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Uncovering the Jewels of Rajasthan, India

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Photo: Jake Stangel

I never expected to find myself in a jewelry store in Jaipur, cupping a plum-size sapphire in my palm. Cool to the touch and the color of a swimming pool, the gem was unadorned, the better to show off its clarity. This was just one of many trinkets I got to play with that afternoon. There were enameled turban-pieces studded with diamonds, curved scabbards adorned with vibrantly colored precious stones, and a gold chess set. “Go ahead, pick it up!” I was urged toward whatever was in front of me. No gloves, no problem. Welcome to Rajasthan.

India’s largest state, in the arid northwest, is the locus of the country’s most glamorous past, and today it’s a major draw for anyone seeking an immersion in courtly history (as well as in textiles, jewelry, antiques, and spices). The center of Rajput power since the sixth century A.D., Rajasthan is thick with imposing forts and carved marble temples that look like towering pinecones. The most concentrated way to get to know the region is through its three main cities—Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Udaipur, each with its own flavor—but between and among them, the scrubby Thar Desert and Aravalli Range are rich with pilgrimage sites and glimpses of village and rural life almost unchanged since the feudal era.

The bug first bit me thanks to Waris Ahluwalia, the designer of House of Waris, which produces handmade scarves and gold-and-gem jewelry with heraldic motifs and a dash of punk. I was previewing one of his collections at Colette in Paris, and he started to explain how the artisans in his Jaipur network would undertake his enamel work using centuries-old techniques. Waris was born in India but grew up in New York; his connection to Rajasthan came while visiting there with his parents as a kid and deepened as an adult in search of craftspeople to execute his designs. “The skill there is extraordinary,” he said, his eyes getting wider. He hunched his shoulders, imitating the way they sit over small charcoal fires in their tiny workrooms to melt the gold and then hammer and channel-cut it to hold rivers of powdered glass.

Rajasthan may find itself at a crossroads, with a growing number of visitors, ambitious infrastructure initiatives, and a brand-new hotel boom creating pockets of real slickness. But as I learned when I visited, Waris was right: it’s not just a monument to the past. There may now be supermarkets and good highways and IT jobs, with a Jaipur metro on the way, but the area is in no danger of losing what makes it most special.

Jaipur

As the capital of the state and its largest city, Jaipur is usually the first stop on a Rajasthan itinerary. It’s a strong shot of color and noise and activity, especially impactful after the relative order of Delhi, where most overseas travelers first touch down. Founded, as the Mughal Empire was falling in the early 18th century, by a Hindu soldier-king obsessed with architecture and astronomy, the city is one of India’s first examples of urban planning, built along a grid system with the massive City Palace and an extraordinary 18th-century observatory at its heart. To celebrate a visit in 1876 by Queen Victoria’s son Prince Albert (who later became Edward VII), the city’s storefronts and town houses were painted salmon pink, and they’ve remained so ever since. That consistency and spatial order is today undermined by urban life at every turn. Shopkeepers’ wares extend past their doors and out into the streets. Clusters of egg-size pani puri (chile-and-potato-stuffed fried bread) bob furiously in boiling oil, beckoning locals and visitors more daring than I to burn their tongues while taking a bite. Traffic surpasses the usual cacophonous mix of scooters and cars, horns blaring, to include camel-drawn carts, packhorses, painted elephants, goats, monkeys, pigs, and, of course, cows. Businesspeople rush to their next appointments, passing long lines at lassi (kefir) stands, hurrying past women in the brightest possible saris and men in dhotis and loosely knotted turbans whose brilliant colors change according to the message of the moment: mourning, betrothal, celebration, welcome.

