Encircled by Rajasthan’s harsh and dusty Thar Desert is the medieval city of Bikaner. Once upon a time Bikaner was one of the most powerful cities on the Great Silk Road, opulent and exotic, its people wealthy beyond compare. Silks, spices, precious metals, and opium were traded here. Culture and ideas from east and west met and merged within its streets. But when trade routes shifted and other centres were created by the vagaries of time—Bikaner was forgotten. But never destroyed.
Wise enough to realise that the gains of peace were more enduring than the booty of war, diplomacy and the desert kept Bikaner safe from battles and conquests. There are no mutilated temples in Bikaner. Nor abandoned crumbling forts and palaces. Neither have modernism and commercialism dived through the desert yet to deafen its individuality. Off the tourist circuit, Bikaner is rarely visited, and when so, only by the intrepid.
Rajasthan’s forgotten jewel in the Thar Desert traces itself back to 1488. Prior to it, the area was a desolate wasteland called Jangladesh. And it may have remained a wasteland were it not for the ambitions of a young Rajput prince.
Rao Bika [1438 – 1504], the elder son of Maharaja Rao Jodha, founder of Jodhpur, was not content being his father’s heir. He had bigger dreams and ambitions. Like his father, he too wanted to establish his own city and kingdom, and have it named after himself. So, he left home, reached Jangladesh which he knew was still unconquered, and subdued the local brigands who were robbing the traders and merchants passing through. He then set up a humble mud fort in an oasis fed by a natural spring and called his settlement ‘Bikaner’, after himself. Despite its modest beginnings, the city rapidly grew in riches and power, and there was no looking back for his descendants.
Cenotaphs of Bikaner’s first four rulers, including the city’s founder Rao Bika, stand inside the funerary complex Bikaji ki Tekri.
Nothing remains of Rao Bika’s original settlement except for a string of funerary monuments on a high mound [Tekri]. Aptly called Bikaji ki Tekri, the funerary complex houses the four simple unadorned cenotaphs of the first four rulers, including Rao Bika. Their simplicity a stark contradiction to the important part they played in establishing the princely State of Bikaner. According to folklore, the Tekri is also where Rao Bika camped when he reached Jangladesh, and it was right here that he contemplated on and selected the site for his fort.
Bikaner’s oldest Hindu temple: Laxminath Temple .
As the city grew, places of worship were added to it. Of these, two survived the subsequent five centuries and still stand in the heart of the old city.
Laxminath Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Bikaner. Dedicated to Vishnu and his consort Laxmi, it was built by Bikaner’s third king, Rao Lunkaran in 1526. Bikaner’s rulers regarded Laxminath as Bikaner’s true sovereign, and themselves as mere ministers implementing his orders.
A Jain lady carries out rituals inside Bhandasar Temple’s sanctum sanctorum.
Miniature paintings on Jain mythology decorate Bhandasar Temple’s walls and ceilings, turning it into a radiant picture gallery.
Story of Bhandasar Temple’s construction narrated on a mural.
A mere stone’s throw from Laxminath Temple is the Jain Bhandasar Temple, a visual delight with a fantastical story to accompany it. Crammed with exquisite miniature paintings on its walls and ceilings about the stories of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras, it is dedicated to the 5th Jain Tirthankara Sumatinath. Bhandasa Oswal, a wealthy Jain merchant, commissioned the temple in 1468 and it took 46 years to complete the stunning art-filled edifice.
Legend has it that there was a terrible drought in Bikaner at the time the temple foundations were being laid. Strict curbs had been placed on the usage of water. But our money-bags merchant was not to be deterred on his task. He used 40,000 kilograms of ghee [clarified butter] instead in the foundations, and in summers, the fat still oozes out of the floor.
Left: My brunch; Right: The venue, a tiny tea stall in the old city.
Local savouries at a savoury shop.
Family-owned businesses line the alleys in the old city; unchanged since the city was founded in the 15th Century.
