Jaipur is in Rajasthan, India’s Westernmost state. Rajasthan has become immensely popular on India’s tourist track because of a multi-million dollar effort by the Indian government to promote tourism. But regardless of the efforts, the draw of story-book-quality 17th century palaces and forts is magnetic.
The Amber Fort transports those of us with wild imaginations back to the times of the Mughal empire where sturdy walls were built to protect the royal family from the likes of leopards, snakes, coyotes, and herds of elephants just as much as threats from neighboring armies. The Imperial complexes were lavishly constructed from war booty. They gleam high on desert cliffs. Below, goods were carried from bazaar to bazaar by mules, camels–even elephants.
Emporers are no longer comforted by multiple concubines within the reaches of ruby encrusted marble walls, but the transportation methods remain exactly the same. Nowadays, colorfully painted trucks pass camels towing carts rigged with expired airplane wheels. The carts attach around the camel’s neck, about 8 feet in the air, and slope backwards at 60 degrees, an arrangement that looks particularly uncomfortable for the driver, at least in comparison to those lucky enough to lounge on the backs of the elephants hauling fabric into town.
The auto rickshaw felt even more unstable than usual when a tree-trunk sized leg of an elephant thunders down less than a meter from my nose.
Outside of Jaipur is a temple devoted to Hanuman, a monkey-faced Hindu god, where monkeys actually rule with utmost power. The cavernous temple is set above a watery pool where hundreds of Nazuri monkeys groom, scratch, and play with each other. While baby and adolescent monkeys entertain each other, the biggest males prefer stalking jittery humans like prey, exposing their teeth and big claws. They approach so close that you can only throw a bag of nuts the other way to maintain your safety or back away nervously if you’re empty handed. The monkeys are agile and show off their upper hand by clamoring around the temple’s rocky faces with ease.
Jaipur is sprawling out horizontally faster than bacterial growth. Rajasthan’s desert’s natural predators are no longer a threat to humans safety, but theres a thin line. When water is short in the summer, overheated leopards come into the villages in search, at least until the monsoon comes in and cools the environment off.
Jaipur is thrusting its way towards modernity faster than most economies in the world. Metro lines and arterial flyways are popping out of the ground, the city has grown by over 2 million people in the last 30 years.
In gaps between the modern glass and metal facades, historic archways transport you back into the 17th century orient.
It’s easy to get a sense of what the place once was simply by talking to the people and hearing their family history. Vijay Singh’s ancestry dates back to the beginning of time here in Jaipur. His grandfathers were always warriors for the Maharajas. India’s independence came in 1947 changed everything for the Singhs. A family of warriors turned to tourism to guide westerners around places that their ancestors once defended their lives over.
30km south of Jaipur, one of country’s most longstanding paper-making families has built itself a home after a long series of moves in the past four centuries. From Turkey, to China, to India, the Hussain’s have finally settled in Sanganer. Sanganer’s seven rivers provide abundant supplies of water, a necessary input to transform ground hemp into pulp and make hand-crafted paper generation after generation.
Hussain paper making was recommended to me by Sharon and Tom, two New York artists that I met in Varanasi. I tested the waters and asked various people involved in the tourist industry if they had heard of it and if it was worth visiting. I didn’t want to disappoint my father who traveled across the globe to come spend time with me for two weeks.
Nobody had heard of it but going to see the paper company was a bee in my bonnet. It’s hard to trust people in the Indian tourist business anyways. The touts usually recommend you to go to neon-lit, multi-storied, air-conditioned and elevator-serviced ‘village craft emporium’ and restaurants where a creepy wide-eyed dancer/musicians playing a traditional instruments will stare you down while you try your hardest not miss moving your shaken hand from the plate to mouth in a completely empty restaurant. Basically the rule of thumb: treat everything you’re told by tour-guides and hotel owners as opposite. If its ‘great’ then I will feel like an innocent man walking into prison and if they say it’s not that cool I probably love it.
I gave the company a ring and after a couple of unanswered calls got a response through a crackly phone-line who told me to call his brother. I had a quick call with the brother. We didn’t understand each other at all, but I thought that I heard, ‘come on down, we’d be delighted to show you around’ and relayed the news to my Dad.
40 minutes later we were in suburban India. I was used to the sights after spending the past three and a half weeks in Benares but I was much enjoying my watching my Dad react to the car wind through sandy back-alleys–with only centimeters to spare–past goats picking goodness out of garbage, impromptu cricket games, and traffic that only has one unspoken law: hit me and have an army of townpeople beat you into paper pulp.
