"Can you see these small windows in this wall? Notice the angle -- facing downwards. The royal women inside the Hawa Mahal could look down at the processions on the streets," my guide nonchalantly says.
"Couldn't they just step out and watch if they wanted to?" I enquired naively.
"No, no... they weren't allowed to go out... and it wasn't safe!"
I was in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, founded by the visionary Sawai Jai Singh II. I began the day by walking down Mirza Ismail Road to the gate of the Pink City. It was 9am on a Sunday, yet I managed to attract the attention of a man on a motorbike. He went around me in circles repeating in an I've-learnt-English-from-a-foreigner-accent, "Madam, let me show you around... anywhere you want go?"
"Madam, where you from?"
I told him off a few times. Finally in a loud voice and in Hindi, I threatened to report him to the police. He sped away leaving me with a bad taste of Jaipur. Two hours later, there I was at Hawa Mahal, with my guide telling me about the safety of women more then 200 years ago... had anything changed?
The Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds, with its awe inspiring facade, looks like a cardboard dollhouse that will fall down with one push. Yet it has stood strong for more than 200 years. It was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh and designed by Lal Chand to look like Krishna's mukut or crown. The guide went on to tell me it has around 953 small windows called jharokhas. The royal women were not only banned from stepping onto the streets, but also had to observe strict purdah, so their faces couldn't be seen peeping out of windows! All for their own safety, I assumed. The idea of the tiny, angled latticework was dual -- it let them look down into the road without anyone seeing them. The guide took me to one corner of the first floor and showed me a raised pathway, one storey above the road. "The Maharanis would use this path to reach Hawa Mahal, straight from the City Palace... Away from the road!" he said with pride. Yet, inside the palace, just a tiny passage from the Maharanis' quarters, were the chambers of the concubines of the Maharaja. "It's the door with the beautiful flowers," he pointed out. "The Maharaja would come here with his Ranis and concubines for a break..." I couldn't escape that thought in my head... Safe from the roving eyes on the street, but living with the roving eye of their husband, the Maharaja?
Growing up, Rajasthan had featured in my textbooks as the land of sati, that unforgivable practice, accordingly to me, of a woman jumping into the funeral pyre of her husband. Even if it was to save her from the agony of rape at the hands of the marauding conquerors, surely there should have been a better way to protect a widowed woman than make her leap into a fire, alive! Much after Independence, Rajasthan made news for the high levels of female foeticide and infanticide. I thought about intense debates with friends about the emancipation of women in the South versus the visible lack of it in the North. A history student had interjected, the South had few invasions during which cities were plundered and women raped, and that's why they didn't need to be so stringent with the purdah, maang tikka and there was no need for a festival like raksha bhandan in which a woman sought protection from a man by calling him her brother. What started as a method to safeguard women evolved into the way to hold women back, curtail them, keep them confined, all under the guise of her own safety.
Lost in my meandering thoughts, I followed the guide into a narrow passageway as we made our way to the topmost floor. There were no steps but a gradual incline. "To make it easier for the Maharanis as their clothes weighed many, many kilos," he said. But why, I wondered, would they climb up wearing rich, embroidered clothes and jewellery? I got my answer shortly. On the topmost floor, the guide pointed to an enclosure saying, "This was where the Raja would sit and watch the show." This played in my head as I peered at the clothes on display at the Museum at the City Palace. Richly embroidered and heavy to even look at, I could imagine the Maharanis almost dragging themselves to the topmost floor... for the pleasure of their King? I wondered, do I get joy in dressing up for the man in my life, or do I dress up for me and me alone?
In another display, I saw a ball used by the royal women when they played polo. The woman inside me rejoiced, the royal women played polo! Freshly constructed stereotypes of repressed women were collapsing in my head -- but it was short-lived. The placard below said the women were not allowed to play during the day. This ball had a tiny moving platform with a candle stand, so that the players could see the 'fire' ball at night too. Disheartened and somewhat confused I stepped away.
Outside I sat on a stone bench facing Mubarak Mahal. I thought about the city beyond the palace walls that boasted of a planned layout way ahead of its times -- divided and demarcated into sections, connected by narrow lanes leading to broad avenues which met at large squares. There were even aqueducts for a perennial supply of water. I looked again at the gorgeous Mubarak Mahal or Welcome Palace, intricately carved and sitting on a platform as if on constant display for all the visitors. Through the eyes of woman of the 21st century, every element of this 'progressive' city seemed to strive to curtail the woman rather than set her free. With growing violence against women in India loud voices are back saying she should remain indoors. I wondered if our society is regressing to the 1700s. Surely, there is another way to keep a woman safe than to imprison her behind a purdah and jharokhas? If we regress back to the Jaipur of the 1700s, I think it's the men who need to go in this time. And yes, for our own safety.