Huddled around the ancient temples is a labyrinthine of narrow alleys lined with hundreds of hole-in-the-wall shops. These tiny establishments produce and sell goods from delicious savouries to hand-hewn hardware, from local bhang [a marijuana drink] to delicate miniature paintings. Just as they have done since Bikaner was created in 1488, the businesses passing on from one generation to another. With globalization, Bikaner’s savouries have now reached markets far and wide. Yet, in Bikaner, these very packets are shunned. “Who would want to eat bhajiya that is packaged?” is their blunt response. Every morning fresh savouries are made in these lanes and gobbled up by night-time.
Rampuria Havelis are a collection of seven interconnected mansions belonging to a merchant family, straddled across a crossroad.
Equally at ease in the old city are the magnificent havelis of wealthy merchants, mainly Jains and Maheshwaris, who made their fortunes earlier from the Great Silk Road and later through consumerism. The oldest go back to the 15th Century, with modifications and additions over the ensuing years. Most of them, however, were built in the turn of the 20th Century. There are the Kothari Havelis covered with floral motifs, the European-styled Dadda Havelis, and the grandest and most famous of all—the group of seven, red sandstone Rampuria Havelis.
The glory of the temples, unabashed wealth of its merchants, and continuity of Bikaner’s homegrown culture was all possible because of the peace and prosperity Bikaner enjoyed, and which in turn was possible because of one person—Bikaner’s monarch.
Whilst the first five rulers were satisfied with the humble mud fort, Maharaja Rao Rai Singh I, among the first Rajput rulers to make an alliance with the Mughal Empire, wanted a home more befitting the success the city now enjoyed. He commissioned a new fort in 1589 and called it Chintamani. Sixteen generations and 20 kings added to it till 1902, creating a unique living art museum which amalgamates multiple styles and tastes juxtaposed next to each other.
Bikaner’s crowning jewel: Junagarh Fort is an amalgamation of multiple styles and tastes of 16 generations and 20 kings fused over half a millennium. Left: Usta art-filled Anup Mahal; Right: Venetian facade of Ganga Durbar Hall.
Would you care for a drink? A bejewelled angel surrounded by dark rain-filled clouds holds a decanter and wine-cup in her hands in a miniature painting inside Phool Mahal.
European floor tiles and Sati hand prints. Art and heritage seamlessly span time and geography inside Junagarh Fort.
Intricately carved vaulted roofs, arches, balconies, and stone latticed screens embellish the fort’s various palaces and courtyards. Their beauty further heightened by gold-swathed usta art and jewel-like Deccan miniature paintings on the walls and ceilings. Often considered to be the best decorated fort in India, many features set it apart from others. For one, it is not built on an elevation, but in a slight bowl. The 12-metre-high wall and 37 ramparts served a beautification role rather than defence. Bikaner’s real defence was the miles and miles of Thar Desert which enclosed it on all four sides.
The palaces within include the luxurious mirror-encrusted Chandra Mahal, Phool Mahal, the oldest part of the fort, choc-o-bloc with miniature paintings, Badal Mahal with its painted blue swirling clouds, Anup Mahal in red and gold usta art, Mughal-styled Karan Mahal where the rulers were anointed, the 40-feet-high European-styled Ganga Durbar Hall, Gaj Mandir Palace with its floral motifs and cradle for the Hindu deity Krishna, and Vikram Vilas Mahal which houses a 1917 Havilland biplane, one of only two left in the world. The second one is in the United Kingdom.
Lalgarh Palace, the current home of the royal family.
In 1902, the 21st king Maharaja Ganga Singh moved out of Chintamani to the newly built Lalgarh Palace, and Chintamani became known as Junagarh Fort or the Old Fort.
