Christmas in Jaipur

I awake to the song of the costermonger, a distant train horn, and children laughing in the street outside my window. We are at the Mehra’s home, in suburban Jaipur, and outside the neighborhood is awakening.

I get up and take a bucket bath. First, I turn on the water heater suspended over the shower. About 20 minutes later, a red light goes out indicating that the water is hot. I put a large (~5 gallon) bucket into the tub and fill it with hot water. The I get into the tub, draw the curtain, and proceed to use a smaller bucket to pour water over my head. I soap up, then rinse the same way. The process is efficient, and I usually don’t need an entire bucket to get clean.

In more primitive areas, a small bucket and spigot sit by the (squat) toilet. This is how you clean yourself. I think that some splashing is involved, preferably without your pants getting soaked. Luckily I have not yet had to figure out how to make this work, as most places I’ve been (including the Mehra’s house) have a western-style toilet and a hand-spray.

In the finest Rajistani tradition, we are being treated as honored guests. Mr. Mehra insists on paying for everything, including a driver to take us around Jaipur on the three days we are there. As an American this makes me fairly uncomfortable… we are used to self-sufficiency & paying our own way. Dan and I both feel that as guests, we owed gratitude to our hosts, but the way here is different. Our hosts act as though our presence is a great honor.

The entire time we are there, Mrs. Mehra cooks us elaborate multi-course meals, each leaving us barely able to get up from the table. The most noteworthy thing I remember was a small pastry, like a samosa, with astounding amounts of black pepper inside. In this pastry, the pepper is not seasoning… it is a major ingredient. It is shocking, but also very tasty. There are also freshly-made chapati (a sort of flat bread) hot off the skillet. There are various raitas (thin yogurt with flavorings), beautifully-spiced stews, & omelets flavored with browned onions.

Then we set out into Jaipur, our driver smiling and wearing a crisp white uniform. A gold name tag on his jacket pocket tells us his name is Rajesh. We later learn that Rajesh was a taken into the family by the Mehra’s when he was a boy, and that Mr. Mehra taught him how to drive. He now has his own tourist taxi business.

The next two days are a blur of castles, all ornate and fantastic. The Rajasthani of Jaipur were often besieged, and they built castles to repel attacking armies. The oldest, the City Palace, was originally a hunting lodge on the valley floor for when the Raj visited the Jaipur area to hunt tigers. Amber Palace was a little higher up on the mountain, built to defend. It included numerous arrow slits as well as two different walled paths to bring water to the castle from a nearby artificial lake. Nahargarh fort is at the highest mountain peak, and was built as a refuge for the queens & consorts during a battle.

On the second day we visit the City Palace, and hire a guide to give us a tour. As we walk from one part of the castle to another, our guide deftly steps around a man playing a flute. Between his crossed legs is a wicker basket. It contains two cobras, so black that I think they are rubber… until I see them sway and flare their hoods, lunging at the flute that bedevils them. The flute is atonal, loud and brays like a highlander’s chanter, and I sympathize with the snakes.

Maharaja Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur of Jaipur still lives in the City Palace, and he wants visitors to his home to feel welcome. They’ve hired musicians and artists to entertain visitors to the City Palace, and on the day we visit there is an attempt at a Santa Claus roaming the halls in a horrifying mask clearly designed to terrify children towards goodness.

jaipur palace santa / india

On our last morning in Jaipur, Mr. & Mrs. Mehra present us with gifts before breakfast, wishing us a merry Christmas. They encouraged us to open our gifts, which were two beautiful paintings on marble. (The normal procedure in India is that you do not open a gift in front of the giver.)

After breakfast, Mr. & Mrs. Mehra sit with Mr. Mehra’s brother and his wife, and they sing us two different bhajan, or Hindi songs to the gods. They were both written by Mr. Mehra, and they’re beautiful. I capture it on my camera, and as soon as possible I will share them with you.

— Ron

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