Shocks for the Senses, Glittering Jewels and Glamorous Palaces Are All the Raj
Follow me on this series of features to discover a rich heritage of gems, palace hotels, temples, bazaars, silks, gilt-edged books, and modern chic style. And I’ll be introducing The Pencil Project.
“Pink is the navy blue of India”
—Diane Vreeland, Vogue editor-in-chief, after a visit to Jaipur in the sixties
I have just returned from a vivid and fragrant and over-whelming visit to my favorite region of India, Rajasthan, in the northeast. I flew in to Delhi, stayed at the chic, ultra-private new Aman New Delhi hotel, then headed south into historic and romantic Rajasthan and the city of Jaipur. Then on to remote Ajabgarh to head back centuries into village life.
I stayed at the Taj Rambagh Palace hotel (formerly the residence of Gayatri Devi, Maharani of Jaipur), and later at Amanbagh resort, one of the most tranquil and elegant hotels in India. I’ll tell everything about them next week.
I love India. I love the intensity of every waking experience, and the clamor and cavalcade of each moment.
Jeweled elephants, maharajas, monkeys on the roof, camels, clanging temple bells, palaces, holy men, sari’d beauties, gypsies in spangled skirts, wandering sacred cows, silks, and spills of sapphires are just the beginning.
As I step into the excitement and drama of each day, I’m captured by the bright refracted light, the hullabaloo, the jangle of sitars and tabla drumming, and the life and vibrancy that swirl around the streets and bazaars. The air itself seems charged and sensual, thick with history. I’m in another universe, planet India.
I promised my friend Ayoosh in Jaipur that I would not write about ‘heat and dust’. She watched me writing notes in my Moleskine note book one afternoon and said dryly, ‘Oh, Diane, heat and dust?” That’s what everyone writes about India and it’s such a cliché, missing the beauty and glory. And I promised her, no, I was looking further. Heat and dust are the least of it.
I’ve been traveling to India since I was a college student. And still, the variegated vigor, the clamor, the incessant bustle of mediaeval street scenes and clatter and color take me by surprise.
Imagine visiting a jewelry shop—to be shown a maharajah’s treasure trove of diamond-encrusted bracelets, emerald necklaces with stones the size of walnuts, and earrings of dazzling rose-colored spinals that could have been worn by queens and empresses. Or Hot Pink, the atmospheric shop founded by my friends Munnu Kasliwal and Marie-Helene de Taillac (both jewelers), with dozens of cashmere wraps and a kaleidoscope of quilts and sequined dresses and embroidered pillows.
I wander into Tripolia Bazaar, with swirls of silken saris and groups of women shopping for their finery. Girls in Galliano-esque saris flicker past, gold nose rings and bracelets shimmering in the sun.
Black kites and crows fly in the pale sky just out the window. On the street below, men in cotton dhotis (think Ghandi) ride past on rusty upright bicycles (very raj-y), and four-year-old gypsy girls with wild hair and ragged clothes do cartwheels in the mid-day traffic, leaping through the throng to tap at the car window, shrieking ‘madam, madam’, and tapping, hauntingly, at the car window with their little fingers. I can’t think about it or I would start crying.
Imagine driving helter-skelter thought teaming traffic, perched in a rickety cycle rickshaw. And later the same day, I am driving sedately at barely 20 miles an hour in the cocooned comfort of a black 1937 Daimler, formerly the favored ride of the maharani. That’s Jaipur.
One moment, I am sipping a rose-flavored lassi (a cool yoghurt drink served in a terra cotta cup) and the next I’m in another century in a fabric bazaar, with saffron and ruby and indigo and shocking pink sequined silks flung onto the floor as groups of women select textiles for saris and wedding dress.
Peacocks shriek and cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and turmeric scent every waking moment. Horns honk incessantly in the aggressive battle of motorcycles, iconic Ambassador taxis, people, cows, stray dogs, camel carts, bicycles, motor rickshaws, pedal rickshaws, and even the occasional pony carts. Women in pink and blue saris float along dusty sidewalks. A cow or two (or three) wander into the melee. Palaces gleam serenely in perfectly groomed gardens. Rythmic drumming throbs in the air. In the darkness, a spangled and gold-turbaned bridegroom appears on a white horse, followed by an oompah band in Victorian uniforms jangled with gold braid. Here, nothing is mundane.
I once spent months exploring all corners of India—from Delhi and the Thar Desert to the beaches of Goa, north to Calcutta (as it was then named) and far south to Pondicherry (formerly a French colony) and Madras, and up to the Himalaya, and into the center to visit the Ajanta and Ellora caves (third-century Buddhist temples).
