A LONG WITH Jodhpur and Jaisalmer , Bikaner was one of the three great Desert Kingdoms of Rajasthan and, like them, prospered because of its strategic location on the overland caravan trade route to Central Asia and China. It was founded in 1486 by Rao Bika, the disgruntled younger son of Rao Jodha, the ruler of Jodhpur who left home in search of new territory to conquer. Somewhat overshadowed by the splendours of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, Bikaner nevertheless has a great deal to offer visitors, with its old walled town where camels saunter past colourful stalls, its many temples and palaces, and the magnificent Junagarh Fort, perhaps the best preserved and most ornately decorated of all the forts in Rajasthan.
Constructed between 1587 and 1593 by the third ruler of Bikaner, Rai Singh, Junagarh Fort is protected by a 986-m (3,235-ft) long sandstone wall with 37 bastions, a moat and, most effectively of all, by the forbidding expanse of the Thar Desert. Not surprisingly, the fort has never been conquered, a fact which explains its excellent state of preservation. Within the fort’s austere stone walls are no less than 37 profusely decorated palaces, temples and pavilions, built by its successive rulers over the centuries, though in a harmonious continuity ofstyle. The most outstanding is the Anup Mahal, built by Maharaja Anup Singh in 1690 as his Hall of Private Audience. It was sumptuously decorated between 1787 and 1800 by Maharaja Surat Singh. In an ingenious imitation of Mughal dpwiuoerrtka at a fraction of the cost, the lime-plaster walls of the Anup Mahal have been polished to a high lustre. They are covered with red and gold lacquer patterns, further embellished with mirrors and gold leaf. The Kairan Mahal (built between 1631 and 1669) is the Hall of Public Audience and is ornamented in a similar if somewhat less lavish style.
Two other gorgeous, heavily decorated palaces are the 17th-century Chandra Mahal (“Moon Palace”) and Phool Mahal (“Flower Palace”). The latter contains Rao Bika’s small, low bed with curved silver legs, on which he slept with his feet touching the ground. The bed was so designed to enable Rao Bika to jump quickly to his feet and fight off murderous intruders. The Chandra Mahal, which was the queens’ palace, has carved marble panels depicting the Radha-Krishna legend, and both palaces have superb stone carving and jails. The blue-and-gold Badal Mahal (“Cloud Palace”) is covered with paintings of clouds, yellow streaks of lightning and rain showers a favourite fantasy in this arid land. The Hawa Mahal (“Palace of Winds”) has a huge mirror positioned over the maharaja’s bed, which apparently enabled him to Views the courtyard below, thus alerting him to approaching danger. The oldest palace in the fort is Lal Niwas, dating to 1595, and decorated with floral motifs in red and gold. The newest palace is the huge Durbar Nlwas (“Coronation Palace”), built in the early 20th century by Bikaner’s most progressive ruler Sir Ganga Singh (r.1887-1943), who gave Bikaner its railway link and built the Gangs Canal which brought precious irrigation water to his kingdom. He was also
Famus for hosting elaborate Shikars (hunting expeditions) I or visiting British dignitaries. the Durbar Niwas now houses the fort museum, whose armoury section includes such fascinating exhibits as a 56-kg (124-Ib) suit of armour, a dagger with a pistol built into it, and Words with Dionshaped handles. Other exhibits include the fragrant sandalwood throne of the rulers, said to date back to their 5th-century ancestors who were the kings of Kannauj (Uttar Pradesh), and a curious half-spoon for soup, used by the maharaja to ensure that his luxuriant moustache remained pristine during mealtimes.
In the old walled city, entered through Kote Gate, is the bazaar, where excellent local handicrafts can be found, such as rugs and carpets, painted lampshades made of camel hide, and beautiful miniatures in the Bikaneri style. Savoury snacks (bhujias) are another local speciality, and Bikaneri bhujias are renowned throughout India, as are the sweets made of camel’s milk. The grand 17thand 18th-century havehs of Bikaner’s wealthy merchants line the narrow lanes in the vicinity around Rampuria Street. Two of the most ornate are the Raimpurla and Kothari Hayelis. The former is now a delightful heritage hotel. In the southwestern corner of the walled town are two Bain temples, dating from the early 16th century, the Bhandeshwar and Sarideshwar Temples. Both are ornately carved and are embellished with frescoes, mirrorwork and gold leaf scrollwork inside. They were built by two brothers who, having no children, constructed these masterpieces for posterity.
Lalgarh Palace, outside the walled town, is a sprawling extravaganza of carved friezes, jails, pillars and arches in the distinctive reddish-pink local sandstone (which resulted in Bikaner being dubbed the “Red City”). Constructed between 1902 and 1926, it was designed by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob in a style that combines traditional Rajput and Renaissance European features with Art Nouveau decor inside. Part of it has been converted into a hotel and another section into a museum with vintage photographs and wildlife trophies. Lalgarh Palace’s museum and beautiful gardens are open to visitors.
ENVIRONS: The Camel Breeding Farm, 9 km (6 miles) southeast of Bikaner, is best visited in the late afternoon when the camels return from grazing. Set up in 1975, the farm breeds nearly half the camels found in India, including those for the camel regiment of the Indian Army. Gajner, 30 km (19 miles) northwest of Bikaner, has the red sandstone Summer Palace of the maharajas, now a luxury hotel and the Gainer National Park, home to blackbucks, wild boars, desert foxes and a large number of migratory birds. The 17th-century Karni Mata Temple at Deshnok, 30 km (19 miles) southeast Bikaner, is also known as the Rat Temple, because of the hundreds of rats that swarm around the temple and its precincts. The rats are considered sacred and are fed sweets and milk by the priests and visitors, who believe that they are reincarnated holy men. The temple is dedicated to Karni Mata, an incamation of Durga, and is entered through intricately carved silver doors, presented by Sir Gangs Singh.