A visitor turns local

Aakash Chopra
After years of travelling to Jaipur for a match or two, a player decides to take in the city and its surrounds properly

A visit to Jaipur, the vibrant capital city of Rajasthan, only a few hours' drive from my home in Delhi, was an annual fixture on my cricket calendar when I played for my club Sonnet in the all-India tournament organised by the State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur.

The easiest way to travel the 250km to the Pink City, as Jaipur is often called because most of its pre-modern buildings were painted that colour to welcome Queen Elizabeth II during one of her visits, was by the Rajasthan Roadways bus from Bikaner House in Central Delhi.

These "deluxe coaches" ply at regular intervals and are well-maintained even now, as they were several years back. In fact, it is among the best state-run public transport systems I have ever used. The colourful Rajasthani puppets painted on the white façade of these buses can be spotted from a distance and are quite the head-turners.

The bus would always stop for snacks and tea at Midway-Behror, and it took me a few years to realise that it was called that because the state-run complex was a midpoint between Delhi and Jaipur, in Behror. In my defence, when you travel in a group, you often tend to miss out on aspects of a place you might otherwise have discovered. Conversations take precedence and you spend the rest of the time in the back seats.

Over time, most of my travel to places close to Delhi became mechanical. They were more about going through the motions. The journey wasn't as important as the final destination, which is why, perhaps, my memories of Jaipur from those years are just a blur. While I remember the tiniest details of the matches I played there, I don't remember anything about the city itself, barring of course, a few places near the Sawai Mansingh Stadium, where we'd drop in for a bite at the end of the day.

So it was only after several years, when I decided to switch teams from Delhi to Rajasthan to play professional cricket, that I got acquainted with Jaipur intimately.

This time I didn't travel as a visitor but as a person hoping to make the city his second home. Instead of taking the bus, I drove down from Delhi, intently looking for landmarks, stopover opportunities, and also taking the time to admire the topography I had not bothered to look at before.

Usually when crossing state borders you don't sit up and take notice of the changes in the landscape. A "Welcome to…" sign is the only mark of change, though these days there are also reminders in the form of texts from mobile networks that flood your phone with messages welcoming you into the new state.

That isn't quite the case with the Haryana-Rajasthan border, clearly marked with two intricately carved pillars on either side, reminiscent of the grand and elaborate architecture of the fort-state. The farmlands of Haryana give way to mountainous terrain with long, barren patches of sand. If you're in luck, you'll also spot a camel or two soon.

Finally, after six hours of driving on NH8, you enter a landscape with mountains on one side and the walls of the famous Amber Fort on the other. You might begin to feel like a royal personage entering your kingdom, sadly minus the cavalcade of men, elephants, horses and camels.

Turn right from the highway to enter Jaipur city, a distinct amalgamation of the old and the new. En route to the stadium, my address for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, you'll see the engineering marvel of Hawa Mahal and the famous, bustling shopping lanes of the city - full of colourful puppets, textiles, artefacts and spices.

Though I became a local, I'd often feel like a tourist here, and every now and then stumble upon a "guide" who wanted to introduce me to the history and culture of the state. While it may be a good idea to use a guide to get to know the city, I like treading the less-known routes and discovering places you won't find on a postcard or on a travel agent's itinerary.

I am assuming the readers of this article will most likely be in Jaipur to either play or watch cricket. I recommend visiting the ground soon after you reach the city. As much as the visit to the hallowed turf is enticing, the beautiful surroundings of the stadium are equally captivating. Situated next to the magnificent Vidhan Sabha (the legislative assembly), the Sawai Mansingh Stadium is one of the few grounds in the country that doesn't feel like a concrete jungle. The immaculate green of the outfield is accentuated by the pink walls around the ground. There are stands on only one side of the ground (the other hosts the offices of te Rajasthan Sports Council Board) and they aren't huge. The structure gives you the feeling of being in an expansive, airy place, which is how you feel wherever you go in Rajasthan. The roads are really wide, there's enough greenery for a desert city, and the old historic buildings have been protected and haven't lost their charm. Jaipur is the perfect melting pot of old traditions and modernisation.

For the longest time, the city was also the cricket centre of Rajasthan. Club matches were fought closely, and invariably players from the Jaipur District Cricket Association made up most of Rajasthan's Ranji team. But over the last few years, other districts have stolen a march over the capital and dominated the Colvin Shield, Rajasthan's inter-district tournament.

Udaipur has now become a stronghold. It not only wins the Colvin Shield regularly but is also the biggest contributor to the state team. Hanumangarh is now the pace foundation of Rajasthan and has produced fast bowlers by the dozen. Kota, Barmer, Bikaner and Jodhpur have all started to pitch in too.

But Jaipur is still where all the major cricketing action takes place - the IPL and international matches. While many Ranji Trophy matches have been moved out, the bigger fixtures have mainly remained in the capital. The ground also has a state-of-the-art residential academy with a gym, swimming pool and an indoor cricket centre. These facilities put even some of the bigger associations, including Delhi, to shame, because most other states still operate with really basic infrastructure.

While Jaipur and Rajasthan aren't lagging behind in infrastructure, their players, at least till the state won a couple of Ranji trophies recently, were reluctant to dream big. Since there are no major cricketing heroes in the state, most aspirants refused to think beyond wearing the state colours. But now that Rajasthan has its own IPL team and its Ranji team is also showing signs of serious improvement, the mental make-up of a Rajasthan cricketer has changed. He's no longer happy with mediocrity.

This transformation in mindset is palpable physically too -- swanky branded watches, clothes, shoes, hair now styled, gelled, and even spiked. While most of these young cricketers draw salaries as government employees, under the sports quota, they have successfully managed to use cricket as a ticket out of their lives in small towns. Their appetite for a life in a metro with all its perks and pomp is growing with the advent of IPL and all its paraphernalia. This is good for cricket, for the divide between a big- and small-city player is shrinking, and so are the inhibitions. Cricket is now being played on a level field.

If you're visiting Jaipur to watch an IPL game, set a couple of days aside, before or after the match, to explore the city. There are many must-visit places: Amber Fort, Rambagh Palace, Hawa Mahal, and the famous Moti Doongri and Birla Mandir temples. Chokhi Dhani, on the outskirts of Jaipur, is another stop for everything typically Rajasthani. You'll get a peep into Rajasthan's rich heritage, and of course, a full course of the sumptuous Rajasthani food - dal baati choorma, gatta curry etc are guaranteed to satiate the taste buds. The only flipside is that you're likely to consume an enormous amount of calories in one sitting, for even if you resist the temptation to indulge yourself, the hospitality will ensure you eat a bit more than you would have liked to.

As for me, I'd but give all of this a happy miss and head straight to Statue Circle, just minutes away from the stadium, for a hot cup of coffee, the likes of which you won't get anywhere else.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

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