Paper Lantern… Pink City in Lockdown

Himanshu Vyas

DURING THE PANDEMIC in India, photojournalist HIMANSHU VYAS often found himself in lockdown wandering the empty streets of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Here he presents his meditations during that time, in a form of the Japanese haibun, where block prose loosens and cascades into poetry…

Fluent streets. As if drawn in the dream of a calligrapher. At precise intervals, lane after lane keeps branching out from those streets to enter a mohalla1 and meet through a trellis of alleys that line ancient haveli’s2 – all painted ochre.

These ways
like a fountain of right angles, spray out. The streets 
sunny and crisp; the lanes moist 
with centuries of shade. 
For a summer cloud looking down
one is walking on a colossal chess 
to shifting pitches of silences and spaces.
The roads run to a rhythm of pillars 
that            slow         down 
to an andante of arches.
Stacked over the bass of shops, houses 
continue like a chorus 
that converges to high pitched ornate cupolas 
and this lyric leaps up to a crescendo 
of temple shikhara3;  that enchanting point 
where ochre ends and 
blue begins.

More than the eyes, the architecture here has something to do with the ears.
It plays on,
refrain of the city.
but like a mantra.
Jaipur in lockdown 
far from being a city curated for the casual eye
is a visual chant.

Himanshu Vyas

In Pink City, history seems remote 
but only as remote as one’s next thought.

What is more repetitive than emptiness? 
Where can one go in an empty city? 
Turn after turn no one appears.
The only one you meet 
is your own act of turning if the street turns.
And when suddenly emptied 
of a million men and women and 
the samsaara4 they orchestrate  
these time-full turns of Jaipur were alive 
with palanquins of unseen queens, superimposed 
over bullock carts laden with April’s harvest,  
merging into a pellucid procession 
of painted elephants.

Crossroads become palimpsest 
of parchment paper albums – agape
with limpid images 
layered in the city’s memory.
Her delicate mind fluttered wild or 
froze, bruised every time 
an ambulance shrieked past 
too close.

In Pink City, history seems remote 
but only as remote as one’s next thought.

There’s hardly a city on this planet which has been laid out like a game. And that too a game of chance – Chaupad5. The game is shaped like an embroidered cross of cloth. It has percolated to modern man as Ludo. Chaupad can be seen spread between Lord Shiva6 and his consort Parvati in traditional paintings. The genesis of the epic war of Mahabharata7 lay in a game of Chaupad. In Jaipur, the three city squares, each of which radiates four streets in four directions and lie one after another on seemingly endless streets, are known as Chaupads. One can enter the old city and these Chaupads only through massive arched gateways meant for royal elephants and shaped like the yawn of a toothless shark. 

The moment you enter city gates or 
step out of your home, you have 
stepped into 
the game; 
into an arm of the Chaupad.
It’s played with cowrie shells
but given the sprawling dimensions 
of these Chaupads,
every resident walking its tracks
a tiny cowrie. 
Time, as always, is the dice.   

And slowly one can’t tell 
if the guttural cooing of pigeons 
is a fragrance or
the aroma of asafoetida 
 a sound.

The second wave of covid-19 virus and the resultant lockdown hid the city’s busy cowries into their homes. Too frightened to walk out into a Chaupad and be a part of the game of chance any more. Yet their gaze kept promenading the streets from the safety of their houses. 

Breathing faces 
framed by the ornate windows 
and frescoed fenestellas, turned 
the pandemic streets into 
a portrait gallery.
But these curious portraits 
towards anyone scaling the street 
to start an inversion… 
till the visitor became the subject
even if it was a cow or 
a wind blown mask or a 
funeral march.

One saw the city forget its body quickening to life.

