The Story of Jaipur, Part 5: A City is Born

"The Valley of Ambir," a wood engraving, c.1878

It was the year 1727. Twenty years have passed since the death of the Emperor Aurangazeb, the last of the Great Mughals and the Empire’s glory days are fading rapidly. After Bahadur Shah, Aurangazeb’s heir, monarchs come and go with the changing seasons. By 1719, the real power behind the throne are a scheming duo of ministers, the Sayyid brothers, who place and dispose of puppet Emperors to suit their whims and fancies. It was becoming clear to everyone that the Mughal Empire had become a large bureaucracy – a machine, one where even the Emperor was one of many parts that could be removed and replaced by just about any willing applicant.

Sawai Jai Singh, monarch of the House of Amber, watched these developments with great interest. He could clearly see that the Empire was on its last legs, lacking the vision and ambition of a great leader. Wily politician that he was, he saw an opportunity to consolidate his position as an independent king and offer an alternative to the ailing Mughals. He decided that the time was ripe to build a grand metropolis, one that would showcase his vision and power to the world and bring in citizens from far and wide. This was a rare moment in Indian history. Cities developed over time, the older ones were complex labyrinths of narrow alleyways and a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Jai Singh, on the other hand, was starting with a blank slate and the possibilities in front of him were endless. He dived into his ambitious project with tremendous enthusiasm.

He began by looking for an ideal spot. As anyone building a house can attest, location is everything. Rajputs traditionally built their heavily-fortified palaces on hilltops or plateaus to protect their clans from external attack. Jai Singh chose to break with convention and chose the vast plains south-west of Amber as the site for his new city. He did this for a strategic reason – he wanted Jaipur to be a place of commerce and trade, not a military retreat. His city would be located at the crossroads of two major roads – the Amber-Sanganer highway, connecting the old capital with a large textile hub to the south and the Agra-Ajmer highway, linking the second-most important Imperial city with the revered town of Ajmer. The latter was a crucial lifeline for the Empire, jam-packed with pilgrims and traders and crucial to the economic success of the Jaipur.

Once the location was determined, Jai Singh worked with pandits and scholars to begin the process of planning a perfect town. Being a staunch traditionalist, he consulted an ancient Vedic treatise, the Vaastu Shastra, a book of knowledge that combines Hindu religious beliefs with the science of architecture, building and construction. His planners conceived of a perfectly planned city, built on an orthogonal grid and aligned with the movement of the sun and the moon. At the center of the city was the city palace and a temple dedicated to Govind Dev, patron god of the Kachchwa clan. Beyond the palace walls, citizens were organized according to their role and station within society. Jai Singh invited merchants from the far reaches of Rajputana to live and carry out their trade in Jaipur. He then extended his hospitality to the Thakurs, allowing them to reside in the magnificent bungalows and havelis that he was building, provided they paid an annual tax on their estates to fill the coffers of the new city. Finally, Jaipur was enclosed by a high wall with four gates that faced the cardinal directions, with the main gateway opening out directly onto the Ajmer-Agra highway.

As the plan took shape, it was evident that the city of Jaipur was uniquely beautiful, perfectly modern upon first glance and yet thoroughly traditional at heart. Its citizens were well provided for – Jaipur boasted of a well-designed water and sanitation system, vibrant bazaars, neatly laid-out roads and gardens to gather in and celebrate. Visitors came from around the globe to admire this grand metropolis and were unstinting in their praise. The first thing they noticed was the color of the city – the entire town was pink! Jai Singh wanted to build with the fine rose-colored sandstone from Mathura, the material of choice of the Mughals. Unfortunately, squeezed for time and constrained by geography, Jaipur’s planners chose local stone and dressed it up with a coat of pink plaster, creating the appearance of Imperial architecture. Hidden in the simple choice of color was Jai Singh’s message to the world – here was a tiny, ambitious kingdom with the appetite to take on the Great Mughal Empire.

Young, brave and visionary, Sawai Jai Singh had achieved what very few monarchs from the Indian sub-continent can boast of – he erected an entire metropolis in less than a decade. His beautiful city, Jaipur, continues to bring in visitors from around the world, drawn by its unique architecture, culture and history to celebrate the legacy of a great Rajput ruler- the one-and-quarter king.

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