Photo by Nila Newsom/Shutterstock.com
Photo by Saiko3p/Shutterstock.com
The Hawa Mahal in Jaipur is one of the many historic pink buildings that earns it the nickname "The Pink City."
A nonprofit in India trains and empowers women to run rickshaw tours of the Pink City.
I rose at sunrise in Jaipur, India, for my first tour with Pink City Rickshaw Co., a nonprofit that teaches women from the city’s slums how to drive e-rickshaws and conduct tours of the Old City.
It felt fitting to wear a pink accessory, so I threw on a bright pink scarf before meeting Renusharma, my tour guide for the morning. She was waiting for me downstairs in front of my Airbnb, where I would be dropped off later that day. She wore a big smile and also sported a pink color-block printed scarf, greeting me with a welcome pack of information, a map, and fresh bottles of water as I climbed into the rickshaw.
According to Pink City Rickshaw founder and Jaipur native Radhika Kumari, the goal was threefold: to empower local women, improve their livelihoods, and offer an authentic experience for tourists to explore Jaipur.
“We realized there are a lot of women who are looking to support their family incomes, have done basic education, but are still unemployed,” writes Kumari via email, who established the nonprofit in 2017. “The concept was designed keeping in mind the growing tourism industry in Jaipur, demand for experiential travel, popularity of ecofriendly electric rickshaws, and lack of women drivers in the city.”
Pink City Rickshaw drivers are between 18 and 35 years old and have at least an eighth grade level of education (which is required to obtain a valid driver’s license). For anywhere from one to three months, the women learn basic English and receive training for how to interact with customers before leading their first tour. My guide, Renusharma, had been conducting tours for four months.
In just under a year in business, the nonprofit has trained 50 women; 30 of them now own one of the company’s environmentally friendly electric rickshaws and a share of the company. “The sight of a lady e-rickshaw driver is managing to break the stereotype that it is a livelihood only for men,” Kumari wrote.
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In India, this matters. Not only is driving rickshaws there still a male-dominated domain, but driving at all is, too. While there has been a rise of women driving in India, an analysis of 21 states published in The Times of India found that only 4 percent of license holders are women.
For driver Lalitha Devi, the job provided a level of autonomy she’d never experienced before. “I had never ventured anywhere alone earlier and was completely dependent on others, even to go to the nearby market,” Devi, who has worked with the company for a year, wrote via email. “Now I have the confidence to take up anything on my own. It has given me a chance to meet so many people from across the world, and I’ve had lovely new experiences.”
PCR offers tours that revolve around three themes—heritage (which takes travelers to the city’s main historical and cultural attractions), crafts (where travelers can meet the master craftspeople and watch as they create handmade pieces), and shopping (which has a focus on Jaipur’s color-blocking, souvenirs, and bazaars). I opted for “Wake up with Jaipur,” a two-hour heritage tour that begins at 7:30 a.m. to avoid traffic. This itinerary allows for a taste of everyday life in Jaipur: I planned to attend morning worship, visit the flower market, and make a quick stop at the Hawa Mahal palace, the famous pink building that gives Jaipur its nickname.
First stop: the Gavind Dev Ji, an 18th-century Vaishnava temple in the City Palace. The grounds were crowded with rhesus macaque monkeys, morning worshippers, and holy cows. As a sign of respect, visitors remove shoes before entering the temple. Renusharma kept watch of my sandals while I participated in the communal chanting and received a blessing with an orange sandalwood dot on the forehead, meant to cool and clear the mind.
On our way to Phool Mandi, the wholesale flower market, Renusharma drove cautiously, avoiding potholes, wandering cows, and oncoming traffic, yet aggressively enough to zoom past onlookers gawking at one of the first and only female rickshaw drivers in the country.
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At the market, we navigated small walkways past the old saris repurposed as bags and overflowing sacks of vibrant marigolds, fragrant rose petals, and chrysanthemums. The aroma, a mix of flowers, tobacco, and exhaust fumes, was intoxicating. The flowers, presented without their stems, are mostly used for the garlands that will decorate temples and shrines, while the rest remain as loose petals. I watched as colorfully clad women strung together delicate tuberoses and men shouted and bargained over the aromatic merchandise, which later would be whisked away by donkey or tuk-tuk.
After marveling at the flowers, we squeezed in a quick stop for masala chai. We were the only women in the tiny stall; moustached men sat and sipped their daily brew as the chaiwalla furiously stirred nearby, bringing the aromatic spices to life in the cast-iron pot that sat on an open fire. When I took a sip, the cardamom, cinnamon, ground cloves, ginger, and peppercorn were balanced by the creaminess of the milk; it was one of the best chais I’d ever had.
Our last stop was the famous pink building: the Hawa Mahal, also known as the Palace of Winds. The Hawa Mahal was an extension of the city palace to expand the zenana, the women’s chambers, and was initially designed to allow the royal women to observe the street below unseen. The 953 small, latticed windows allowed the wind to pass through, earning the pink building its nickname. While you can tour the inside of the palace, the main attraction is the exterior. Thanks to a local vendor, we admired an unobstructed view of the iconic pink facade from a rooftop across the street.
While we made our way back to my Airbnb, the quiet hum of the e-rickshaw a soothing accompaniment to the endless honking, I thought about what I had seen and how I had seen it. This tour, unlike others I had done, felt truly local. I’d seen parts of Jaipur that I otherwise would not have on my own. It made sense—often the women themselves help tailor the tour by suggesting off-the-beaten-path venues and local places like the chai stall or a handicraft vendor. And I felt connected to my guide, too. Over the course of the tour, Renusharma’s warm smile had become a comforting sight in a sea of strangers. We exchanged thank-yous and a hug as we parted, and I made a mental note to wear more pink.
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