That hawker at 5 am
milkman at 6
then the four differently pitched sabziwallas8
declaring the contents of their carts 
in sing-song phonemes of devanagari9.
Cows followed 
on their morning round 
checking out decades of designated places 
for yesterday’s vegetables or breads
beneath lamp posts or base of a peepal10 tree. 
And with the arc of the Sun
one heard the sound 
of a thin stream of water hitting the floor… thrice,
must be Rathore aunty 
the neighbour in her high balcony
offering libation to one in east
also on his morning round.

the madrigal11 sung by millions 
ever since it was written in 1727
hushed itself
into one sombre note of Dhrupad12,
a mantra13 hummed by the navel,
city – blooming lotus
became a beej14 again.

Birds seem to notice the lull and know all the happenings in the human world. By the second day of lockdown, pigeons were confidently promenading the streets. Streets, where on any routine day, blown incessantly by vehicles and footsteps, even a particle of dust can hope to settle peacefully on  charcoal only after midnight. 

The curfew began in April.

One walked in from the western arch 
Chandpole – the gate of the moon 
and found an undulating blueish carpet 
of pigeons 
pecking on wheat, millet and corn strewn 
outside the shuttered shops of  merchants 
of grains and spices.
And even if one’s eyes and ears are closed
this stretch of Chandpole market 
one could always breathe and know. 
For throughout its ways
thick wisps 
of aroma of a myriad spices 
hang mid air 
between the shops – rows and rows,
which now were closed for days.
As one ambles on 
a wave of cinnamon shifts 
and a breeze of clove comes in … 
the tang of red chilli rolls
into sweetest scent of jaggery 
and lo…
a flash of asafoetida… 
enough to ferry a mind 
into India’s spicy history. 
And visions of ships loaded with spices and 
camel caravans 
would wink and vanish 
as you inhale 
as you
right there, on this steamy street. 

And slowly one can’t tell 
if the guttural cooing of pigeons 
is a fragrance or
the aroma of asafoetida 
 a sound.

Lockdown is not something new to those who live in Rajasthan15. Not that there have been regular pandemics in its past. But Rajasthan, even as you read this, has a small town on the far edge of the Thar desert entirely devoid of humans. Its wooden cartwheels lie inclined in dusty courtyards, step-wells thirst for visitors, rows of mud huts and traditional sandstone houses wave carved windows that are ajar for almost two centuries now. It’s a town whose inhabitants abandoned it overnight without a trace. Perhaps due to scarcity of water but the local legends have it that the clan of virtuous Paliwal brahmins16 left the town to save the honour of one of their girls from a lecherous minister. Left the town they once gave life to way back in the thirteenth century!

Himanshu Vyas

…a sample of bangles left dangling by a nail or a few defective keys where once, before the lockdown, masters of locks – the key makers – would wisely sit 

But could they ‘leave?’

If one stares at a glass of tea or a star for long and suddenly closes one’s eyes neither the glass nor the star goes away. Even something as fleeting as a firefly is fossilized by the mind. And clearer than an urban eye, every act and whisper of our human script is visible in a city’s brick.

What if a spectacle of a million people
their gestures and voices and 
city bus conductors vying to take 
everyone to Amber17 fort and 
vehicles and 
horns and clip-clop 
of horse carts…
flooding the city like a symphony
suddenly disappear! 
Is it easy to un-see them the next morning? 

Can one un-hear 
Beethoven’s violin concerto 
as soon as the conductor has bowed? 
How does one un-hear the beckoning vegetable vendor?
Yesterday, she was sitting here, 
near the stairs of the temple.
For us, a yesterday is a neighbouring day; 
for her 
is three generations who sat there.

How does one un-smell the garlands 
of jasmine and  marigolds
heaped by vendors on moist jute 
for pilgrims 
till a dawn ago? 
It’s the second week of lockdown but 
the marigold air is still fragrant 
or was one meeting 
the memory of that fragrance? 
But then, who can tell the difference 
between a fragrance and 
a memory. 

