Precious stone shops abound. Iridescent silks in a variety of colours. Extravagant palaces. T+L discovers a perfect fit for royalty while travelling across Rajasthan.
I never imagined being holding a plum-sized sapphire in my palm in a jewellery store in Jaipur. The stone was unadorned, the more to show off its brilliance. It was cool to the touch and the hue of a swimming pool. That afternoon, I got to play with a lot of different items. There were diamond-studded enamelled headdress pieces, curving scabbards with vibrantly coloured precious stones, and a gold chess set. “Go ahead and take it!” I was pushed in the direction of whatever was in front of me. It’s not a problem if you don’t have gloves. Rajasthan is a state in India.
In the arid northwest of India, the country’s largest state is the site of the country’s most illustrious past, and it’s now a huge magnet for anyone interested in courtly history. Rajasthan, which has been the seat of Rajput rule since the sixth century A.D., is densely forested and dotted with carved marble temples that resemble towering pine cones. The scrubby Thar Desert and Aravalli Range, between and among them, are rich with pilgrimage sites and glimpses of the village since the feudal era —Jaipur, Udaipur, and Jodhpur, each with its flavour.
The initial bug was given to me by Waris Ahluwalia, the designer of House of Waris, who crafts handcrafted scarves and gold-and-gem jewellery with heraldic themes and a dash of punk. I was at Colette in Paris, previewing one of his collections, when he began to describe how the artists in his Jaipur network would complete his enamel work using centuries-old techniques. Waris was born in India but raised in the United States; his connection to Rajasthan began when he visited with his parents as a child and grew stronger as an adult searching for artisans to execute his designs. He continued, his eyes widening, “The skill it is extraordinary.” He slumped his shoulders, emulating how they melted gold over small charcoal fires in their cramped workrooms before hammering and channel-cutting it to hold rivers of powdered glass.
Rajasthan may be at a crossroads, with a growing number of visitors, ambitious infrastructural initiatives, and a brand-new hotel boom creating pockets of slickness. But, as I discovered when I went, Waris was correct: it’s not merely a historical relic. With supermarkets, good highways, and I.T. jobs on the way, and a Jaipur metro on the way, the neighbourhood isn’t at risk of losing what makes it unique.
Jaipur is frequently the first visit on a Rajasthan itinerary because it is the state’s capital and largest city. It’s a jolt of colour, noise, and activity, especially after the relative calm of Delhi, where most international visitors arrive first. As the Mughal Empire crumbled in the early 18th century, the city was founded by a Hindu soldier-king obsessed with architecture and astronomy. As a result, it is one of India’s first examples of urban planning, with the enormous City Palace and an outstanding 18th-century observatory at its centre, built upon a grid pattern. The city’s storefronts and townhomes were painted salmon pink to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria’s son Prince Albert (later known as Edward VII) in 1876, and they’ve been that way ever since. Today, modern life undermines that uniformity and spatial order daily. The wares of shopkeepers spill out into the streets beyond their doors. Pani puri (chile-and-potato-stuffed fried bread) clusters bob frantically in hot oil, tempting locals and guests more adventurous than I to burn their tongues while taking a slice. There are camel-drawn carts, packhorses, painted elephants, goats, and monkeys, in addition to the typical cacophony of motorbikes and cars with horns blaring. Businesspeople rush to their next meetings, rushing past lengthy lines at lassi (kefir) stands, rushing past women in the brightest saris and men in dhotis and loosely knotted turbans whose vibrant colours changes according to the message of the moment: grief, marriage, rejoicing, welcome.
This street-level combination of rural and city, so strange to Western eyes, can appear deceptively humble compared to what’s behind all those pink-washed businesses. Because, let’s not be too noble: visitors may travel to Jaipur to see the 16th-century Amber Fort, but for the vast majority of visitors, the most dedicated pastime, conducted with Formula One-level fervour, is shopping. (Perhaps it’s only natural to go while your wallet is still full and the selection is best; Jodhpur and Udaipur have plenty of products, but there’s less variety.) Most of the better-known jewellers are the famous Gem Palace on M.I. Road, Tholia’s Kuber; the stunning Royal Gems & Arts, housed in a mansion with 17th-century frescoes—have historically significant bling on display, as well as less aristocratic pieces at prices that make springing for your first emerald well worth it. Finally, Andraab is the poshest of Jaipur’s pashmina peddlers, with a peaceful, air-conditioned shop in the old city where spider web-light shawls in exquisitely hand-embroidered paisleys and florals are neatly packed in neatly ordered drawers. It would have taken years to complete those with five-figure price tags (yes, even in dollars).
Jaipur is also a hotbed of modern creativity. It’s evident in the mix of Indian fashion designers on sale at Hot Pink, Munnu Kasliwal’s stylish shop in the Narain Niwas Hotel, where French jeweller Marie-Hélène de Taillac is artistic director, including Manish Arora and Zubair Kirmani (of Bounipun). Alexander Gorlizki is reinventing Rajasthan’s other most famous trade, miniature painting, in the same way, she and House of Waris use age-old ways to push beyond traditional aesthetics. Gorlizki, an English artist, sells his work at Manhattan’s Greenberg Van Doren and Cologne’s Galerie Martin Kudlek. His works are fantastical and graphic, with brushstrokes and patterns that harken back to the golden age of painting in the 16th and 17th centuries. His master painter partner Riyaz Uddin and his staff of seven work full-time in an apartment-style atelier in Jaipur’s crumbling, medieval Muslim neighbourhood. Up to five painters may operate in a mini-assembly-line method, applying hand-ground pigment to paper with brushes ending in a single squirrel hair, leaving the faces to the master. Traditional miniature painting is still practised, but as preferences evolve, the economy modernizes, and labour regulations make years of adolescent apprenticeships obsolete, the number of skilled hands has declined. Gorlizki chose Uddin for various reasons, but the fact that he’s helping to introduce an old skill to a new audience is a benefit.