The car was turning just as the red ball of fire dissolved. The sky burst into shades of red and purple. The circle of lanterns in the distance beckoned and we walked towards the brown and silver charpoys. A glass of champagne in our hands, we watched the clouds churn the colours, the reds and purples melting into darker shades. Suddenly, the chug of a train attracted our attention, the red compartments adding some colour to the yellow and green patches of coarse grass and small shrubs. And then the sky lost its shades and only the little lanterns brightened up the dark night. The moon was watching our retreat to the cosy makeshift sitting area.
We were 22km away from the city of Bikaner. Between bites of chicken tikka and cashewnuts, our host, 32-year-old hotelier Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, conversed about the royals of that region and his new baby, Narendra Bhawan. This hotel is where the last reigning Maharaja Narendra Singh lived with his 500-plus cows and 90 dogs! And it’s also where we enjoyed some lazy moments between city explorations and long meals with Karan Singh Vaid, who is the hotel’s president.
Large steps at the entrance led to a luxurious verandah with long vases, lions carved in marble sitting on the floor and framed silks woven by the weavers in Varanasi. Everything at Narendra Bhawan spells designer. “The interior is our interpretation of Narendra Singhji’s life,” said Shekhawat. But creativity and luxury have always been the norm in Bikaner, as the city has been home to royals since 1488 when it was founded by Rao Bika.
Before Rao Bika built this city, the barren region was known as ‘Jangladesh’. And catching this is the first state emblem with its two tigers and the slogan ‘Jai Jangal Dhar Badshah’. The region comprised Churu, Ganganagar, Bikaner and Hanumangarh. It was in 1465 that a Rathore Rajput Rao Bika, son of Rao Jodha who was the king of Marwar (better known as Jodhpur), miffed by his father’s remarks left in search of a kingdom of his own. Rao Jodha supported this quest but made Rao Bika promise that he would never try to take the throne of Marwar. In return, he would get some heirlooms for the new kingdom. History says that Jangladesh was then occupied by Jats who were always involved in inter-clan rivalries.
Helped by the ascetic Karni Mata, Rao Bika established his territory and built a small fort called Rati Ghati. But life wasn’t simple, the neighbouring Bhatis were suspicious of this new powerful man. So Karni Mata arranged the marriage between Rao Bika and daughter of Rao Shekha, the powerful Bhati chief of Pugal, to end the rivalry.
Jangaldesh eventually became Bikaner and commemorating the entry to the region is Bikaji ki Tekaree. This ‘chhatri’or memorial is built on the spot from where Rao Bika established his territory. While horns blare on the narow roads, there is silence within the boundaries of this marble and red sandstone chhatri. Only pigeons flutter, nesting in the walls. From the highest point, we saw remains of the walls of the old city and the dome of the Lakshminath temple on a little hillock across the road, our next stop.
Frescoes on the outer walls and gold highlights amidst the intricate carvings, the temple was built by Maharaja Rao Lunakaran between 1504 and 1526. Among the oldest temples in Bikaner, it houses the idol of Vishnu in embrace with his consort Lakshmi. Neither cameras nor socks are allowed inside. Bhajans from the shrine pulled us in. Wisps of fragrant smoke touched our faces as we bowed. Outside this temple complex, there is a wall and looking below from there, we saw rows of cows, some eating, some standing under a shelter. This was the state gaushala, which has been housing hundreds of these abandoned animals.
It was time to head to the abode of the royals. On the other side of the town was the huge Lallgarh Palace complex. This was built by Sir Ganga Singh, Maharaja of Bikaner, between 1902 and 1926. Designed by British architect Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, Lord Curzon was said to be the first guest, then Georges ClemenÃ§eau in 1920, Queen Mary, King George V, Lord Hardinge, Lord Irwin and more. The relics of the past and glory of the royal clan are now housed in the Sadul Museum in the same complex. From the replica of the first royal train of Bikaner, medals of the royal clan, clothing, photographs of important moments to weapons and more, this museum is a history-lover’s paradise.
But the magnificence of this complex lies in the finely carved stonework–the perfectly chiselled flowers, birds and creepers add life to the otherwise bland red sandstone. The current royal family also lives within the grounds and there are two heritage hotels as well–Lallgarh Palace Hotel and Lakshmi Niwas Palace. While the hotels do have the modern touch, it is the intricate latticework, filigree work, magnificent pillars, fireplaces, Italian colonnades, brightly coloured frescoes, real gold patterns on walls and artefacts with utsa work which leave one breathless with the sheer grandeur. The royal ‘trophies’ or the heads of animals hunted in those days are also mounted on the walls.
At Lakshmi Niwas Palace, everything is ornate as this was the residence of the Maharaja. Even the ceilings have stunning work with motifs of peacocks and parrots, clouds, sun and stars. Stories of Rao Bika continued on this trip. Rao Bika stayed away from Marwar till his father’s death in 1489. Then he wanted the promised heirlooms. However, the brothers refused and Rao Bika stormed Mehrangarh Fort. He took nothing but the heirlooms which included the sandalwood ‘Pugal’ throne, a royal umbrella, a sword and a horse of ‘divine origin’. It is only recently that the tensions between the two royal families have dissolved.
