gate.

Through the Suraj Pol is the large, main courtyard named Jaleb Chowk.  Chantale is our banker so she got our entry tickets.

We walked around the courtyard and before we had even left it, a man approached us offering us his services as a guide.  We didn't have a map in hand and I knew the place was really large.  He wanted 600 rupees which is a lot of money by Indian standards but is less than $10 USD.  I thought it was worth it and Chantale did not object so the next thing you know, we are with VK (which stands for Vinod Kumar) Sharma.

VK began our tour with a quick visit to a small temple that the plaque incorrectly describes, in English, as the Temple of the Goddess Shilla.  Why?  Because there is no such goddess by that name.  The temple is actually dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali, the patron goddess of Maharajah Mansingh who began worshipping her after facing defeat in battle.  He built the temple in the 16th century.  Kali is the goddess of power.  Small and unassuming as the temple might be on the outside, it is small and very elegant looking on the inside with its carved white marble walls, ceiling, floor and pillars.  Inside, there is an idol of Kali - Shilla is the Hindi word for the type of stone slab that the idol was carved from.

We took a small flight of steps up to the temple and in a side room, sat and took off our shoes.   Even though we had to walk barely 10 feet from the side room to the temple's front door, I had to skip my way over the hot stone floor.  Memories of Anuradhapura all over again when my brother and I had to plan each of our routes to minimize how far we had to walk over a blisteringly hot stone walkway!  Yes, we were in Sri Lanka in July as we are now in India in July.  All because of festivals!

Back to the Shilla temple, we followed VK inside the temple; photos were not allowed.  There were quite a few visitors here and the place is small so it was a bit crowded.  I'm so bad at describing things with words, I'm not even going to attempt a description.   You can read a description here.  

After Shilla, we made our way to the main part of the palace complex.   We took another flight of steps leading up to Singh Pol (Lion Gate) which is the entrance to the another Palace courtyard.  Singh Pol was built during the reign of Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh.  The gate serves as the passageway between the palace and Shilla temple.  The first thing that draws your attention are the beautiful frescoes on the facade of the gate.  

View of Jaleb Chowk from top of the steps leading to the Palace.

We took in some surrounding views before proceeding on our tour of the Palace.

The old walls snaking up and along the hills reminded me very much of the Great Wall.

The moment you pass through Singh Pol, you see two very impressive structures.  The first is Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience where the Maharajah greeted the public as well government officials and Ganesh Pol (Elephant Gate) which leads to the royal family's private living quarters.

Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience and Ganesh Pol.

The roof of Diwan-i-Aam is called Chandni Chowk (Moonlight Square) that was a walled roof top patio where the Marahaja and his family and guests could sit and enjoy various activities that often included singing and dancing.  Public access is not allowed but you can admire the structure from below.

Diwan-i-Aam was built during the reign of Jai Singh I, with double row of 48 pillars supporting the vast stone roof.  The exterior rows of pillars were constructed of red stone commonly found in Rajasthan and the interior pillars of white Makrana marble.  The hall is open on 3 sides.

The beautifully carved pillars reflect a fusion of Hindu and Mughal art and design.

The upper part of the pillars are having finely carved elephant brackets which depicts the Hindu art and the lower part of the pillars are having the finely carved flowers and beautiful branches.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of this courtyard is Ganesh Pol which was built by Mirza Raja Jai Singh.  Hindus believe that Ganesh is the destroyer of obstacles and therefore, worshipping him will remove all the problems from one's lives, leading to success.  He is a popular god to place at entrances.

The frescoes on this gate are so incredibly beautiful that at first glance, I presumed this was the entrance to the Palace.  It is just a gate....yeah if I have a gate that looks like this, you can only imagine how glorious my palace would be!

VKis obliging for a photo request from the ladies.  Chantale is just taking advantage of the shot :-)

Adjacent to Diwan-i-Aam stands Sattais Kacheri, a colonnade of 27 pillars.  This is where the admistrative officers of the royal court conducted their affairs, sitting atop pillows and carpets spread out across the floor.

Arched openings bring in the breeze.  There wasn't one today :-(

The colonnade overlooks the front of the Fort, with views of Maota Lake,  a man made lake.  Jutting out into it is Mohan Bari or Kesar Kyari Garden, a beautiful Mughal style garden.

Next place we went to was the Hamam - we just did a quick walk through to see the royal baths.  Apparently special systems were built to bring the water up from Maota Lake and to heat it.  The heating system consisted of bronze plates with were placed above the fire and connected to the water tank. Nice to have hot water, especially in the winter!

We also got a peek at the royal toilets??

From the paths, we took a narrow passageway.....

.....and emerged before Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors).

Wow! Wow! Wow!  I thought Ganesh Pol is incredible but Sheesh Mahal outshines it....literally.  Sheesh Mahal was built by the Jai Singh I in the 17th century.  It's known as the Palace of Mirrors because the walls and ceilings and embellished with the beautiful mosaics created with mirrors and glass, all of which were specially imported from Belgium.

