A photo essay about the Pink City of Jaipur, India – the town where everything wanted to be pink…..
When all of your life you heard, read, dreamed, contemplated and longed to go to India there is no way to drowse when the plane starts to gradually descent to Jaipur, the capital of Indian state Rajasthan. Is it because we are approaching the so-called pink city or because I was addle-brained, I have no idea, but everything I saw around me had a nuance of ash of roses, including the flight attendant. It seems that at the beginning of the flight she was wearing a red shirt, which now seems to me lightly pinkish.
In 1876 Jaipur has been painted in pink on the occasion of the English Prince Albert. I have no idea whether the prince appreciated when he saw it for the first time (because that was the goal of this epic initiative), but I was definitely stupefied. A few minutes later, one smiling Indian woman on the street made me a sign to close my mouth and passed by with elegance, wrapped up in her pink sari. From this point on, one slight pink thread streamed through every adventure in this city.
Everything in Jaipur is pink or at least it seems to be pink or you just want it to be pink. The view and the smell remind compote exposed for a longtime open to the sun. I call the city the pink compote and this story starts to acquire some structure in my head.
Before continuing with the compote, I had to ensure enough cash. I slipped into some kind of special room carved into a wall on the street and inserted with my trembling fingers my card in the ATM. Will it give me money or not? I got the feeling that Indian ATM’s would not accept my Bulgarian VISA card and that would transform my stay into an interesting social adventure shared with Indian waifs until the date of my flight back. At that point I will only add that the Indian waif or loafer is not similar to any other of his colleagues in the world. Perhaps for him a different word needs to be invented, but I did not do it yet.
Two sentences about the Indian ATM (and that applies to almost everything in India) – no matter how new and bright it was two days ago, now it looks like second hand device; crushed, kicked and roughly repaired. ATM emits a strident sound similar to train brakes and gives money. I’m happy!
Now, wealthy I could start to drink from the pink compote called Jaipur and below I will try to describe for you its ingredients.
Ingredient No 1 – urban geometry and its elements.
In front of me lies the first absolutely straight street in the pink city, on which I go slowly turning my eyes and head at 360 degrees like a whipping-top. The city is known for its precise design, straight streets and regular location of its sectors, which are exactly 7. Each sector is cut by 34 meters wide street and then divided by multiple other straight, narrow and small malls. You got a feeling to be in some geometric game, painted in pink and full of crawling small red men, who move rapidly, getting in different holes, popping out from most incredible places. That actually is the classic nine-grid pattern, system for urban design, which according to astrologists must bring fortune to citizens.
I walk slowly and try to read on people’s faces if they are happy. Gradually, I dive in this cacophony of sounds, images, rickshaws, cars, pink buildings, people lying on the street, cows, swains, goats eating the discarded directly on the street garbage. Several lazy monkeys stare idly the crowd from one of the roofs.
At this moment in front of me happened something weird. I realize that at the same moment similar occurrences might be happening in multiple points of this metropolis and somehow I start to get a vague idea about the content of this regular geometric city.
The relatively wide boulevard (there are several in the city, which cross its 7 basic sectors) is split up into two lanes by a fence with relatively high parapet and many antiquated billboards. Though it is 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the traffic is like at rush hour – tight line of all kinds of vehicles and people moving regularly as the blood circulation of a snake. One cow is trying to pass through a hole in parapet from one lane to the other, ruminating a piece of carton of bananas. In this right instant small moped driven by a young Indian woman with her child on the back seat rushes a few centimeters only from the muzzle of the cow. The boy, apparently spotted the cow in advance, reaches out and pulls the carton form the cow’s muzzle and then starts to wave it victoriously. Mother does not see that and continues driving.
The next moment (or even at the same), but 10 m more on south an old Indian man is trying to expel from a pile of garbage one average pig throwing at it some stuff. Inadvertently he hits an old Indian woman, who starts to shout, but somehow voicelessly, since her screams are dissolved in the cacophony. All that is wrapped up in light pale pink smog, which perhaps acquires its colour from the reflections of the buildings around. You are not able at all to take pictures of all these scenes, though each one of them has the potential to win prestigious awards and small fortune ensuring budget for at least another trip to India.
All that makes me drop down my camera and only observe what is happening around me.
Ingredient No 2 – poverty and misery. Especially about India, I believe that different words have to be invented, because these terms are not intensive enough to describe them.
People, in deplorable state, lie in different positions in various places in the city. Some of them lie directly across the pavement and everybody has to skip them over in order to continue. As it is my first day in India, my reactions are still instinctive. Immediately I bow to check whether the man on the pavement is alive. I touch him and he reacts. I stare at him for some seconds and then I stand up and skip him over. Not far away another man sleeping across the pavement appears. This time, I performed faster the skipping over procedure and I did it simultaneously with other tens of feet, which, as if it was ordered, lifted for the skip. I’m melting into the crowd. I had read tens of books about India, I had browsed hundreds of web sites, but now I realized that when you touch, you see and mostly you smell is not the same as when you read or watch on the screen. For that reason people will always travel, no matter how many modern 3 D technologies their television offers them. The feeling of reality and authenticity is sharpened to excess when you touch these views and smells and it makes you feel more alive. I started to realize what actually attracts thousands of people to visit India – the extremely clear feeling of reality, the perception of the moment of time and of the place.