Maharaja Ganga Singh was the modern reformist visionary Bikaner needed to bring the city up-to-date with the rest of the world. Bikaner had ceased to exist on the world map, post the Great Silk Road trade. Famine was rampant. The king diligently worked on Bikaner’s progress throughout his life, bringing railways, electricity, water, education, and industry to the city. When India gained independence in 1947, Bikaner was the first princely state to choose to be part of Free India.
Within Lalgarh Palace is the Sadul Singh Museum housing a fascinating collection of photographs and personal memorabilia of Bikaner’s royal family. It offers an intimate peek into their personal life at the turn of the 20th Century.
Cenotaph of Maharani Shri Mehtab Kanwar [d. 1909]. Devikund Sagar outside the city contains the cenotaphs of Bikaner’s royal family from the 5th ruler onward and is still in use.
Poetic symmetry of Rajput-Mughal architecture at Devikund Sagar.
Left: Painted ceiling of Maharaja Kumar Shri Bijoy Singh’s cenotaph [d. 1932]; Right: Funeral plaque of Maharaja Rao Rai Singh I [d. 1612], 6th ruler of Bikaner and builder of Junagarh Fort.
A warrior class, the Rajput rulers of Rajasthan were just as aware of the fragility of life as they were of kingship and pageantry. Building cenotaphs in honour of their deceased fathers was a royal obligation and like all princely states in Rajputana, Bikaner too has its very own large-scale royal funerary complex.
Whilst the first four rulers are immortalized at Bikaji ki Tekri, the 5th ruler [Rao Kalyanmal d. 1571] to the 23rd [Maharaja Karni Singh d. 1988] have their ashes interred at Devikund Sagar, an atmospheric collection of chhatris or pavilions deep in the desert.
Chhatris in honour of male royal members are typified by equestrian carvings on vertical slabs inside; those for female royal members have carved footmarks on a horizontal slab. The oldest cenotaphs in Devikund Sagar are made of red sandstone while the newer ones are in marble. Karan Singh’s and his son Anup Singh’s, dating back to the 17th Century, Bikaner’s golden period, are considered to be the loveliest of the lot.
Occupants of Bikaner’s National Research Centre on Camel. The dark-skinned camel, third from right, is a Bikaneri Camel, Bikaner’s very own ship of the desert.
No writeup on Bikaner could be said to be complete without mention of its National Research Centre on Camel. After all, it was camels Rao Bika and his men rode on when they conquered Jangladesh. It was the region’s camels that formed an integral part of the famed Bikaner Camel Corps which fought in the two World Wars as part of the imperial service troops from India. And it was camels—the ship of the desert—that were the accepted mode of transport in Bikaner for centuries.
Dark with bushy eyelashes and a goofy grin, the Bikaneri Camel stands apart from all its cousins in Rajasthan, and no place better introduces the finer nuances of this breed along with its brethren than the research centre. A visit assures a new understanding for these leggy humped creatures of the desert.
May I invite you to be the intrepid traveller and discover for yourself Rajasthan’s hidden jewel. ❤
- Staying there: I stayed at the Hotel Basant Vihar Palace through Booking.com.
- Getting to Bikaner: I used Rajputana Cabs for an intercity drop from Pushkar.
- Getting around in Bikaner: I used a tuk-tuk or walked.
- How many days?: I stayed for 3 days.
- To better understand Bikaner’s old city, I did the insightful Bikaner Heritage Walk with Virasat Experiences.
- To better understand Junagarh Fort, I had the brilliant Navaratan Singh Rathore as my guide. You may contact him at +91 99 2911 0371.
- There is an extra charge of Rs. 100 to visit Chandra and Phool Mahals.
- The Prachina Museum inside the fort contains a wonderful collection of costumes, furniture, glassware, and other artifacts belonging to the royal family.
- Wanna buy a little souvenir? Why not get a miniature painting from Miniature Arts by Shiv, the Guinness World Records winner.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my 35-day solo and independent road trip through Rajasthan from 17 October to 20 November, 2021. To read more posts in my Rajasthan series, click here.]