Hussain paper-making is a smaller operation that describes itself as “probably the last of india’s traditional papermakers.” Our driver didn’t exactly know where to go. We stopped, totally dead-ended and asked for directions. After 35 seconds, half the local school, 6 pairs of men on motorcycles and even a family from on top of the roof of the adjacent building had joined in a town-hall meeting to chat about exactly where we were to go and the best way to get there. The committee (we had zero say in any matter) decided to send one of the kids along in the car with us until we found the family’s house.
The young boy, exhilarated to be sent on this seemingly noble mission, directed us around the nonsensical layout of the village. The kid signaled our arrival by jumping out of the window of the car.I slipped him 10 rupees for his service before he rushed back to his cronies to report.
I got out and looked around in the midst of the dusty road, pondering the next move. A minute later, a door opened behind me. An ancient dark-skinned muslim man beckoned us into his house. His black skin was muscular and veiny in stark contrast to his white Topi, or cap, and big white, but bloodshot eyes. His gloomy appearance was trumped by his big heart. He projected kindness. He warmly invited us into his home to sit and wait.
His home was minimal, there was a stack of about eight thin mattresses all pushed to the corner of the room so the bedroom could double as a living room during the day. Women rushed through the room, rather quickly, to cast a glance at the unfamiliar visitors then returned to their household activity. No conversation was exchanged, except our sincere thanks, bowing down with are hands clasped over our hearts, for the seat offerings. It would have been rude to reject the seats, as much as I’d preferred the elderly man to sit down and relax.
After about 15 seconds, a young spritely man in a blue business shirt that was weighed down by a mobile phone ushered us back into the car. He directed us out of town to the factory.
This adventure was turning out marvelously, and I was very glad to see my Dad wrapped up within the brilliant charm of the sporadic and unplanned.
As an ex-corporate lawyer, Father Bruce is a lover of itineraries and unhappily married to the stress that the over planned days bring. India is unpredictable and tight planning mixes like oil in water.
The factory was inside of what looked like an abandoned sandstone house from the set of Star War’s Tatooine. The paint outside was chipping, the gate was rusted, trash was seeping out of the nooks and crannies (no different from any other part of India).
Inside were three concrete tubs where ground hemp is mixed with water to become pulp. One man was slowly and confidently straining the pulp onto a sieve that cut the shape of the paper and was piling the sheets in sets of 200, each separated by a linen cloth. Once 200 were made, the paper is stuck to the wall to dry in the 95 degree dry heat of the desert. After dry, its varnished, giving it a glossy smooth face.
The family makes multiple types of paper, most from hemp, some from recycled paper. Some is thin, others are sturdy three ply pieces pasted together. All is strong. One man demonstrated to us by scrunching the paper and pulling at it with all his might. It had the maneuverability and resiliency of a tarp.
The youngest of the Hussains showed us around the small campus. The whole operation would fit inside of a two car garage. He pointed out one man who was neatly piling dried paper into stacks–it was his father and explained that the man who let us into his house was his grandfather. There were three or four other men working there who were brothers and uncles. And five women–none of whom were introduced, mentioned, or acknowledged. There was a fishtank too.
Here’s an excerpt from the website:
The Family Arrived in India via Bokhara in Central Asia. They arrived in India around 800 years ago, settling in the Rajasthani village of Sanganer, just outside jaipur. The family name Khagzi literally means paper maker, from Arbic, and the word currently used for paper in modern hindi is Kagaz
The history of paper dates back to the history of human culture and civilization. Handmade paper making is a traditional art that has been practisized by a particular class of people and generations together. This art has been passed from one generation of craftsmen to another generations of craftsmen. These craftsmen are also known as kagzi. Mohammad Hussain Kagzi runs one of the few units making paper. He is a part of extended Kagzi family. They were originally from Turkey and from there mover to China and then family settled in India. Kagzi family history goes back to 14th century when the rular was Feroz Shah Tuglag in Delhi. Even in those days Royalty used handmade paper made by them for official document, pantings, calligraphy, and to make copies of Holy Quran and to maintain account books. In the 16th century the rular of Amber, Raza Man Singh brought the Kagzi saganer and settled them on the bank of river Sarsvati. Thus the town emerged as one of the biggest paper producing center in North India.