Through Your Eyes Only
Experiencing Jaipur through oral stories, a large group of visually impaired dared to come out of a safe shell to explore the pink city.
“Travel is our birthright,” says Preeti Monga passionately. Watching the beautiful 60-year-old, it’s difficult to believe that she lost her eyesight just 21 days after her birth. “The doctors say it was reaction to small pox vaccine,” she smiles confidently, husband Ashwini holding her hand. We are standing near Sheesh Mahal in Amer Fort, Jaipur. Monga isn’t the first visually impaired person I am meeting. But she is among the 50 that I am travelling with for the two-day trip to Jaipur. It isn’t my first time to the royal pink city too, but it is the first experience of seeing the world through the heart of the visually impaired.
Running a NGO, Silver Linings, Monga’s life has not been a rosy one, but she has gotten over the complaints. “There have been suicidal moments but as mother of two and now grandmother of three, I am happy I didn’t fall into that trap,” says the lady who has penned her life in two books — The Other Senses and Flight Without Sight. Inspired by the iconic Helen Keller, she turned her life around to train the visually challenged and sensitise others around. She was 37 when she found her second husband Ashwini who stands by her like a rock, and she enjoys life with him. Besides, she has won many awards for her work, including a national award in 2013 by the President of India.
As I gaze at the mirrors and colours of the beautiful palace, Monga tells me that people shouldn’t be shy or scared of the visually impaired. “When one faculty is lost, the other four work to compensate for that. For travel, hearing is important for the place comes alive with the stories.” I watch the huge group gathered around the guide, listening to the history of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a strong sense of camaraderie. They make a chain, holding hands when walking from one corner to another with the group guide in the lead. Corridors resonate with their laughter.
The organiser, Amit Jain who runs Rising Star Tours and Travels in Delhi, has a team of three from his office, few volunteers and sponsors with him. “This is the third time we have brought a group of challenged people. Last year I travelled with a group and seeing their passion, I decided to do it myself. I funded the first trip to Pangot myself but now like-minded individuals have joined hands,” he elucidates. The travellers just need to pay a small amount for registration “as that assures there are no last minute cancellations and sign a consent form. We take adults and able-bodied for they should be able to take care of themselves”. Quite buoyant, he has plans to take them on flights and overseas. “I wouldn’t mind taking 300 people but I need resources,” he says. To save time, the team prefers to serve them food on the table. Each and everything is spelled out such as ‘take a step and then there is a stair’, ‘turn left to take your seat’. Jain organises a mix of activities to give the flavour of the city such as visit to historical monuments, shopping, camel rides, DJ night. “There has to be maximum input and everyone at the agency works for months to put this together,” he adds.
Technically, Amer fort is in the town of Amer, just a kilometre away from Jaipur. It was the erstwhile capital of the kings. It’s Saturday and the fort is teeming with people. Selfies, families, cameras, it’s alive. Located atop a hill with breathtaking vistas, the small Maota Lake is the main source of water. A light and sound show is held every evening here.
Amer was built by the Meena king Raja Alan Singh of the Chanda clan in 967 CE. It was later ruled by Raja Man Singh I of the Kachwaha clan. For almost 150 years, successive rulers kept adding to the structure. Now, the magnificence and the architecture blow the mind away. It’s the intricately carved pillars, the flowery motifs, the colourful ceilings and the gardens that make Amer a must-visit in Jaipur. The large ramparts, multiple gates, ancient cobbled paths bring a long gone era come alive. I imagine the queens with her group of ladies sitting in their courtyards, dressed in embroidered silks, watching the sun rise and set over the hills.
Built of red sandstone and marble, the massive structure with its multiple levels houses a Diwan-e-Aam or hall for public audience, Diwan-e-Khas or hall for private audience, Sheesh Mahal aka mirror palace, Jai Mandir and Sukh Niwas. This is cooled by the winds that blow over a water cascade within the palace. Before coming in, we had paid obeisance to the guardian goddess, Shila Devi, whose temple is at the entrance. She was worshipped by the Chaitanya cult and the idol was given to Raja Man Singh when he defeated the Raja of Jessore, Bengal, in 1604. The fort even has a museum and some souvenir shops. Of course, it’s more interesting and easier on the pocket to buy trinkets from the vendors standing around.
