When Rao Bika set out to conquer the wilderness that was known as Jungaldesh, little did he know that he would set up a magnificent city that would take his name. He chose a strategic location at the crossroads of the trading routes that flowed from Europe to China. This location had not only helped Bikaner become prosperous, but also be influenced by the cultures from across the world. Remnants of this glorious past are the various structures that we see today such as the Junagarh Fort and Rampuria Havelis. Bikaner, from its side has given the world a taste of its Bhujia in return. In this laid-back town, a traveller has many things to do than trek the regular circuit. Read on to find out more.
BIKANER THINGS TO DO
1. Admire the beauty of the unbreachable Junagarh Fort:
In 1589 AD, the sixth ruler of Bikaner, Maharaja Rai Singhji, built the imposing Chintamani Durg in the Thar Desert as a symbol of victory over the harsh desert. Made of Dulmera, red sandstone, the original structure was tall and imposing from the outside, but not very much so from the inside. His successors therefore took upon themselves the task of beautifying the Fort with the construction of various palaces inside and adorning each with the choicest of materials from around the world. One of them even took the liberty of renaming it ‘Junagarh Fort’, the name by which we know the fort today.
The fort has courtyards or Chowks around which the palaces are situated. The first courtyard contains the Sur Mandir, Vikram Vilas with a cannon in the middle that was a war spoil. The Vikram Vilas houses the famed Haviland Plane, created from two planes shot down during World War 2 that were presented to Maharaja Ganga Singh as souvenirs. The Sur Mandir, on the other hand, is a rather bland structure, with the the exception of a contrasting Jharokha that makes it stand out. It is said that the Blue and White tiles used in the construction of the Jharokha were imported from Europe.
The Karan Mahal is among the older sections of the fort, conceptualised and started by Maharaja Karan Singh and completed by his son Maharaja Anup Singh. It is one of the few places in the fort where flash photography is not permitted and for good reason.
The Anup Mahal is simply royal luxury at its best, gold used without any restraint to form beautiful patterns of leaves and Persian rugs of the highest quality that compliment the golden interiors. They are the handiwork of an artist whom the king Karan Singh found during his Deccan conquest. This artist is today responsible for Bikaner being a centre for Usta art.
The people of Bikaner were strangers to rain and not very used to seeing cloudy skies, which is perhaps why the Badal Mahal was built. The walls of Badal Mahal depicting Radha and Krishna in paintings are a cornucopia of various shades of blue that are a feast to the eyes.
The Phool Mahal, as the name suggests, contains motifs of flowers, vases and sprinklers on its walls. The doors are specially decorated with the images of Radha and Krishna, capturing the romance between them. The Gaj Mandir on the other hand, portrays its beauty through the usage of colourful glass pieces on windows.
Personally, we have never been able to settle the debate about which fort is better: Mehrangarh or Junagarh, perhaps you should visit both places and let us know by commenting on the posts.
2. Enjoy a romantic evening at the Gajner Palace and Sanctuary:
Just 30 kilometres away from Bikaner is the Gajner Palace, the former hunting grounds of the royalty of Bikaner. Built by Maharaja Ganga Singh, these hunting grounds have now been turned into a bird sanctuary that plays host to a wide variety of birds that flock this oasis in the desert. The Gajner palace, with the Gajner Lake as a backdrop, is the ideal romantic getaway from Bikaner. A romantic boat ride in the lake is a great couple activity.
Made of red sandstone, the Gajner is among the valued heritage-hotels of Rajasthan; imagine the fact that it had a railway line connecting it to Bikaner. Here you can experience what the dignitaries of the royalty would have by staying at any of the 13 historical suites available at Dungar Niwas. The rooms and suites have been refurbished to their original grandeur, whilst providing all modern amenities. You could book accommodation through this link.
The sanctuary nearby offers visitors a chance to spot a great number of birds including Russian Storks, Demoiselle Cranes, Waterfowl and the elusive and endangered Indian Bustard. A sighting of Black Buck, Chinkara, Blue Bulls and other Red Foxes is also quite common when visited during the winter. Gajner Palace could arrange a safari into the sanctuary where you could shoot the local flora and fauna, with a camera, of course.
