The northern Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat as well as some other parts of the country have profound problems maintaining adequate and reliable sources of water. The desert areas can be parched for long periods, and in summer the temperature is often more than 100 degrees. When the torrential monsoon rains follow, the water can disappear quickly into the dry ground.
To overcome the problem, a type of stone storage well was developed from around the mid-sixth century, although most were built in later periods.
Called a stepwell, it was accessed by walking down a series of steps. The stepwell usually incorporated a narrow shaft, protected from direct sunlight by a full or partial roof, ending in a deep, rounded well-end. Some stepwells were up to 100 feet deep, with stairways carved into the rock. Temples and friezes with intricate carvings were built into many of the wells.
Although many stepwells fell into disuse during the period of the British Raj (mid-19th to mid-20th century), some can still be visited; in fact, a number of the more spectacular ones have undergone major renovation.
A new appreciation for these wells comes from renewed cultural and architectural pride and from the realization that the old system of holding water still makes a lot of sense.
For Jaipur's visitors, there are a couple of stepwells near the city, including an excellent one (Panna Meena ka Kund) very close to the Amber Fort, which is a highlight of any visit to this city, the political and commercial center of the Rajasthan region.
The Pink City
There are magnificent forts and palaces (some now turned into luxury hotels), crowded and colorful bazaars, brightly dressed women, turbaned village elders and bustling traffic all mixed in with the ubiquitous cows, goats, dogs and camels.
For visitors with only a short time to explore, Jaipur is often combined with Agra and Fatephur Sikri on the Golden Triangle tour from the capital, Delhi.
Jaipur is often referred to as the Pink City reflecting the color of many of its buildings. Most notable of these is the spectacular Hawa Mahal, often referred to as Palace of the Winds, a five-story confection of pink sandstone. From its top, visitors get great views of the city and the passing parade in the jam-packed bazaars below.
The Hawa Mahal is located in a long street (Tripolia Bazaar) bordered with colonnaded shops, a good place to escape the strong sunlight.
Jaipur is noted for its jewelry, especially gold and silver and precious stones such as rubies and emeralds, but tourists must beware of fakes. Necklaces, trinket boxes and earrings are superbly crafted by artisans whose skills are passed down over generations.
Another regular sight is small shops full of colorful material packed with women, usually accompanied by bored-looking husbands, selecting cloth for their saris.
The vast City Palace Museum has a varied collection, including a lethal-looking assortment of armory, spears and knives and weapons all beautifully displayed. There are two huge silver urns reputed to be the biggest silver objects in the world.
Other highlights include Mughal carpets, musical instruments, miniature paintings and many royal costumes.
Parts of the huge complex are still the apartments of Jaipur's rulers.
Close to the City Palace is Jantar Mantar, an observatory from the early 18th century, containing huge, exotic constructions devoted to time, the zodiac, etc. Some instruments are still used to forecast the arrival and intensity of the monsoon and the possible heat of the coming summer.
Riding high to Amber Fort
However, Jaipur's premier attraction is the Amber Fort, about six miles from the city. Perched on top of a hill (actually Amber is pronounced Amer, meaning high), the fort started life as a citadel dating from 1592 with additional structures added in the 17th century.
From a large open area below, there is a long path to the entrance, but most tourists take the organized elephant ride to reach the fort.
The queue for a ride, although usually long, moves very quickly but visitors must beware the mahouts — men who guide tourist journeys from a perch atop the elephant's neck — who try to con riders for extra fees for their services.
The fort has numerous courtyards and passageways leading to a myriad of rooms. Inside there are superb examples of inlaid panels and delicately carved marble reliefs. At the ramparts, visitors have panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, including Maota Lake.
Somewhat surprisingly, many of the organized tours of Jaipur do not include the aforementioned stepwell. I suggest arranging a private car and guide, which is inexpensive, to take visitors round Jaipur.
This tour could also include a look at some of the lovely old mansions called havelis, which were built by wealthy merchants in earlier days. Some of these mansions have been turned into accommodations, often a cheaper and charming alternative to the luxurious palaces.