The master weaver stands up and starts to sing. His voice echoes around the carpet warehouse, a high warble pure and true, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and goosebumps ripple along my arms. Below him, cross-legged on the floor, three members of his family work as one, their fingers knotting hundreds of threads in a hypnotic dance of hands. A carpet of incredible intricacy stretches away from the little group, oranges mingling with reds and ochres, set within a border of midnight blue and tassels the colour of tea.
“He’s singing the knots,” says Abhay Sabir — owner of Rangrez Creation, an artisan carpet maker in the west of Jaipur — as he shows me round. Seeing my look of confusion, he continues: “Every family of carpet makers will have a master weaver, just like all have their own melodies. This carpet will be made up of more than one million knots, all done by hand, and all guided by his song.”
It’s a beautiful scene, and one that sums up the city. Five hours southwest of Delhi and marking the start of the desert-like state of Rajasthan, Jaipur is a place that breeds creativity, where craft has a magical quality and work is still largely done by hand. The area has long captured artistic imaginations, first encouraged by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, who made it a tax haven for artisans in 1734, drawing the most talented craftspeople from across the country.
I leave Abhay, and clamber back into my auto rickshaw. In keeping with the maharaja’s vision, different streets are still dedicated to different crafts, and in Chokdi Gangapol, it’s all about carpets. We trundle off, a welcome breeze cutting through the thick midday heat and bringing an intoxicating waft of spices from food sellers lining the narrow street.
I’ve joined an art-focused tour with the Pink City Rickshaw Company, an inspiring enterprise training vulnerable women in guiding, and our escort for the day, Bhagya Singh, is a smiling bundle of joy. She points out metalsmiths hammering silver into paper-thin sheets in Subhash Chowk, before we arrive at Mishra Marble Creation and I’m suddenly surrounded by Hindu deities, snow-white elephants and huge tigers so lifelike they seem ready to spring.
“These statues are commissioned for temples all across the country,” Bhagya tells me. “There’s a deep love for tradition here — and for art. It’s why machines haven’t replaced the old ways.” Dust fills the air and we watch an elderly artisan in a scarlet turban chisel away at a lump of marble, transforming rock into art.
Indeed the city’s architecture is so stunning it’s a work of art in itself, I think, as we pass beneath Chandpole Gate and enter the Old City. This walled area is over 300 years old, and the historical heart of Jaipur. A rabbit warren of tiny alleyways, bazaars and temples, much of it’s painted in a soft terracotta — the reason Jaipur is known as the Pink City.
Diwali is round the corner and the streets are heaving. Jaipur’s four million residents seem to be out in force, and stalls selling everything from saris to spices sit so close together it’s hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. To our left, the City Palace — a masterpiece of Mughal design, dating back to 1727 — rises from behind blush-coloured walls, and we wobble over potholes before Bhagya and I part ways in Johari Bazaar.
I’m immediately surrounded by gem sellers plying “India’s finest emeralds and diamonds clear as glass”. It’s heady, overwhelming and deafeningly loud, and I find myself being pulled from shop to shop, while hawkers produce fistfuls of possibly precious stones from their pockets like pick ‘n’ mix. This market is renowned for handmade jewellery, another of Jaipur’s famed crafts, although quality and price vary wildly so savvy shopping is the order of the day.
I pause to buy a lassi in a traditional clay cup, before turning down a side street in search of the faded frescoes Bhagya had told me to look out for. In the 1700s, these paintings denoted the professions of the families living within the buildings they adorned, and while only a few dozen remain, trades are still passed down through generations here, so when I spot a peeling potter’s wheel just visible on a pink wall, I peer hopefully around for a craftsman at his wheel.
No such luck, but distraction comes in the form of sunset, staining the sky the same shade as the city and plunging Jaipur into a blushing, rose-hued world: the Pink City at its most mesmerising.