Ingredient No 3 – radio advertisements
Powerful speakers, reminiscent of antiquated cable radio, roar located at every 5 meters, as if someone could miss an important message. For the older of us, this would evoke a view of a fair in the 50s in Europe with its tens of megaphones inviting people to take their seats. This advertisement was in Hindi, but after the 50th repetition I knew it by heart. Over the next few days I was crooning it in the bathroom. It was recorded so deeply in my mind, that even when I came back in Bulgaria I was crooning it again several times in the bus, just like this, unexpectedly.
The cacophony of claxons (I believe in India they are loudest), shouts and screams forms an epic endless opera in which the artists fight to get to the foremost position in order to bow to the audience.
Thinking still about that and with my camera hung on my neck I found myself in front of Hawa Mahal (Palace of Breeze), in the so-called Palace quarter. This impressive 5-floor building has been built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Singh for the royal ladies in the court in order to be able to watch the life on the street undisturbed. This comfort was ensured by 950 windows, all of them with street view. The apparently careless watching could be in fact a close observation. In the beginning of my swimming marathon within the compote I decided first to observe, to accustom myself differentiating the basic from the insignificant.
Ingredient No 4 – Rickshaw
The pink compote was getting more and more dense and sticky. Next ingredient of the compote are the rickshaws and hundreds of them are going around the streets of the city. Motor-rickshaws are driven by visibly sleeker men, who obviously spent their entire life in the bicycle rickshaw in order to be able to afford one day the motor one. I had promised to myself to never get in such bicycle rickshaw. There is no need to explain you why. Yes, but I did it. I promised to my self to be only once, and I kept my promise.
The man was looking 55 years old, but perhaps he was only 30 years old, lean, grey, barefooted, wearing clothing with unspecified form, colour, smell and degree of cleanness. He was 155 cm high when in upright position (because the usual position is a little bit bent for easier pulling of the rickshaw) and his weight was about 55 kg. I carefully tried to choose someone physically fitter, but nobody there was better. After I took my seat, he looked around and dived brusquely in the huge river which was this Jaipur street close to the rail station, where I took him. The man turned the pedals and started to drive in parallel with roaring motor-rickshaws, buses, cars and other bicycle-rickshaws. He was looking around and was driving ahead as if he was participating in some kind of contest of chariots in Roman amphitheater. I wanted to tell him to not make it too fast, because I was not in a hurry, but this unimaginable noise was inexorably swallowing up my signs and words. I was staring at this scene as spellbound. I was often looking at the back of the driver, which was so bent and deformed that I had a feeling that very soon it would disassemble in joints and muscles and would dissolve in this pink smog around me. After 10 minutes of galloping I was already willing to get off, but I couldn’t tell him about that. He kept on turning the pedals furiously towards the point I have specified in the beginning and nothing was capable to stop him to take me there. I wanted to get off because of the very mixed feelings, which were invading me. It was unacceptable to me to have a man to drive me this way. The smog was terrible, but at the same time it was offering unique photographic scenes. The entire feeling was like on a movie, but I just couldn’t take pictures.
We passed by a bicycle-rickshaw where two old and very fat Indian women were chatting, while the driver, having a vital capacity similar to that of a half-dead squirrel, was pulling this miserable vehicle, breathless due to this unsupportable impurity around.
I’m tempted to describe here each one of the vehicles which were circulating around us, but certainly it wouldn’t be impossible. Briefly, it seems that to be a rickshaw driver on a Jaipur street (or on any other Indian, Pakistan or Bangladesh street) is a kind of karmic punishment for violent crimes in some past life.
We arrived at the place where I wanted. I got off dizzy, with lightly unfocused sight.
I paid to the man the required 50 rupees. He caressed the money so gently and gratefully as if I was saving his life. I was not able to know more about him, about his way of life, how many children he is feeding and how he would spend this money, but I was so curious to know all that. I was staring uncontrollably at this man. In India that was happening to me very often – to just stare at something with my mouth half-open, staying still like that, sometimes for many minutes.
You are probably wondering what the hell happened and why so many emotions. Jaipur and India are very popular destinations and thousands of tourists come over. Nothing so special, unseen or unheard. The answer is: yes and no! Wise men say that one thing is to watch and other thing is to see. I was all the time trying to see and even sometimes I was forgetting to take pictures in my efforts to see.
I was seeing and thinking almost aloud. Whether or not, nobody could understand me, and mentally ill people here are a common view. May be I have helped this man with my 50 rupees to buy a food (I gave him work), but he carried me almost on his back thought this hell. I did good or not good? Is my good equal to his good? The thing I consider as not good (to almost ride another human being) is perhaps a very good thing for him? I will eat three dishes tonight, but may be he eats only once per day. Can we talk here about good and not good or life is just as it is – hell for some people, OK for other and millions from the lottery for third people, at the age of 18. While caressing the bill, the rickshaw driver was looking really happy. Is his feeling of happiness equal to mine? Is the reason for happiness important for the quality of the happiness itself?