The royal trail ended at the resting place–Devi Kund Sagar. After the cremation here of a member of the royal family, a chhatri marks the passage on earth. Some are made in Dulmera red sandstone and others in marble. There is a pond at the back and the ritual was to bathe in this after the cremation. But now none can brave the green murky water, although pink lotuses flower there.
But no city exploration can be complete without knowing the people who backed its economy. So Shekhawat and his team, vice president Siddharth Yadav, took us on a tonga ride through another part of city where stand tall the havelis of the traders. Driving towards this part, Shekhawat pointed out a piece of land, littered with garbage, where Bikaner jail was built by Maharaja Ganga Singh. “The carpets woven by the jail inmates were exported across the world,” recalled Shekhawat.
Serpentine lanes, tall buildings and intricate carved stonework. The more you crane your neck upwards, the more you see a confluence of periods. Eyes fall upon art deco windows and doors, carved marble and red stonework, tiles with artwork, frescoes and some dilapidated ancient structures in which lie many untold and lost stories. This neighbourhood housed jewellers, carpenters, wool traders and others. The most famous among these were Rampurias, Kotharis, Dagas and the tradition was to name the chowks or crossings after them. Now most of the families have shifted to other parts of the country.
Standing at the edge of a curvy street, we gazed at a red imposing structure which had a distinctly colonial look. But the narrow doors and windows and carvings pointed to the needs of the desert. This was the Rampuria haveli. Built in 1933, Shekhawat pointed out the raised platform at the entrance. Here normally animals and goods’ carts were tied and the doors and windows were narrow so there was little room for the sands to enter during stormy weather.
Climbing on the cart which Lakshmi, the black-brown horse, was pulling, we began our ride. Children and women giggled, while the men were busy playing cards in shaded corners. From the game of dice in earlier times to cards, this area oscillates between the old and the new. We crossed a 200-year-old peepal tree. It is said that there are around 400 havelis in the area and there was a campaign to save the heritage structures.
Lakshmi halted in front of a haveli made of marble and red sandstone. On its tall entrance the bust of King George V looked straight, right above the main door, around it were carved motifs of flowers, leaves. On the wall of another haveli, we saw a fresco of a train heralding the new means of transport in those days. “The neighbourhood has many temples and the morning air is filled with chants,” said Yadav.
Along the way, we also saw some old crumbling havelis. The antiques have been sold off. Among the more exposed walls, Shekahwat pointed out some handmade bricks, thin and with handprints–these were called Nanak Shahi bricks, generally found in structures created in the Mughal era. Lakshmi’s final halt was in front of an old haveli built in the 1840s. This housed the workplace of goldsmith brothers Ram and Jitendra Mandora. With them are preserved the techniques of intricate kundan and meenakari and they trace the profession to their last three generations. “Meenakari is a dying technique, as it requres lots of details and is a slow process. The USP of our jewellery is that its kundan in the front and meenakari at the back,” said Ram turning a pair of earrings to show us the lovely peacocks in red and green. Though they have added some new designs, it is the old ones which are the hot sellers.
The sun was going up higher and it was time to head to the haveli of Vijay and Neru Sipani. Greeted by the pigeons seated on the narrow parapets, we admired the carved wooden doors. Climbing a few steps, we stepped into a cool courtyard where sunlight just trickled in. Actually there did not appear to be any symmetry in the way spaces were cut there, but up some more narrow steps and we were in a cosy room. Windows wide open, the breeze flowed uninterrupted and we didn’t even notice that it did not have a fan. A sumptuous Jain thali waited. Sipanis belong to the Jain sect, hence the thali without onions and garlic. His ancestors were jewellers but Sipani is an antique dealer.
Lunch over, the white horse named Sultan pulled the cart to take us where the car was parked. Back at Narendra Bhawan, Nala and Simba, the two golden labradors, ran around, adding some speed to the lazy siesta time. But there was still the temple of rats to be visited. The kuldevi of the Bikaner royal family, Karni Mata, presides here. Once inside, the sudden appearance of these scampering creatures is alarming, but they are so busy nibbling the grains, running all over the shrines, that they ignore you.
It was time to leave the royal turf with parathas and aloo sabzi for midnight snacking in the train, until another trip. We had not seen the Junagarh fort, the camel breeding centre, Gajner Widlife Sanctuary and not met the miniature artist Mahaveer Swami.
The nearest airport is at Jodhpur (253km). Bikaner is well connected with major cities by road and rail. The Bikaner Super Fast Express leaves from Sarai Rohila in Delhi daily (Ticket for AC II tier per person is â‚¹1,075).
Where to stay
Narendra Bhawan has 53 Residence rooms, 18 Prince rooms, 3 Regimental rooms, 4 India rooms and 4 Republic suites. It houses a multi-cuisine restaurant P&C, Mad Hatter bakery, and The Clinic spa. Prices start at â‚¹12,000 per night. Contact +91-7827-151 151; narendrabhawan.com
What to see & do
Activities organised by the hotel include Reveille at Ratadi Talai, Royal Ascot and White Night of the Rajputs, besides the royal and merchant trails and sundowners at the pastures. Take home the rasgullas and mirchi namkeen from Chotu Motu Joshi and drink the gulkand milkshake at Vardhman.
When to visit
The best time to visit is between October and March. A camel fair is held in January.