A rosy future
By the time I arrive at The Johri in the Old City, sweating from a morning stroll, Florence Evans has already ordered us lunch. My tour with her boutique travel company, India by Florence, will take a deep dive into Jaipur’s textile industry — perhaps its most famous craft — but Florence is also here to show me how tradition and modernity gel in Jaipur. Situated in a restored haveli (mansion), the atmospheric hotel is a good starting point. “From the menu to the murals, traditional techniques have been used in modern ways,” she explains, gesturing to walls decorated with hand-painted palm trees and the striped, lemon-yellow sofas we’re currently sitting on. “This fabric has been block printed, but the design wouldn’t look out of place in a London townhouse — that’s something you see more and more in Jaipur these days.”
We make quick work of creamy paneer and a huge, fluffy kulcha (leavened flatbread), truffle oil cutting through the coriander it’s classically seasoned with, and wash it down with a vesper martini that goes straight to my head, before setting off for Sanganer, a 30-minute drive south. Once a town in its own right, as Jaipur has expanded south, Sanganer has been brought into the folds of the city, but block printing remains at the beating heart of the area, just as it has done for centuries.
“Listen,” Florence says, as we get out of the car beside Sanghi Ji Temple, which is dedicated to Jainism, a religion with over 70,000 devotees in Jaipur. A deep, rhythmic thudding fills the air, emanating, it seems, from every building lining the lane. We enter a tumbledown warehouse and it’s a wondrous sight: wooden tables, 160 feet long, draped in fabric and lined with artisans. “The cogs of this community are still the rangrez (dyers), chhipas (printers), and dhobi (washers),” she continues. “These are the dyers, and Ishteqhar Sutar here is working on one of my designs.”
The artisan is busy printing plump pomegranates onto a length of material, placing a brick-sized wooden block with expert precision and giving it a serious thump before inching forwards to continue the design. He’s tailed by his two teenage sons, skinny and shy, who give us an awkward smile before trotting after their father. “Teaching, teaching,” Ishteqhar gestures. “First, they must learn how to hold the block, then how to lay it. I won’t trust them with colours until their hands are perfectly steady.”
In a shadowy corner, a small group is busy mixing the dyes: yellows created with turmeric, reds from sugar cane and deep blue from the indigo flower that grows in abundance across the state.
Every element of this process is done by hand, from carving the wood and printing the pattern to washing the fabric and hanging it out to dry. It’s a long process, labour intensive and slow, but the results are exquisite and every piece is unique. “With the world’s growing interest in slow, sustainable fashion, block printing has really seized people’s imaginations,” says Florence.
On the adjacent street, we stop to have a quick chai with some chhipas. They’re a cheery, laddish bunch, with wood chippings in their hair and dust in their eyebrows, but the patterns they’re whittling are nothing short of magical. I sit among them in silent awe, watching a waterlily slowly appear in the wood, before Florence beckons me out of the little workshop and we head to our final stop: the drying fields.
I’ve stepped into a rainbow. Streams of fabric billow in the breeze, rippling like waves in an ocean. Reds and yellows, pinks and purples and blues, hundreds of metres of material hang over washing lines that must surely have been made for giants, rising 20ft into the air. Drying is the final stage of the process — a tough one, too, during the monsoon which drenches Jaipur from July to September.
First everything must be washed, and once I’ve found my way out of the fabric jungle, I spot a trio of dhobi standing waist-deep in a large water trough. Pulling the material through their legs, they plunge it into the water before ringing it out and feeding it forwards. It’s all hands on deck — quite literally — and again I’m struck by just how intrinsic people’s hands are in making the city tick. On our way back, I only have to glance out of the window to witness a man building a bicycle and a lady in a saffron-coloured sari sketching the Albert Hall Museum’s ancient marble latticework.
As we re-enter the Old City and get stuck among a sea of rickshaws on Hawa Mahal Road, I spot the sight I’d been searching for the day before. A potter sits quietly at his wheel, fashioning a bowl and so focused on his work the blaring horns don’t so much as make him twitch. At his feet, finished pieces fan out around him: patterned plates and intricate water jugs, as well as funky, asymmetrical vases painted in earthen hues that give them a slightly Scandinavian feel. It’s a scene that seems to prove the seamless continuity of Jaipur’s craft traditions, and a rosy future for this pink city of artisans.
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