Astronomical Playgrounds, Aladdin’s Fort and Sculpting God

I fight off vendors and mark off the heavens, gear up for war and assault a fort, find Aladdin’s silken cave and survey the birthplace of gods.

Delhi, Agra and Jaipur form the tourist “Golden Triangle” so it’s not surprising that in Jaipur I saw many ambulant copies of Lonely Planet, and was more harassed by touts than anywhere else I’ve been.   Walking down the Old City’s main bazaar on my first night brought a constant barrage of “hello… sir!” from guys enticing me into their stalls. Pointy leather shoes and psychedelic sandals, sparkling bangles and gems, orange patterned cushions and rainbow curtains embroidered with flowers, peacocks, elephants.  I could smell the perfume samples dabbed on my wrist whenever I wiped my brow all day.  One hawker chased me down the block jangling his Rajasthani puppets in my face, and I practised saying “I don’t like shopping” in Hindi to several rickshaw drivers detouring to a mate’s emporium.

In the midst of the hubbub, there are impressive sights here.  One palace housed the world’s biggest silver jars, made from 14000 melted coins, 1.6 m tall, weighing 345 kg.  Not trusting English water, the Raja used them to transport 5091 litres from the holy Ganges River when he attended King Edward’s Coronation in 1902.  A metal lattice ball was filled with fire for the Emperor Akbar to play polo at night.  I had a vision of bejewelled courtiers pursuing a flaming orb like a scene from Harry Potter.  In the armoury were punching daggers designed to pierce armour, sometimes with two pistols attached, or scissoring double blades to slice up your intestines for bonus damage inside.

As well as a warrior – as such weaponry attests – Jaipur’s founder was an astronomer.  At first glance, the Jantar Mantar or “instrument of calculation” resembled a park of abstract sculptures or a giant quirky playground, with staircases leading to nowhere and sweeping curves like deformed slides.  It is now a World Heritage site.  There are hemisphere domes and pits that you get right inside to read star angles and elevations on finely graded scales.  A 90 foot high right-angled wedge forms a huge sundial.  The shadow moves several metres per hour, making it accurate to a few seconds.  Smaller versions are oriented to the 12 zodiac constellations.  In India, astrology still determines dates for weddings, business ventures or political meetings, and planetariums seem very popular.

jaipur-jantar-mantarThe city is surrounded by scrubby hills dotted with old defences and my Jaipur highlight was a daytrip out to Amber Fort.  Elephants with painted trunks carried tourists up the chunky cobbled road to a lemon-coloured palace which was interesting but over-crowded.  I hiked half an hour up the hill above to Jaigarh fortress.  They say it was never captured.  At one end was the world’s largest wheeled canon.  It has a 20 foot barrel, takes 100 kg of gun powder for a single shot, and can drive a cannonball up to 35 km.

I wound my way through dull stone passageways and dusty courtyards, stumbled on a sort of Punch and Judy puppet show, then turned another corner into bright sun and beheld a summit paradise.  I was at a verdant walled garden with symmetrical canals and manicured shrubs.  You could see for miles from its shady corner turrets.  Battlements snaked across the hills like the Great Wall of China, with goats herded between them.  All the courtyards of the palace were laid out below, next to a square island garden in the lake.  Just in front of me two squirrels chased each other, leaping along the wall’s crenellations.  No horns or fumes, no beggars or Americans.  Alone on top of the world, I felt lord of all I surveyed and my spirit soared.

jaipur-fabric-luxuryEven in the city centre, it’s surprisingly easy to escape the tourists and touts.  Just step off the main drag into the network of alleys, and see what you can find!  A lane of pharmaceuticals, crates full of medicines; then electrical and whiteware goods on the pavements.  I could look around as long as I liked, and no one tried to sell me a fridge!  One metre wide woks of hot milk.  Metres of fabric were being drawn out from steaming cauldrons of dye like from a magician’s hat.  Rickshaw repair stalls strewed pumps and parts and wrenches across the path.  In narrow sari shops, their walls stacked with folded fabrics, male assistants pulled down sample after sample, throwing them like silken ribbons through the air to settle slowly before veiled customers until the floor was thick with cloth of every colour.  Their gold and silver threads littered in the hot lights like an Aladdin’s Cave.  Another vender dozed on a thick bed of jumbled fabric, a Maharaja of luxuriant colour.  Further on I heard drumming, followed it around a corner or two, and found women sitting outside a small temple where two of them danced out the divine romance of Lord Krishna and cowgirl Radha.  And then I found the street of idols.

Electric grinders were spewing white dust and artisans in headscarves were chiselling by hand, with unpolished sculptures ranked behind them, metal files jumbled at their feet, and raw blocks of marble on the step outside.  A room of cheerful young chaps, perhaps apprentices, were sanding and smoothing, water splashing from their buckets as their statues began to shine.  One craftsman was colouring a goddess with a fine brush, painting on a golden bangle.  Most of the statues were Hindu deities like the elephant god Ganesh, the sacred bull of Shiva, monkey god Hanuman with an unfinished featureless snout, or multi-armed warrior goddess Durga astride her lion.  I also saw a Buddha, a small bust of Gandhi, a solemn turbaned ruler.  When he learnt I was Christian, one sculptor proudly told me he’d made a crucifix, standing with arms outstretched to show me.

jaipur-idol-makersWhat a contrast between these rows of dusty statues handled by grubby artisans and their gleaming future in temples.  There these gods will be offered plates of coconuts, fruits, sweets and rice; they’ll be washed in milk and clothed every day by the priests.  The nose jewel of a goddess may even be removed before the temple is closed at night, so it doesn’t rub her divine consort when they make love!

I wondered what their work meant to these men.  Just a job to put chapattis on the table, or a noble calling of craftsmanship, or a lifestyle of loving worship?  In Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009), William Dalrymple speaks to a maker of bronze idols in south India, learning that the statue becomes alive and divine when its eyes are carved with a gold chisel, and finding one answer to my question:

“Our workshop should be like a temple,” Srikanda said.  “Every second is holy.  Some people think that what we do is an art, but we think of it mainly as an act of devotion.  For us art and religion are one: only when there is prayer can the artist make a perfect sculpture…. as we work we think only of God, saying the appropriate mantras as we carve and model.”

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