Rajasthanis love adornment. Jaipur, with centuries of tradition, making jewels for royalty (Indian and European) is now the world’s center of precious stone cutting and jewelry crafting. It is also the place to find exquisite shocking pink, turquoise and amethyst-colored sari silks with gold-thread borders, as well as traditional tribal silver jewelry, armfuls of sparkling bracelets for the princely sum of $1 each, dresses by India’s top fashion designers, and Gem Palace Indo-Russian-style diamond chandelier earrings.
To luxuriate in the treasures of Jaipur, visitors may spend mornings at the City Palace (home of the current maharaja and his family) or the Amber Fort (which makes Versailles seem like a country cottage). Then it’s on to lunch on the marble terrace at the Rambagh Palace Hotel, and finding armfuls of books on Indian jewels and costumes. A driver confidently enters the fray in the hunt to find sandals and silks in the cacophony of Johari Bazaar. Late afternoon hours are whiled away at the Gem Palace with perhaps a cup of spiced tea for energy.
WHERE TO SHOP
Jaipur is a world-class destination for precious gems, antique silver, cashmere wraps, handblocked textiles, and modern takes on traditional finery
This historic jewelry establishment was founded in the eighteenth century to custom design for the rarified whims and ceremonial demands of maharajas and their maharanis. The brothers and cousins of the Kasliwal family now continue this illustrious tradition of connoisseurship. The Gem Palace’s ravishing emerald and ruby necklaces and diamond rings have been avidly collected by crowned heads of Europe, Middle-Eastern Sheiks, the Kennedys and the Agnellis, as well as devoted fans like Pierce Brosnan, Goldie Hawn, and Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.
In discreet, antiques-filled rooms are pretty tourmaline rings for $300 and Burmese ruby or sapphire necklaces for stratospheric prices. There are also rose-cut diamond rings, strings of tourmalines, chic aqua rings. You won’t leave empty-handed.
Mirza Ismail Road, 011-91-141-237-4175. www.gempalacejaipur.com
The brilliant Jaipur jeweler Munnu Kasliwal and French jewelry designer Marie-Helene de Taillac opened Hot Pink boutique recently to sell an exclusive array of modern India-produced fashions and interior accessories. It’s set in an airy garden pavilion. Their approach: chic dresses with Indian flair. Fans include Ashley and Allegra Hicks. Hot Pink has been such in instant success that Kasliwal and de Taillac recently opened a second boutique at Amber Palace. Photo above, Marie-Helene de Taillac photographed at Amber Fort for her current exhibit in Paris, at Le Bon Marche. If you're in Paris, you'll see this poster (below) at the store and on bus shelters. Amazing.
In the garden, Narain Niwas Palace Hotel, Kanota Bagh, Narain Singh Road, 011-91-141-5108-932
Traditional indigo, tangerine, chrome yellow, and vivid acid green saris, so modern, and $10 embroidered sandals, strings of turquoise and aquamarines, and gold-embroidered skirts are on display, in a glorious jumble of sari shops, jewelers, candies, and sugarcoated pastries.. Afterwards, take an auto-rickshaw to the Palace of the Winds, one of the most romantic buildings in the world.
The Book Shop
After lunch or dinner at the Rambagh Palace Hotel, it is a favorite treat to wander into the Gem Palace boutique to buy aquamarine or emerald necklaces. Next door is N.K. Jain’s impressive bookshop with an in-depth library of reference books on Indian culture. The key: for approximately $15, any book can be handbound in brown, green or red leather and its title hand stamped in gold on the spine and cover. Mr. Jain ships.
Rambagh Palace Hotel, 011-91-141-238- 5030. Call ahead for hours which may be somewhat eccentric.
WHERE TO STAY
Royal palaces, over-the-top antiques, a Maharajah Suite, and a chic new hotel in a verdant valley are among top choices.
One of the most alluring new hotels and gardens anywhere, the new Amanbagh resort by Amanresorts was created in collaboration with the brilliant designer, Ed Tuttle, a former San Franciscan. Set in a remote, verdant valley in the Aravalli Hills, Amanbagh is a tour de force of romantic Mughal-style architecture crafted in Indian limestone. Superbly run by an international staff, the hotel offers secluded suites with private pools, a spa, and a world-class restaurant, presenting dishes crafted from vegetables and fruit grown in the hotel’s own organic garden. Excursions to nearby Mughal forts, historic villages, and remote archaeological sites are highlights of a visit to this magical place. From $550.