Sight & The City
“According to the doctors if you can’t distinguish colours and see the five fingers, you are blind,” explains Navy Garg, a 32-year-old who works with State Bank of India in Sangrur. He is suffering from a hereditary disease called Macular Degeneration. “I studied B. Tech and even worked with CISCO for three years. I did have vision issues from childhood but it was in college that it started worsening. At CISCO, I was the team leader for our special unit on inclusion and diversity. They didn’t want me to leave but I got a lifetime job at the bank.” Garg has a six-month old daughter and is trying to ensure his wife starts a business. “I underwent Ayurvedic treatment as well but nothing could stop the degeneration of the retina.”
A tech geek, he shows me his iPhone, “An iOS feature is VoiceOver which has normalised the world for the visually impaired. As we put our fingers over the screen, this spells out exactly what we are doing. We can read all important documents, call and talk to people, read our messages, What’s App and even take pictures. I barely need support.” His laptop also has special software, JAWS, which makes him confident to accomplish any work. Like Monga, he has not learned braille. But Prerna Sharma, who works in the Ministry of Defence, is blind since childhood and reads magazines in braille. “I have subscribed to these and I know about the latest trends in the fashion world and on women’s issues and the world news.”
Even though the journey from Delhi started in the wee hours, no one is inclined to rest and miss seeing the City Palace, the luxurious residence of the kings of Rajasthan. Here lie antiques, weapons, halls painted with flowers and gold, museums, and the private area where the royals still live. Among the most famous are the Chandra Mahal and Mubarak Mahal. The palace was built between 1729 and 1732 by Sawai Jai Singh II. The beautiful gardens, flowery courtyards with amazing colourful doors are based on the principles of Shilpa Shastra and have Mughal and Rajputana motifs. The palace complex was designed by two architects — Vidyadhar Bhattacharya who was the chief architect in the royal court and Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob. The Sawai had shifted the capital from Amer to Jaipur in 1727.
The Rajputs had inter-clan clashes after Jai Singh’s death in 1857 but they were friendly to the British. It was Maharaja Ram Singh who sided with the British in the Uprising of 1857 and won himself favours by the Imperial rulers. When the Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VII) visited Jaipur, Ram Singh painted the city pink to welcome him. Jaipur then became the pink city. Very little of this happy pink is seen now though. Only the old market area, Bapu bazaar, and some monuments have some shades of pink.
The last Maharaja of Jaipur was Man Singh II, the adopted son of Maharaja Madho Singh II. When the princely states came under India in 1949, he became the Rajapramukh (present day Governor) of Rajasthan and later became the Ambassador of India to Spain.
Sunrise & Goodbye
I wake up early for the sun rises over Jal Mahal aka water palace. The frolicking migratory pelicans and the shimmering ripples satiate my soul. The morning air is buzzing with the sound of prayers from the nearby temples and the chirp of birds in search of food. The sun rises slowly, turning the water into many shades of orange.
The five-storeyed marvel was built in Man Sagar Lake by Maharaja Jai Singh II. With four storeys beneath the water, and one above, this is made of red sandstone. The palace has gone through multiple renovations and can only be seen from the shore. The promenade buzzes with camel and horse rides in the evening.
With the last stop being Laxmi Misthan Bhandar for some ghevar and other traditional sweets, the long drive to Delhi begins. The excitement doesn’t fizzle out for barriers have been broken. Prateek, who runs a business in Aligarh, is no longer shy, perhaps Garg’s forthrightness has put him at ease with the sighted. New friends, new plans and more holidays, the group bids a joyful adieu.
Reaching Jaipur, Rajasthan
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and part of the golden triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur). The international airport is at Sanganer, around 10km from the main city. The highway from Delhi is among the best in the country and the 268km drive can be done in a comfortable six hours. There are good trains too going to the city, including the luxurious ‘Palace on Wheels’.
Eat, Shop, Explore
- Pyaaz kachoris, ghevar, kanji wada, matka kulfi, traditional thali comprising dal bati churma, gatte ki sabzi, bajre ki roti, ker sangri
- Silver and junk jewellery, bandhani dupattas and ghagharas, small handmade pouches
- Ranthambore National Park, Sariska National Park, Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, Nahargarh Fort, Jaigarh Fort, Cenotaphs at Gaitore, temples in Kanak Ghati, Albert Hall Museum