This street-level mix of country and city, so foreign to Western eyes, can seem deceptively humble compared with what’s behind the doors of all those pink-washed shops. Because let’s not be too noble: people may come to Jaipur to see the 16th-century Amber Fort or the lacy Palace of the Winds, but the most dedicated activity for most, undertaken with Formula One levels of intensity, is shopping. (Perhaps it’s only natural to get to it while your wallet is still heavy and the selection is the best; Jodhpur and Udaipur are not light on goods, but there is less variety.) In most of the better-known jewelers—the famous Gem Palace, on M.I. Road; Tholia’s Kuber, just down the block; the stunning Royal Gems & Arts, inside a mansion covered in 17th-century frescoes—historically significant bling is there to be fondled, along with less aristocratic pieces at prices that make springing for your first emerald (as I did at Tholia’s Kuber) well worth it. Among the scores of Jaipur’s pashmina peddlers, Andraab sits at the poshest end of the spectrum, in a tranquil, air-conditioned shop in the old city where neatly organized drawers are stacked with spiderweb-light shawls in delicately hand-embroidered paisleys and flowers. Those bearing five-figure price tags (yes, even in dollars) would have taken years to complete.

Jaipur is a hub of contemporary creativity, too. You see it in the mix of Indian fashion designers such as Manish Arora and Zubair Kirmani (of Bounipun) on sale at Hot Pink, the chic shop owned by Munnu Kasliwal in the Narain Niwas Hotel where French jeweler Marie-Hélène de Taillac is artistic director. And in the same way that she and House of Waris use age-old methods to push beyond traditional aesthetics, Alexander Gorlizki is revamping Rajasthan’s other most famous craft, miniature painting. Gorlizki, an English artist, sells at galleries like Greenberg Van Doren, in Manhattan, and Galerie Martin Kudlek, in Cologne, Germany. His paintings are surreal and graphic, though the brushstrokes and motifs remain as they were during the art’s 16th- and 17th-century golden age. They’re executed by his partner Riyaz Uddin, a master painter, and his staff of seven, based full-time in an apartment-style atelier in Jaipur’s crumbling, ancient Muslim quarter. Applying hand-ground pigment to paper with brushes ending in a single squirrel hair, up to five painters may work in a mini-assembly-line fashion, reserving the faces for the master. There is still a trade in conventional miniature painting, but as tastes change, the economy modernizes, and labor laws make years of adolescent apprenticeships a thing of the past, the number of adept hands has dwindled. Though aesthetics were one reason that Gorlizki took up with Uddin, the fact that he’s helping to bring a traditional skill to a new audience is a bonus.

Unlike the garment districts of L.A. and New York, in Jaipur industry goes on in unexpected corners. No, it goes on in every corner. It’s part of what makes the city feel so unceasingly alive. Looking out from Uddin’s second floor onto the neighborhood around us revealed a Rear Window of cottage industries: a vat for tie-dyeing sat on one roof, surrounded by kids flying kites. Across the street inside a shady room, stonecutting and polishing went on at full tilt. In another were tailors bent over sewing machines. And a few blocks behind Uddin’s building came a faint plonk-plonk sound. As we walked over to check it out, the noise grew to a chirpy din, emerging from inside every house on the street like a flock of birds. Uddin explained that the men inside, sitting cross-legged on their floors, hammered away at books on the ground in front of them, making pages of silver leaf. Each would have started out with about 150 pieces of silver (they also work gold) the size of a piece of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, separated by thin sheets of paper. Proceeding by feel more than sight, they take three months of hammering with a small wooden mallet to flatten it all. We approached one house where, after a quick hello, a smith handed me a piece so thin it floated, and evaporated on my tongue. I understood what Waris meant back in Paris when he said, “Anything I can dream up, they can make.”

Jodhpur

If Jaipur is about ground-level immersion in craft and industry, Jodhpur, set on the eastern edge of the tough Thar Desert, is more of a vertical: the small, squat, indigo-washed buildings inside the 15th-century city are dwarfed by the extraordinary Mehrangarh Fort, hovering directly above on a high cliff like a space invader, encircled by eagles diving for prey, its massive red sandstone walls set on fire by the sun.

The largest of its kind in India, Mehrangarh Fort is still under the control of the Rathore family, who laid the foundation in 1459 and added to the compound for 17 generations. They still use it today: in 2010, a massive processional mural at Jaipol Gate was restored to celebrate the wedding of the crown prince, who will one day be the 37th Marwar king.

