Ngo Quang Minh
Over thousands of years, India has witnessed the rise and fall of many cultures and dynasties. Each epoch left an imprint on the country’s spiritual life, folk beliefs, artistic treasures, and large bustling cities, contributing many values of the Indus Valley civilization to human history, as well as many epics and legends.
If a city’s name ends in “pur,” such as Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, or Kuala Lumpur, it was founded by a Hindu king; if the name ends in “abad,” such as Hyderabad, Islamabad, or Adilabad, it was founded by a Muslim king. It’s impossible to discuss Hindu pride without mentioning Jaipur, the Pink City, capital of the state of Rajasthan that forms a part of the west Golden Triangle tourist circuit along with Delhi and Agra. That moniker arose because buildings and roads in Jaipur are predominantly pink. The most popular among them is the magnificent palace of Hawa Mahal, located on the busy avenue of the same name. Its architecture is ostentatious, with a pink facade and five main floors filled with intricately carved windows. At first glance, this palace appears modeled after a giant crown. A closer look reveals a resemblance to a magnificent beehive exposed to the wind, explaining why it’s often called “the Palace of the Wind.” Built over 200 years ago, it was a favorite summer vacation spot for India’s royal families. Hawa Mahal’s interior architecture is a fusion of Hindu and Muslim Mughal styles, full of brilliant and exquisite details. It seems no one can walk away from Hawa Mahal without looking back or stopping at a coffee shop across the street to watch the sunset over this gleaming palace.
Jaipur is not only known for its pink color, with pink buildings covering an area of just over three square kilometers. There are many other hues on offer! I especially enjoyed my Jeep trip on a rocky road through the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate), which took me to the Amber Fort on Cheel ka Teela (Eagle) Peak. Set on a high hill, this magnificent fortress reflects deep blue Lake Maotha at its feet. From the outside, the fortress appears massive, with large watchtowers, high walls, and deep moats. On the inside, it’s divided into six separate main sections and four courtyards, with many quiet and cozy corners full of sunlight and wind. The Amber Fort also hides many green gardens and lavishly decorated regal rooms and temples characteristic of the Rajput dynasty, which reigned here since the 16th century. As such, this complex is not only a famous sanctuary but also a cultural highlight of Rajasthan, which was recognized as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013.
In addition to these grand and monumental structures, Rajasthan boasts other small and refined gems that make for pleasant surprises. This was my thought as I sat by the roadside early one morning near the peaceful Hanuman Temple, watching pilgrims perform a cleansing ceremony before entering the temple. Hanuman is the name of the Monkey God, a symbol of bravery featured at the heart of two great ancient Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. As a result, this temple is also known as the Monkey Temple, and is home to many actual monkeys! Another highlight is the large stream behind the temple, which flows into seven cisterns. Considered sacred, this water is used by devotees for bathing before each ceremony. This complex is modest in size but efficiently organized and fastidiously clean. A typically Hindu style can be seen in every line of the pillars and domes, as well as in the colors of the pilgrims’ clothing.
A little further away but closer to home, the dry wind and sun of Rajasthan led me to the Moon Well of Chand Baori in Abhaneri village, more than 60 kilometers by road from Jaipur. Although this well is over 1,000 years old, it still has the typical architecture of a Baori stepwell, with double flights of stairs on three sides and many pillars and small rooms where nobles could rest on the fourth side. At first sight, visitors are stunned by the well’s depth. Walking down the 3,500 zigzagging steps meticulously arranged from the well’s mouth to its bottom can feel like descending into the earth. This maze resembles a magnificent inverted pyramid, making it the oldest and rarest stepwell both in India and the world. I asked a guard at Chand Baori if he had ever experienced a rainy season heavy enough to cause the well’s water to rise. His response was a silent smile. He must have imagined the well filled with cool water and crowded with local people going up and down to fetch water – a very lively and lovely scene!
India is made up of harmonious opposites, with great things next to small ones. The streets are noisy and chaotic, but there are plenty of peaceful corners. As I close the book on this chapter of my memories, the colors and culture that epitomize India and make Rajasthan worthy of the title “The Land of Kings” remain fresh in the back of my mind.