Ajabgarh, Alwar, Rajasthan, 011-91-1465-223-333. www.amanresorts.com
Rambagh Palace Hotel
Sleeping in a maharani’s bedroom? Reclining in a maharaja’s sitting room? It’s possible at this historic luxury hotel, which was the former residence of the fabled Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur. Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, lords and ladies of the British Raj all visited in the days when the Maharani was one of the world’s great beauties, and the Maharaja was a champion polo player. Following a recent renovation, the palace shines elegantly. And should the maharani’s suite not be available, a suite overlooking the garden, where peacocks preen and strut in the early morning, revived royal glamour in style. From $350.
Bhawani Singh Road, 011-91-141-221-1919, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.tajhotels.com
WHERE TO DINE
I love dining on the terrace at the Rambagh Palace and watching a performance of Indian folkloric dances. Beautifully presented. And it’s a healthy treat, in the late afternoon, to line up at one of the Lassiwallah stands on M.I. Road to get a lassi, fragrant with roses and honey. I choose to eat only vegetarian cuisine. It feels right in India, spiritually and for peace of mind. Indian vegetarian cuisine is surprisingly varied, beautifully prepared, and light.
Indian cuisine in Jaipur can be exceptional, with complex spices and subtle flavors. Rather than succumb to mediocre European dishes, it’s best to request vegetarian specialties. I love the Rajasthani specialty sugary candies spiked with pistachios, and dozens of festive deserts, many of them topped with a flourish of gold or silver leaf.
Rambagh Palace Hotel
There could be fewer places more serene or beautiful for lunch or dinner than this hotel’s terrace, with its expansive view over the hotel’s lawns, fountains, and colorful floral borders. In the evening, the Jaipur chic set stops for drinks at the hotel’s famous Polo Bar, and to watch Rajasthani dancers and musicians performing. On the menu: Indian vegetarian dishes. If you’re lucky, you can have your fortune told by a gentleman who sets up his table at the entrance to the fabled terrace.
Laxmi Mishtan Bhandar
(LMB) restaurant is in the throng of Johari Bazaar. A uniformed and turbaned doorman will greet. It’s an essential stop for its vegetarian-only dishes, and for the witty retro Indo-modern seventies-style décor. To order: samosas, Biryani rice, and a Rajasthani Thali, a selection of spicy vegetables, roti, and fragrant rice. capers, chutneys and pickles. Assam tea or a fresh lime and soda are the perfect accompaniment. Afterwards, stop at the company’s rainbow-array pasty counters for to-go Paneer Ghewar, a fresh honeycomb pastry treat soaked in unctuous treacle.
Johari Bazaar, 011-91-141-2565-844.
Lassiwallah (there are several claiming to be the original) are the only-in-Jaipur take-out counters for fresh lassi, that traditional cooling yoghurt drink that becomes rather addictive for a pick-me-up on a warm afternoon. The favorite: smooth and creamy lassi flavored with honey and rosewater and served in a terra cotta goblet. (Alto salt-flavored.)
Mirza Ismail Road (no street number or phone).
Samode Palace Hotel
In remote Samode, north of Jaipur. This privately-owned hotel has poetic, exquisite early 19th-century painted interiors and a fortress-like exterior. It’s romantic but far from town (and shopping) so we suggest a Sunday jaunt for lunch. To view the mirrored Sheesh Mahal and romantic frescos of the Durbar Hall, reserve a tablel, enjoy a light lunch, then request a hotel guide to offer a tour of the historic rooms. Of special note: the turquoise and white fresco rooms, intact since 1818.
Amer 1135 AD
I attended the opening of this stunningly dramatic and opulent restaurant, which perches in the top roofline and ramparts of the historic Amber Palace. The name of the restaurant commemorates the date when the palace first opened. The decor was inspired by the glittering mirrored romance of the Sheesh Mahal, in the palace. On the first level, guests may enjoy lunch or dinner. On the ornate upper level, open terraces offer glorious evening views. Late into the night, tabla and sitar players create a musical panorama reminiscent of the best of Ravi Shankar. Traditional Indian cuisine.
Jaleb Chowk, Amber Palace,141-2530-148/49.
Join me in Part 2 of my series, Passage to India. Next week we go all the way with Aman, visiting the ultra-luxe new Aman New Delhi and venturing out to Ajabgarh to stay at the alluring Amanbagh.
See you there!