King? In the largest democracy in the world? Well, kind of. Even after India achieved independence in 1947, the maharajah families (about 600 strong in Rajasthan alone) retained most of their local authority and wealth, and received sizable allowances from the state. It was only in 1970 that Indira Gandhi took all that away, compelling many royals to repurpose or give up their estates. As so often happens when aristocracies fade, power rests among those canny enough to adapt their fortunes. Kings became businessmen, and palaces became hotels and museums, with tax breaks if the family remained in residence. Jodhpur’s Oxford-educated Gaj Singh II, the current maharajah, became a diplomat and an MP, and transitioned his holdings into the highly successful Mehrangarh Museum Trust. But he celebrated his golden jubilee in 2002. So: no more investiture, officially, but a whole lot of power and ceremony. In village homes today it’s still common to see portraits of and even shrines to the (former) local king.

The trust—a many-tentacled foundation with an ambitious network of fort-restoration projects, a publishing arm, numerous scholarships, and a nature park—created an unmissable castle museum out of Mehrangarh Fort, with room after room of weapons, palanquins, miniature paintings, and a pleasure palace that’s covered in gold on almost every surface. Cleverness and creativity is everywhere, from the spring-loaded double daggers in the armory rooms to a collection of elaborately carved gilt cradles. Everyone comes to the fort: tourists foreign and domestic, wealthy and humble. Most of the afternoon I spent there, I was following the same route as an extended family who looked to have come from deep in the countryside, their one-year-old baby’s eyes blackened with kohl to keep evil spirits away.

Many people visiting Rajasthan come during wedding season, traditionally from September to January. “The wedding business has completely changed the way people see monuments and land here,” said Raghavendra Rathore, a fashion and product designer, member of the royal family of Jodhpur, and the proprietor of two Jodhpur-area heritage hotels. “As India opens up, there’s a fear that we’re losing our indigenous identity,” he continued. So the drive to play maharani for the week (Indian weddings are traditionally six-day affairs) is a welcome celebration of cultural history, no matter how kitsch it can get. Events are as grand as their venues will allow. When I was in Rajasthan, every evening, in every city, I heard the fireworks and saw the searchlights shooting out from palaces and mega-hotels rented out by wealthy families. Approaching halls hired for the week in all the cities, traffic would come to a halt as men in their finest Nehru-style tailoring and women in explosively glittering saris would emerge from Lexuses and Mercedes-Benzes. But it was in Jodhpur that I saw a real cross section, from elephant-glutted mega-bashes in the hills outside of town to a simple procession through the maze of the old city. The groom, in a red silk jacket and a gold sash and turban, rode atop a donkey while his bride, ablaze in a crimson sari and her mother-in-law’s gold, followed along, serenaded by friends and family with trumpets and kazoos.

I passed by this happy party while winding my way back to Raas Jodhpur, a two-year-old design hotel flush at the foot of the fort, and one of a handful of the modern boutique genre in Rajasthan that really gets it right. With red sandstone screens that blend in with the skeleton of the 300-year-old mansion the hotel occupies, it’s understated and serene. (Ranvas, set inside the Ahhichatragarh Fort, 85 miles northeast of Jodhpur in the Sufi center of Nagaur, is another sophisticated beauty. Mihir Garh, about an hour’s drive southwest into the desert from Jodhpur, is yet another.) It’s an easy walk from the Raas to one of Jodhpur’s other great attractions, the Sardar Market, probably the easiest to navigate of Rajasthan bazaars. (Just watch out for scooters zipping around every corner; there are no sidewalks to speak of.) I was on the hunt for curries, which I found in abundance, along with tea and coffee and hair tinctures, at M.V. Spices. I also found that if I needed a filling checked, and let hygiene go for a minute, I could visit the market’s open-air dentist, who plies his trade on a dusty blanket on the ground, false teeth scattered all around him.