Himanshu Vyas

If the grandeur of the Pink City deserted by lockdown kept tossing apparitions of its regal past and royal ladies peeking from 953 windows of Hawa Mahal18, its humane spaces dreamed and dazzled with tomatoes of that old vendor… a sample of bangles left dangling by a nail or a few defective keys where once, before the lockdown, masters of locks – the key makers – would wisely sit. 

did one ‘hear’ 
the giant brass bell
overlooking the Chaupad – ring!
Though covered with a cloth 
for a year now 
to restrain the devotees from touching it
lest the virus would make it toll. 
It hung heavy
a lump in the city’s larynx
a note unsung – gets heavier.
But in stray rains 
the empty Chaupad  reverberates 
as every single drop 
gently drums its charcoal.
No hasty feet or 
umbrellas, tarpaulins or awnings anywhere 
only a tinkle 
of millions of watery bells.
And then the cloth clings to the brass bell.
And its shape becomes its sound.
The dust storms of June 
made it swing to and fro 
and for once 
the untouched bell knows 
joy of swinging 
without ringing.  

Himanshu Vyas

Police vehicles made rounds, requesting everyone to stay indoors and sirens of ambulances ran through the city… if these were threads, the city would have been tied a thousand times over in red. While the streets offered fear and death, and if not themselves, their news entered every home through the myriad means of modern communication.

Still, life knows ways of showing up. 

As lockdown progressed, perhaps people realized that the world is not just their front doors leading to the main road, leading to an office or a shop or a million places to go. 

Sky is also ‘world’. 
They sensed 
that not just the hubbub but 
the blue emptiness above every terrace 
is also samsaara.
So while the cartographer’s Jaipur was empty
the child’s Jaipur was full.
Full of kites.
Hundreds of them rose, 
met, looped, dived 
and frolicked in safe skies.
Their taut thread their hearts tread and
people found a ‘street’ to move ‘out’. 
To the eyes of a soaring kite, this city is shaped as a breezy square formed by nine great kites.

Their numbers swelled by the evening.
And at nights 
when the stroboscopic beacons  
cast psychedelia on walls of kitchens 
and curtains
people just had to look up 
and find a faraway paper lantern 
nearing their darkening sky.

They watched 
like a fish 
from beneath the surface of holy Ganges 
looks up  
to gaze at the lamps 
released by women 
on the quiet of its ripples. 

Every night
a hundred rounds of ambulance 
were outnumbered 
even if one lantern 
was sailing in the sky,
a dot, windswept
though small
but large enough for gaze 
of one whole city 
to rest.

Himanshu Vyas Jaipur

APRIL 2022 Himanshu Vyas MONK


1. Mohalla – a residential neighbourhood
2. Haveli – a traditional mansion, often for joint families, reflecting historical architecture
3. Shikhar – carved spires
4. Samsaara – literally, the World, also the socio-psychological situations resulting from desires and actions           
5. Chaupad – an ancient game played with dice and cowrie shells
6. Shiva – the ascetic God of time and dissolution who forms the trinity with Brahma and Vishnu  
7. Mahabharata – the longest epic poem known
8. Sabziwalla – mostly door to door vegetable vendors
9. Devanagari – an Indian abugida based on ancient Brahmi script 
10. Peepal – the holy ficus tree 
11. Madrigal  – a medieval lyric poem set to polyphonic musical form 
12. Dhrupad – the oldest genre of Indian music, sung or played with meditative emphasis on single notes
13. Mantra  – a numinous syllable/word/sentence having energetic sound patterns
14. Beej – a monosyllabic mantra. Literally, a seed
15. Rajasthan – India’s largest state, famous for forts and palaces. Jaipur is its capital
16. Brahmins  – those who, as per ancient texts, must live in austerities and practise priestly, academic or pastoral professions
17. Amber – the hill fort at Jaipur, built in AD1592
18. Hawa Mahal – the massive crown shaped historic palace in Jaipur built in 1799 that has 953 windows

A gorgeous version of this interview appears in our beautiful 180 page print anthology, £15. Click here to order.


Your email address will not be published.

© 2023 MONK Gallery
All artwork copyrighted by the artist.
Copying, saving, reposting, republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of MONK.