‘Hawa’ literally means air. Inspired by numerous windows letting in air into the building, this famous red and pink sandstone structure in Jaipur, Rajasthan was named Hawa Mahal or ‘Palace of the breeze’.
It was, in fact, meant for the queens of Jaipur and their female attendants to witness processions or festivities on special occasions celebrated in the city. The 953 windows or ‘jharokhas ‘ gave them a good view of the streets below, while they themselves remained hidden behind screens of latticework.
‘Purdah’ or screening of women from the gaze of men was strictly observed at the time and tour guides today tell visitors that if any man apart from the king (and perhaps, the queen’s close male maternal relatives) caught a glimpse of the queen, he would be executed.
Even today, Hindu women in many North Indian villages observe purdah. They usually cover their head and face with the end of a loose garment called odhni, dupatta or saree to make a ‘ghoonghat’. Covering the head in this manner is considered a sign of respect towards the elderly. A practical benefit is keeping the sun and dust at bay in states where both these elements of nature rule the roost.