Dressed in their pyjama-like body paint, the elephants jockeyed in the tiny village square. Gleaming in the unrelenting sun, the sandstone walls of Amber Fort (or Amer Fort, pronounced without the b in either case and named after the town of the same name) hover above clinging to the top of a rocky hill. All day the decorated elephants lumber up the steep winding ramp, their sure-footed gait travelling precariously near the edge of the roadway. Their sad eyes reveal a life of abject boredom trudging the same paths every day as they ferry visitors to one of India’s most popular sights.
With its strong defences and imposing position, Amber Fort was never captured meaning much of the palace is in its original condition (though time has wrought some damage that invading forces could never manage). While the ruler was Hindu, the palace is a fascinating blend of Mughal (Islamic) and Hindu architecture, to politically maintain peace with the powerful leaders from surrounding areas, most of whom were Muslim. Built in 1592 the palace was continually enhanced and extended for a further 130 years until the royal entourage moved to Jaipur.
The elephants park near the Lion Gate (Singh Pol) that leads to the public area of the palace. Military parades and state functions were regularly conducted in the courtyard.
The courtyard leads to the imposing Ganesh Gate, covered in glorious patterned artwork and entrance to the private rooms of the palace. Ganesh, the elephant headed deity, is revered by Hindus as the god that removes obstructions from people’s everyday lives. A wonderful image of Ganesh is painted over the entrance gate in the same way that his image is painted over the front door of many humble homes throughout India.
In the corner of the courtyard is an elegantly colonnaded open hall where the ruler granted public audiences to hear wishes and petitions from the people of his region.
Over Ganesh Gate are latticed chambers with beautiful frescoes where the royal women could view proceedings while maintaining their dignity by staying hidden from public view.
Through to the private areas of the palace, the opulence that the rulers and maharajahs enjoyed becomes truly apparent. The complex features areas that act as separate summer and winter palaces, one gathering the warming sun while the other using an ingenious cooling system.
Each feature Mirror Palaces or Shish Mahals (which sounds more like a skewered meat dish) with inlaid stained glass panels and thousands of small mirrored curved fragments of silver paint or foil. Lighting a single candle ignites the room in a sea of light the ceiling glittering like a galaxy of stars. The winter palace (Jas Mandir) has panoramic views over the lake and the gardens that helped supply the palace.
The summer palace called the Hall of Pleasures (or Sukh Niwas) has a marble water course running through the room open to the prevailing breezes, working like modern air-conditioning and bringing relief from the baking desert sun. The water, being so scarce in this dry region of India, flowed to the formal gardens. Clever water management including scented waterfalls and baths feature throughout the palace providing luxurious comfort for the maharajah and his regal wives while ensuring the water is recycled or run into the thirsty gardens.
Panoramic vistas highlight the parched land and show the strong defensive walls constructed across the surrounding hills. Strategically placed towers acted as lookouts, guards banging loudly on drums should an enemy army approach.
The final courtyard contains the original Palace of Man Singh I and the zenana, where the royal queens lived (the maharajah had up to a dozen wives or maharanis) alongside various female staff, mistresses and concubines. The rooms are a rabbit warren of passageways and staircases, carefully designed so that the maharajah can surreptitiously enter the bedroom of his choice unknown to the other occupants (maybe this should have been called the Hall of Pleasures!!). The central colonnaded badahari was curtained and acted as the meeting room for the royal queens.
Only eleven kilometres from the Pink City of Jaipur (with wonderful sights such as the Palace of the Winds and the superb observatory, Jantar Mantar), Amber is an excellent half day trip. A guide helps understands the buildings and history (the signage is poor) but take some time to simply wander the courtyards, corridors and rooms and enjoy the architecture, the elaborate decoration and the views from a time when luxuriant opulence was the standard for a maharajah. Get there early before the palace is overrun with visitors and the heat of the day wilts the mood of the people (and the elephants).