The rickshaw driver left me in front of the City Palace, majestic example for the Rajput architecture. This is a huge complex occupying almost 1/7 of the pink city, with multiple small buildings, parks and gardens in it. Splendour. Here is the residence of the present maharaja of Jaipur, the teenager Padmanabh Singh, grandson of the last maharaja Brigadier Sawai Bhawani Singh.
Everything around is looking pompous and regal, similarly to all the ceremonies in this majestic royal complex, including the last ceremony for the ascension of the teenager-maharaja. The melodrama is streaming through everywhere in India – inexhaustible source of ideas for the sweet Bollywood movies, but this is a different story.
Ingredient No 5 – coloured Rajasthan women
The fifth ingredient of the pink compote are the hundreds coloured like butterflies Rajasthan women, selling everything, which you may imagine, but mostly the typical Rajais, small quilts full of cotton.
Fat, slim, young, old … they all have one common thing – they are so colorful, that the camera lens was working hardly during all this time. For Rajasthan women there are so many things written and I will not repeat here what is already said. I will only add that to take pictures of Rajasthan women is may be one of the rarest pleasures which one photograph could feel. My wish to everyone who is interested in photography is to spare money hardly, to be wise and at the end to deserve a photo session with Rajasthan women in the pink compote called Jaipur.
Ingredient No 6 – Lepers.
Though it could be considered as a part of ingredient No 2, I decided to describe it separately.
I had reached almost the end of the city and was walking on a street parallel with railways. My look occasionally found a human figure about 20 m away from me. Right at the point when I stared at this figure, realizing that in fact it was a woman, the upper part of her clothing fell, thus uncovering her naked body. Black, old, female naked body. She didn’t try to get the part of the cloth up, and only moved it. Once again I was staying still, with the same sort of uncontrollable staring at her. I was observing her slow and indefinite movements. She didn’t realize that she was naked. Her hair looked like a clew where hairs were in all directions, she didn’t have breasts as if they have been melted. Her skin was extraterrestrial. There were children playing around with a ball. They were seeing what I was seeing, but kept on playing, and no one else around was impressed. Human degradation, misfortune, horror, something that in Bulgarian, and I believe in any other language would be impossible to describe. I even didn’t think to take a picture of her. I couldn’t. I’m tempted to describe my state as shock, but thus I risk being included in the group of those white western tourists who are terrified by the misery in countries of the third world. I knew that the word and the state cannot be called exactly shock, and this is something different and unknown yet for me. I’m still not absolutely sure, but the closest sensation would be similar to that of looking you in a mirror. You look at the woman-skeleton, but you see your own reflection. You look at her, but you observe yourself and somehow, gradually you find terrible things… things that are unsupportable for you. Somehow, unnoticeably, you realize that you went in India mainly because of you. May be people are traveling exactly for that reason.
Ingredient No 7 – urban funeral processions
Now imagine the crowded city, wrapped up in a greasy pink fog and full of compact human mass, immersed in unconceivable noise of claxons, advertisements, screams and various other indefinite sounds. Suddenly, the traffic freezes as in flash mob – cars put on the breaks with whistling of tyres, pedestrians stop, sellers from the stalls raised their heads, only advertisements continue throwing up their infernal sounds, as in a sort of surrealistic movie. I see over there a running crowd carrying stretcher with a cadaver wrapped up in white sheets on it. While I’m realizing what I see, the running crowd and the procession passed by. The absence of deference and honor, so typical for such kind of ceremonies, leaps immediately to the eye. I managed to take pictures of the end of the procession. Few instants later, it disappears away in the crowd, and circulation quickly restores its rhythm, as if nothing has happened. Perhaps, really nothing has happened – life and death go together, but we just want to ignore this unacceptable “union”
I believe India has such success as exotic destination, because this country is able to provoke thoughts and feelings, which are less likely to be experienced anywhere else. I’m sure that even the perfumed western retirees, who are touring the scheduled palaces and culture sites prepared for their perceptions, come back home with lightly changed minds, as much as each one of them could accept.
Fashion spiritual trips around Indian ashrams are the other extreme. Indian supermarket for spiritual experiences offers all kinds of goods for all the tastes, and customers can be seen everywhere, similarly dressed, in Woodstock style. What would be the feeling if you realize that this clothing is like uniform, i.e. a pattern that standardizes you? You become as free as any other in uniform, but here the rules and the limitations you accept voluntarily. It’s OK. Everyone makes his choice and everyone needs different time to overcome his prejudices. Having these ideas in my mind and somehow free of prejudices and patterns (or at least I wanted to consider myself that way), I was swimming in the pink, lightly sour compote called Jaipur. I was smiling to the almost pink pig which was rooting about in the garbage near to an Indian style swanky store and I was grateful, that providence gave me somehow this opportunity.
Gratitude is a universal sense (no matter for what or for whom), which I was feeling almost everywhere in this country.