At the juncture of Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle, Jaipur’s mix of maharajas and Mughals makes it a living fantasy as well as a modern-day metropolis. The city’s founder, Jai Singh II, held the title Sawai or “one-and-a-quarter” as a testament to his more-than-ordinary qualities. Jaipur lives up to his spirit with 953 windows on the iconic Palace of the Winds and a ten-story sundial at the Jantar Mantar observatory. Six hilltop fortresses loom over more than four million residents and enough shops to rival Paris. The number of honking horns defies calculation.
We’ve made a list of the city’s best architecture, which includes both major monuments and a few lesser-known marvels. Although it’s possible to squeeze the main sites into a single day, we recommend staying for at least two nights. Many visitors – Indians and foreigners alike – come to Jaipur for the shopping which can also take time, particularly with the city’s intense traffic. All sites are marked on our Google map.
Old City: Hawa Mahal, City Palace, Jantar Mantar Observatory, Isarlat Minaret
Amer & Environs: Amer Fort & Palace, Amer Town (stepwell & temples), Jaigarh Fort
The “Pink City” generally refers to Jaipur’s historic center. Salmon hues show up in most neighborhoods, but the color is officially mandated for buildings within the original city boundaries. The Old City nestles into a crook in the rocky hills, watched over by a network of defensive fortresses. These include the region’s former capital of Amer (or Amber), long since dwarfed by its replacement. Beyond the monumental gates and walls of the Old City, modern Jaipur stretches into the southern plain.
The most common (and British-centric) explanation for the rigorous pinkness of Jaipur’s Old City is that it came from efforts to spruce things up for an 1876 visit from the Prince of Wales. But the fresh coat of paint only continued an ancient chromatic tradition. The region’s rosy sandstone provided an ideal material for palaces, defenses, and religious structures; those who couldn’t afford the hard stone used its red dust mixed with lime instead.
Jaipur featured a remarkable level of planning from its very inception, including regularized building proportions for harmony and efficiency. Even today, storefronts along the street conform to a uniform height, and all feature a strip for signs under a decorative band along the top. Jai Singh and his chief architect followed principles laid out in vastu shastra, an ancient Hindu tradition of architecture. A series of Sanskrit manuals describe optimal orientation and organizational principles to harmonize with the natural world. Jaipur’s sacred grid breaks the city up into centrally-oriented blocks called mandalas, models of the cosmos.
Whether or not Jaipur’s claim to be India’s “first planned city” is valid, its location confirms Sawai Singh’s status as a visionary. In choosing to move his capital city from the heights of Amer to the trade route running through the plain, he ushered in a new pattern of settlement. The decision to prioritize commerce over defense enabled Jaipur to grow into the shopping mecca we see today.
We hope the four beauties on the left will inspire more tourists to coordinate their outfits with monuments.
The Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, is Jaipur’s most-photographed sight. Essentially a giant screen, the structure was designed in 1799 to provide the women of the royal palace a view of the world outside their zenana, or harem. Although it reaches five stories high, most of the palace is only one room deep. Myriad openings help cool air to circulate, inspiring the building’s name and making it a model for a new generation of climate-friendly architects. False perspectives in the ground-level bays create the illusion of depth, while forms decrease in size on the upper-levels to make the building appear taller.
Note that there is no street access to the Hawa Mahal; entrance is via the City Palace. The hectic boulevard makes it difficult to contemplate the structure in a leisurely manner from the ground. Several cafés across the street provide alternate viewpoints.
Occupying one-seventh of Jaipur’s original area, the City Palace is a city-within-a-city. Visitors once had to pass through multiple gates, courtyards, and other buildings before reaching the Inner Palace. Today the entrance leads directly to the central courtyard, where the maharaja met with his ministers in an open-air pavilion called the Diwan-i-Khas. An array of stocky marble columns topped by roseate arches now serves as a backdrop for a parade of selfie-takers.
A ceremonial gate flanked by elephant statues connects to a second courtyard and the delicate Mubarak Mahal, a two-story “Palace of Welcome”. Other architectural highlights include the Pritam Niwas Chowk, a courtyard with four elaborate gateways: the Green Gate represents Ganesha and spring, the Lotus Gate represents Shiva/Parvati and summer, the Peacock Gate represents Vishnu and autumn, and the Rose Gate represents Devi and winter.
A basic ticket covers the bulk of the complex as well as Jaigarh Fort and the Royal Cenotaphs (see below). The yellow Chandra Mahal wing remains a royal residence, although outrageously-priced tickets allow admission to a handful of admittedly spectacular rooms. For more information, see the City Palace website.
Jantar Mantar Observatory
Between ruling and city-building, Sawai Singh somehow found time to design and construct no fewer than five astronomical observatories between 1724 and 1735. The Jaipur site is the largest, best-preserved, and only one listed by UNESCO. Wordplay provided the observatory’s name: yantra, meaning instrument, became jantra and then “Jantar”, while “Mantar” comes from mantrana, the Sanskrit word for calculating.
One needn’t be an astronomy geek to marvel at the Jantar Mantar. Mysterious forms on an epic scale made us feel like insects crawling across a tool table. The instruments’ enormous size make precise measurements visible to the naked eye. Even with no understanding of the principles at work, one can wander among the forms and imagine all sorts of scenarios behind their appearance. For more information about how the site works, see jantarmantar.org.
A series of short ramps leads to the top of the Isarlat Minaret, a seven-story edifice with the best vantage of the Old City from above. Built in 1749, the minaret is a five-minute walk from the Jantar Mantar, via an unexpectedly peaceful tree-lined avenue full of plumbing shops.