Udaipur

A whitewashed city of palaces, parks, and temples, draped with bougainvillea and nestled inside the green Aravalli Range, central Udaipur is hilly but small enough to take on by foot. The city is built around four man-made lakes, but its moniker “the Venice of the East” is a bit overblown. (For one thing, there are no canals.) But Udaipur doesn’t need the comparison. It’s evocative in its own way, especially in the bustling market that winds around the City Palace Museum and encircles the elaborate Jagdish Temple. Three stories of heavily carved, lingam-shaped pillars dedicated in the 17th century to the preserver god Vishnu, the temple is very much in use among the local community today. It’s a pilgrimage site, too, but don’t be fooled: the most elaborately outfitted sadhus hanging around are less ascetic holy men, more models of a sort, ready to pose for pictures in exchange for tips.

Udaipur is a major draw for Indian tourists, too, especially prosperous neighboring Gujaratis eager to escape their state’s strict ban on alcohol. Rajasthani saris, like the ones at the sari shop inside the City Palace Museum, are dyed exceptionally bright, and the antique textiles at Ganesha Handicrafts Emporium, just outside the palace gate, will wind up on sale in New York galleries. The luxury hotel market here is booming, too. Udaipur’s maharajahs are among India’s longest-ruling, in an unbroken line since the eighth century A.D., and the family jumped into professional hospitality ahead of the national curve, transforming its 18th-century summer palace on an island in Lake Pichola into the Jag Niwas hotel in the 1960’s. That raised the Asian luxury bar awfully high, but in the hands of Taj Hotels, Resorts, and Palaces, which has managed it since 1971, the Lake Palace has more recently inspired a game of waterside one-upsmanship that has the townspeople shaking their heads in amazement. First came the behemoth Oberoi Udaivilas, in Udaipur, in 2002, which takes up more than 30 acres on the northwestern shore of Lake Pichola. Four years later the Lake Palace underwent a stem-to-stern restoration and modernization. Then, in 2009, up came the Leela Palace Udaipur on an eastern bank. The hotel is dotted with crystal chandeliers and covered in black-and-white marble; its tented Espa spa is as expansive as its massive network of outdoor pools. Everything from the foot massage at check-in and the hammered silver thrones to the armies of butlers and bellhops is fabulously over-the-top.

But one doesn’t always have to play the “big, better, best” game that Rajasthan so often puts on. The most delicious food I ate on my trip came from family cooking demonstrations, not in formal banquet halls on Versace china. As culinary immersion becomes a bigger part of tourism worldwide, cooking classes are now common in smaller heritage hotels and homestays. Drawing on family recipes guarded by palace kitchens for generations, this cuisine is becoming a proper subgenre, dubbed “maharajah cooking” by the local press. One of the more active proponents is Udaipur’s Vijay Singh Bedla. From a family of close advisers to the crown for 300 years, the Bedlas became de facto caterers to traveling VIP’s and have now preserved thousands of recipes. In 2006, after a decade leading seminars and throwing food fairs across India, Bedla and his wife, Sugan Kumari Bedla, have turned their family home into a low-key bed-and-breakfast with an extremely active kitchen manned by Sugan and their 24-year-old son, Karan. “Thankfully, everyone in my house is a foodie,” Bedla said on the afternoon of my visit.

After a dip into a family history rich in tales of palaces and feasts, we set up over a camp stove on a patio upstairs. Since Udaipur is one of the few parts of Rajasthan with local seafood, the menu focused on freshwater whitefish, one marinated in coriander chutney and lightly fried, as a starter, the other served with tangy pickled gravy. I thought the buffet of 12 dishes was a little much at first, but with their relatives from overseas popping by and staying for lunch, we needed the extra. Rajasthani food tends to be hearty and spicy, heavy on grains and legumes, with rich meat curries for those whose caste status (or modern practices) allows for meat. But our fish, smoked chicken, sweet potatoes with fresh fenugreek, and slow-cooked eggplant were complex and subtle.

“Each noble family here has fought so many battles, and each keeps their own history books,” Bedla explained, as he told stories of his ancestor’s gallantry in protecting Europeans during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. “We’ve maintained that tradition,” he said, referring simultaneously to the food set before us and the facts of the family’s long-ago past. This reverence for what came before is one of the most striking facets of life in Rajasthan, but it’s on afternoons like this one that it comes most deliciously alive.

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