India: The Jaipur Literature Festival sells itself as the greatest literary show on earth

I would happily return to the Jaipur Literature Festival – despite the tree.

It happened at lunch-time as speakers and delegates were gathering around the buffet in the courtyard of the Diggi Palace, where the festival is held. They were collecting plates, choosing tables and talking over the morning's sessions when a large branch split from a tree in the courtyard's centre and crashed down across a group of tables, injuring three people.

If it had taken a slightly different trajectory, somebody said later, it might have taken out a majority of the country's literati.

Employing its highly developed gift for the euphemism, The Times of India called it a mishap. It was implicit acknowledgment that drama is embedded so deeply in India's history and culture that it tends to be taken for granted.

The perfect place to imbibe a concentrated sampling of this irrepressible national spirit is the Literature Festival. Freak accidents aside, it's well organised, free if you don't want to go first class and buy a delegate's pass and the days' sessions are bookended by concerts featuring some of the country's best singers and musicians.

The festival was started 12 years ago by novelist and publisher Namita Gokhale and British historian William Dalrymple, who has made India and the Middle East his specialties. It now sells itself, with some justification, as "the greatest literary show on earth". This year's programme proudly quotes Time Out's verdict: "It's settled. The Festival is officially the Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature with an ambience that has been described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding."

Over the years, the festival's line-ups have been eclectic enough to suit just about every taste. Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama have both been on the bill and it's a great place for a crash course in the latest influences on India's stormy political landscape. Its politicians clearly view a festival appearance as the perfect showcase for their debating skills.

We selected the sessions that appealed to us each morning at breakfast in our hotel, the Samode Haveli, smaller and less expensive than Rajasthan's grand palace hotels, but just as romantic. It was built 175 years ago by Rawal Sheo Singh, a Rajput noble, as a resort for his family, whose descendants still live in its apartments, and it's set in a narrow street in Jaipur's Old City.

Its splendours reveal themselves by stealth. A flight of steps leads off the street to an ornately carved door opening to the first of a series of courtyard gardens, the biggest of which has a pool. The hotel's dining room, sitting room and apartments look onto these and at night, they're lit by oil lamps.The architecture of the main buildings is Indo-Saracenic and their mosaics, tiles and scalloped arches have been retained, along with their traditional paintings and old photographs, although there are welcome concessions to modernity in the plumbing and airconditioning.

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Our sightseeing around Jaipur includes a visit to the Amber Fort which commands a ridge above Amer, a small town just out of Jaipur. The fort looks down with such an air of invincibility that I half-expected a team of armed Rajput warriors to appear above the ramparts. It was built in the 16th century by Rajah Man Singh, a Rajput general.

You walk or go by four-wheel-drive to the steps leading to the pillared Hall of Public Audience. And from here, you can wander through the royal apartments, with their glass mosaics and mirrored ceilings, and try to imagine what they were like when hung with silk and velvet and carpeted with hand-woven rugs.

The zenana – the set of apartments occupied by the women of the Mughal court – is also part of the tour and if you believe the Bollywood version, it was a place where the court's housebound wives and mistresses filled their days and nights by dreaming up venomous plots against one another. At one of the festival sessions, we hear a different story.

Historians Ruby Lal, Ira Mukhoty and Parvati Sharma talk over the achievements of one of the most illustrious of the Mughal women, the Empress Nur Jahan. The favourite wife of the 17th-century Mughal ruler, Emperor Jehangir, she was both a courageous warrior and an accomplished politician. She took on the duties of royal regent whenever her husband was away from the court and she went so far as to mount a war elephant and lead a rescue force after he was captured by rebels in 1626. On the debit side, she was also an enthusiastic tiger hunter but she did find time for more peaceable pursuits as an equally enthusiastic patron of the arts.

On our last day, we, too, patronise Jaipur's arts and crafts, skipping the festival's final sessions in favour of a shopping tour in search of hand-made carpets and textiles. It turned out to be as productive as the rest of the trip.

TRIP NOTES

Sandra Hall travelled at her own expense.

MORE

traveller.com.au/jaipur

tourism.rajasthan.gov.in/jaipur

FLY

Air India, Singapore Airlines and Cathy Pacific fly direct to New Delhi and Jaipur is a four- to five-hour drive from there.

STAY

The Claridges is a five-star hotel in the heart of Lutyen's Delhi, the up-market district named in tribute to Edwin Lutyens, the British Colonial architect whose worked shaped the city. King rooms from $197 a night. See claridges.com

Traditional architecture and a series of garden apartments make the Samode Haveli in the Old City a great retreat from the bustle of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Rooms from about $475 a night. See samode.com/samodehaveli/

TOUR

Tenzing's Journeys, an Australian company devoted to special interest tours, runs annual tours to the Jaipur Literature Festival. The 2020 tour begins on January 15, runs for 15 days and includes visit to Kolkata, Delhi and Jaipur. The full tour costs from $7700 per person twin share; single supplement $1990. See judytenzing.com

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