“Did you know, there exists no Bikanerwala in Bikaner!” A true blue Punjabi relative had shared with me in amazement after she returned from a business trip to this city of Rajasthan some time back. “Thank God, I found Bikaneri Bhujia!” she had gone on to share with exaggerated roll of eyes as she handed me the packets of savouries that she had carried back with her as gifts. We had both chuckled to the stories on how misleading names can be in this day and age.
Looking back, I have to confess that I never thought of Bikaner as a travel destination in its own right — an important business town of Rajasthan, perhaps, but never a place that I would choose for a vacation. Having travelled to smaller towns of Rajasthan, such as Nagaur, Osian, Phalodi or even Pokhran, I somehow never felt the urge to explore this city, which was once a very important seat in Rajasthan. So when a friend suggested that we pick the city for a short retreat, I thought why not use the break as an excuse to add the city to my list of places covered in Rajasthan. That, and no more.
Bags packed for a very short weekend, our group of three set off for this once very important seat of power in Desertland, with nothing but a luxury staycation on our minds. Sure enough, a surprise awaited me.
Legacy of the last prince
Bikaner was called Jungladesh or the kingdom of jungles till Rao Bikaji, the younger scion of the royal family of Jodhpur decided to make this is very own riyasat some 500 years ago. Driven by ambition, this young prince conceptualised a rich state by inviting prosperous Marwadi businessmen and gave them land to built their lavish havelis that went on to become a sign of a prosperous region.
Years later, his descendant and the last Maharaja, Narendra Singhji, did exactly the opposite as he chose a life of a recluse with his livestock and pet animals for company. His residence, once a modest haveli, known as Narendra Bhawan still bears traces of his quirky flamboyant taste.
A look at a picture of his tells you a lot about this last king. On the wall of Narendra Bhawan hangs a frame of the royal dressed in very basic Indian attire and flanked by his pet dogs. The walls of the room are painted crimson and the opulence of the furnishing pose a great contrast to the mood captured. But then, that is how the man lived.
A legacy that has been kept alive by the MRS group that converted the residence into an 82 room luxury property by extending structure and yet kept the aesthetics intact, if at all enhanced the same by introducing elaborate ceilings, Portuguese tiles details and Bikaner terrazzo flooring; and opting for a vivid colour palette for the property, just as the late master would have liked had he been alive.
Shared Karan Singh Vaid, President of Narendra Bhawan and the man who infused life into this property with detailed research and sourcing. “Each element that finds place in décor has been well thought out. Befitting of a man well travelled — just the kind he would have displayed,” he said. The passion with which he spoke about the king and his interests made me feel as if the spirit of the royal had come alive in this man. I particularly fell in love with the Baby Grand Piano in the lobby space outside the lift, inscribed with the lyrics of Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien…
Merchants of Bikaner
It is outside the walls of the heritage hotel that I saw the other Bikaner. The city near the Royal residences, that includes the royal Lalgarh Palace, Laxmi Niwas Palace and even this haveli, is a picture of heritage structures in trademark red stone and elaborate work with well planned out wide roads, no traffic and a lot many animal care centres. And then there is the Old Bikaner of narrow winding lanes, old havelis that lie abandoned and a thriving bovine population.
The Rampuria havelis date back four centuries, when rich merchants were given land to settle down in the state. Each of the merchants then tried to outdo the others in building a lavish home with elaborate stone carvings defining the architecture that made it stand out not only in the city but also from the others in the region and very intricate. Influences of Art Deco style shone in some, drawing a connect with the buildings in Mumbai and a few in Calcutta.
Most of these havelis lie locked as the original inhabitants moved out to more commercial cities of the modern times. Several others have been sold off and planned plunder can be seen, heartbreaking to note how systematically these are being dismantled to make way for modern structures.
For those who love history, must embark on a royal trail in Bikaner. The one that I set out one covered Bikaji ki Tekri, Junagarh Fort and Laxmi Niwas Palace. Guided by Siddharth Yadav, the vice president of MRS Hospitality, I explored the forgotten lanes. The paucity of time had us miss out on Sadul Singh Museum and Karni Mata temple. The temple, famously known as the Rat temple, is revered by most in the region. I was told that other than the devotees, it is also a particular favourite among those who wish to speak of their visit as an “experience” in their drawing room conversations!
Sundowner by the lakeside
You don’t experiment much for the evening if you have a train to catch at 10.30 later in the night. But the royal treatment that you receive can somewhat sway your judgement. For once, I was glad it did. We set off for an undisclosed destination outside Bikaner for a curated sundowner, organized by Narendra Bhawan. We drove along the highway for about half an hour before we off-roaded to a lakeside. This was the Darbari Lake. I stepped out of the vehicles to the strains of flute and the sight of deer and neelgai drinking water across the lake and peacocks settling for the night. As the skyline changed colours with the setting sun, a sense of calm took over me.
Much later, as I settled on my train berth, I thought about others like me who are losing out on an experience because of their ignorance. Bikaner, like in the yore, may not be on the traditional map, but the modern kings like Karan promise to make the place shine with the experience offered.
Gajner is one popular stop for those who wish to step out of the city for an evening drive and dinner experience. It is a lakeside palace adjoining a sanctuary at the outskirts of the city. Once known to be the royal hunting grounds during the days of the Raj, the place was built by HH Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh of Bikaner on the edge of the lake. The property was converted into a heritage hotel in 1976.
While it has been recently announced that Bikaner would have flights soon, you can access the city by train. Bikaner is an overnight train journey from Delhi.
(The story first appeared in Mail Today)