Amer Fort and Environs
Amer Palace, the royal residence within the UNESCO-listed fort, is considered one of the greatest fusions of Hindu and Islamic architecture. While other Rajasthani fortresses were abandoned after defeat by Mughal armies, the Amer dynasty helped the community survive by pledging fealty to the new overlords. Mughal wealth and patronage promoted the arts, including a fruitful period in architecture. New influences from Islamic Asia, such as layered arches and vaulted ceilings, mixed with regional traditions such as elephant brackets and tiered towers.
Each of the palace’s four levels centers around a courtyard. Monumental gateways on the bottom control traffic in and out of the complex. The second level originally held large ceremonies and pageantry; today it handles ticketing and other services. Most of the famous spaces, including the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors), wrap around the formal Islamic-style garden on the third level. On top, the oldest level of the palace contains private spaces, including the womens’ quarters.
Like most Indian fortresses, Amer Palace is easy to get lost in without a guide – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We found the more spectacular spaces by following the crowds, and checked them against a list we brought so as not to miss anything. But our most memorable moments happened while wandering alone on the upper level, where tiny walkways connect domed spaces and delicate screens allow glimpses of the valley below.
For most of the region’s history, people clustered in easily-defensible hilltop settlements like the former capital of Amer. Spilling down from the citadel, the town features a number of its own historic structures. These include the 16th century Panna Meena ka Kund stepwell, an example of the striking inverted-ziggurat form Indians developed to hold water.
Across the street, monkeys fling themselves across the remains of the Bihari Ji Temple, which frames views of the surrounding valley. Nearby, the Jagat Shiromani Temple was built by Queen Kanakwat from 1599-1608 to honor Meera Bai, a Rajput heroine-turned-godess.
A scenic 30-minute walk up the hill from Amer Fort, Jaigarh Fort offers a less-crowded, more atmospheric experience. With limited time, we opted to skip the strictly-military complex. Admission is free with a City Palace ticket.
Nahargarh Fort and Environs
Allegedly built to provide a place for Maharaja Ram Singh to spend time with his concubines away from his wives, the palace at Nahargarh Fort may be the world’s only love nest located within an “Abode of Tigers”. Perched on the hilltop directly over the Old City, the retreat commands stunning views.
The palace contains a labyrinthian series of rooms, painted but largely undecorated, with mysteries like walls hovering five feet over the floor. The real draw, however, is the top level where flat stretches of roof run between the many courtyards. Domes and curved bangla (or Bengala) roofs pop up to frame vistas of wooded slopes above the modern city.
Near the palace, a stepwell features organic curves instead of the typical square formation. We spotted trail markers labeled “Sunrise Point” and “Sunset Point” but the local colony of rhesus macaque monkeys makes picnicking inadvisable. A small wax museum and some lifesize statues in traditional guises give the entry area a kitschy feel.
En route to the forts, the road passes a palace which seems to float in the middle of Man Sagar Lake. Built in 1699 and later enlarged by Sawai Singh, the Jal Mahal (“Water Palace”) once served as a venue for duck shoots. After centuries of neglect, the palace and lake habitat are being restored. Today an informal market lines the shoreline around the best viewpoint of the islet.
The City Palace ticket includes entry to the Royal Cenotaphs, occupying three sites north of the Old City. The largest and most impressive cluster, known as Gaitor Ki Chhatriyan, perches on a peaceful spot near Nahargarh Fort overlooking the valley. (“Chhatriyan” refers to the chhatri or domed “umbrella” structures typical of most Indian memorials.) The Maharani or Queens Cenotaphs (Maharaniyon Ki Chhatriyan) are on Amer Road just south of Man Sagar Lake, while the Amer Cenotaphs are currently closed.
Birla Mandir (Lakshmi Narayan Temple)
In 1939, the ultra-wealthy Birla family began constructing a series of 14 temples called Birla Mandirs in major cities across India. With their large scale and opulent materials, the structures were designed to promote religious worship in the modern age. Jaipur’s Birla Mandir dates to 1988, and is dedicated to Narayan (a form of Vishnu in his role as creator) and his consort Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Traditional sculptures and Hindu mythology dominate, but the building also includes stained glass and depictions of Jesus, Buddha, Zarathustra, and others.
The historic fort just above makes a spectacular backdrop for the temple, particularly as they’re connected by bougainvilleas in every conceivable color.
Albert Hall (Central Museum)
The 1876 building housing Rajasthan’s state museum is a noteworthy example of the Indo-Saracenic style, a British-designed fusion of European, Hindu, and Islamic traditions. The collection includes tens of thousands of artifacts, from local miniature paintings to an Egyptian mummy. Outside, the Ram Niwas Gardens are a popular respite from the busy city.
With more time, we would have added the following destinations to our itinerary:
Galta Ji temple and its monkeys: the Galta Kund temple complex overlooking the city has long been a popular pilgrimage site. Today increasing numbers of tourists visit to see the unruly monkeys featured in several documentaries.
Historic cinemas: those wishing to experience a Bollywood film will be spoiled for choices in Jaipur. The Raj Mandir Cinema is probably the best-known example, but the Golcha and Gem cinemas are celebrated as well.
Jawahar Kala Kendra: architect Charles Correa used Jaipur’s original layout and the principles of vastu shastra to design this modern complex dedicated to the arts.
Patrika Gate: close to the airport, this ultra-colorful contemporary structure attempts to incorporate as many artisanal traditions as possible.
Practicalities and Further Reading
Getting around Jaipur is never dull but does take time. Except within parts of the Old City, walking is not an ideal mode of transportation. A system of buses is geared to locals, leaving tourists to choose between renting a motorcycle (just kidding), negotiating numerous auto-rickshaw rides, or hiring a car and driver. We opted for the latter, and felt the price well worth the flexibility.
For more architecture in Rajasthan, see our posts on Udaipur and Jodhpur.