The Maharajah had two main wives to please.  Sheesh Mahal was built specifically for  them. In Hindu Rajput culture, women were not allowed to sleep in open sky.  The story goes that in order to fulfill their desire, the Maharajah ordered the construction of the rooms where lighting one candle can reflect into the thousands of mirrors and impart the feeling of twinkling stars.

Panels of marble, carved and inlaid recall Mughal design similar to what is in the Taj Mahal.

Sheesh Mahal is situated in Diwan-i-Khas, the third courtyard of Amer Fort. 

Facing opposite Sheesh Mahal is Sukh Niwas (Hall of Pleasure).  This is the place where the Maharajah would spend private time with his queens and sometimes his consorts.  Hence, the name of the place :-) 

Vinod Kumar Sharma aka VK.

From the third courtyard, we wandered around.  I wasn't sure where VK was leading us to but I continued to just tag along.  My energy was slowly draining from my body, sapped by the oppressive heat. Every now and again, either he or I would stop to see if we could spot Chantale.  Doesn't take much to distract her and next thing you know, she's walking in another direction! 

As w made our way to another smaller courtyard, VK painted out the mural of animals which you would easily miss if you weren't looking up.

He made special effort to point out the one tile that had a Kama Sutra mural painted on it.  A little XXX rated painting for the Maharajah *wink, wink*

Okay, back to the whimsical geese.

We exited a large gate though we were still on the palace grounds.

And then one more gate which did lead us outside.  VK wanted us to board a jeep but before we did, we wanted to know where were going.  VK wanted to take us to some place, at the foot of the hill, that he said held some interesting ruins.  There was something in me that said to not go so I decided to follow my intuition and told him I was not interested.

The ruins.  They do look interesting but I just wasn't up for it.

Part of the reason for me not wanting to go was I just didn't feel like having to haggle with the Jeep owners for a ride.  It might have been okay to go with VK but after I declined, Chantale followed suit.   We asked VK if there was anything else to see and he shook his head.  I'm sure there is much more to see in the Palace but truthfully, I was ready to leave.    Amar had dropped us off at the entrance at 10:30a and now it was just past 1p so we had been here for 2.5 hours.  Enough for me!  Unless you are really, truly into historic architecture, you can only spend so much time in a place like this.

We asked to go back to the first courtyard.  On our way, we bumped into a small group of puppeteers and musicians who were putting on a performance in hopes that you would buy at least one puppet from them.  We paused for a few minutes to take in a couple of the performances.  I love puppets I don't need any arm twisting to watch a show :-)

The second performance was quite interesting.  The character had the head of a cat and was playing with the head after separating it from its own body.  You have to watch the video to understand the description.  As I said earlier, I'm not good with words.

We didn't buy any puppets but we did leave them a small tip.

We followed VK back to Jaleb Chowk. There we gave him our payment, said our thank you's and goodbyes.  There were some benches so we decided to have a sit and give our feet a short break.  Sitting next to me was a woman from Chennai, on vacation here with her family.  She was very elegantly be sightseeing on such a hot day; it was obvious she was wealthy.  Her English was excellent and she was very well spoken. As I have come to realize, it's not uncommon for the more well heeled Indians to have traveled to the US as this woman recounted her most recent trip to California.  It was nice chatting with her.  Of course, she also broke the word to me that VK had ripped us off.  Apparently, it should only cost 100 rupees for any government licensed guide to take you around.  I figured that VK spent just about 2 hours with us and for that we only paid him the equivalent of about $9 for both of us.  We can afford to be ripped off and I know VK could use the money.  It's not easy for folks like VK to make a living in India!  But I did make a mental note so the next guide we hire might not be so lucky as VK!

We exited the palace the same way we entered - through Suraj Pol.

Going down hill was infinitely easier though I swear it was much, much hotter under the 1:30p sun than under the 10:30a sun. Or it could have just been my imagination.  I had brought two bottles of water with me and I was down to just about half a bottle having conserved sips as I went on my way in side Amer Fort.

Going up to and coming back down from Amer Fort, I had kept my eyes out for the elephants that I had read you ride up and down the hill on.  Where were they?  Later, Amar would tell me that they discontinue the rides in the hot summer months as it's too hard on the elephants.  I can understand that.  One day, I will return to Rajasthan to see more of this amazing Indian state but I will do it in fall or winter when the weather is more bearable.  Maybe I will come back to Jaipur and get my elephant ride then!

As we crossed the road to meet back up with Amar, I took one last photo - of the old walls.

We didn't see Amar's tuk-tuk where he had dropped us off so Chantale called in on the phone. He was just down the road and in a matter of minutes was pulling up right in front of us.  I think each time he sees us, he's happy because we've not yet paid him so when he sees us, he knows we've not run off with another driver and left him without having paid him.  I was just happy to ride in the tuk-tuk as that meant a bit of cooling air as we chugged our way on the streets.

We're on our way back to the city.  We're both exhausted from jet lag and lack of sleep not to mention having whatever little energy to have sapped by the heat of the sun.  I will have to visit Jaigarh and Nahargarh Forts on my next trip.

We do catch a few sights before calling it a day, albeit a very short day!