What was once the ballroom is now the Mirage restaurant, that offers a fine dining experience as well as an outdoor seating option. If it is winter, do head out to Gajner in the evening to enjoy a spectacular show of Khalbeliya dances among others.
3. Taste the Camel-milk Kulfi at National Research Centre on Camel:
While the National Research Centre on Camel is a serious research organisation, there is a fun side to it too. A part of the institute has been thrown open to the public and tourists throng to catch a glimpse of these graceful animals. The educational Camel Museum is a great place to visit with kids. Learn about camels in general and also about the research that the institute is doing. More info here.
Right next to the ticket counter is a stall that sells various types of products made from camel-milk; here is where you find your Camel-milk Kulfi. Do note that all the products at this store and the one inside have been ethically sourced; the management of this institute has ensured that. Inside too, you can find a store that sells camel products such as Camel Bone Jewellery and Camel Fur Shawls.
The stables contain hundreds of camels which are usually found busy playing with each other. Choose a proper time and you can watch them getting fed or being taken into the desert for their daily walk. There are limited slots for camel-rides, so make sure you reach on time, the institute is open only after 12 PM till 6 PM.
4. Spot a white rat at the Karni Mata Temple at Deshnok:
Imagine being surrounded by rats running amok without any fear from the humans nearby. In fact the rats, at one of India’s most fascinating temples, Karni Mata Temple at Deshnok, are worshipped. They are called ‘Kaba’ as per the folk story of Karni Mata that goes as follows. More info on the story here.
Karni Mata, who is considered an incarnation of goddess Maa Durga, was a mystic who lived in Deshnok in the 14th century. She was considered capable of performing miracles and was known for her service to the poor. It is said that when her youngest son died, she approached Yama, the god of death to return him to life. But as her son had already taken birth elsewhere, Yama refused her request. So instead of restoring her son’s life, she comes to an agreement that the descendants of her tribe would be reborn as rats before their eventual rebirth as humans. And so these rats are considered by the people of Deshnok as their deceased ancestors who are protected by Karni Mata.
Be very careful when walking over here as you may step on a rat by mistake and killing one it considered very inauspicious. You will have to pay the rat’s weight in silver as repentance. It is advisable to drag your feet here. As you walk around the temple, you will find rats scurrying and feeding. If you could spot a white rat, then it is considered good luck. You could feed the rats yourself, just buy a bowl of chickpeas from the vendors outside. An additional venue to visit would the old Karni Mata Temple which is just a few kilometres from here.
5. Explore the havelis of Bikaner on the Merchants’ Trail:
The Havelis at Shekhawati may be known for their display of art, but Bikaneri palatial havelis are known simply for their grandeur and architectural finesse. In a world where the affluence of a family was measured by the grandeur of their Haveli and their magnanimity, the wealthy Rampuria merchant family of Bikaner had some of the most spectacular havelis built by Balujee Chalva in the fifteenth century.
3 brothers of the Jain Rampuria family initially had seven havelis built of red sandstone, five of which are prominently visible to this day and are together known as the Rampuria Havelis. Though the families that own them stay elsewhere, the havelis, to this day, house people, a similarity with those at Jaisalmer. What is commendable is that very few modifications have been made to the original structures, preserving the heritage of Bikaner. The street itself is called Heritage Route, signifying that the ancient Silk Route passed through it.
All of them encase traditional Rajasthani elements of architecture such as Jharoka, Chajja and Jali alongside Victorian elements such as ox eyes and huge doors. Of particular interest was a balcony on one of the Rampuria Havelis that encompassed beautiful Jaali Work almost shadowing the beautifully-carved windows and walls just behind it. A few other havelis nearby that are worth mentioning are Kothari Haveli, Punan Chand Haveli and Dadda Haveli. And in case you ever wanted to visit the inside of a haveli, you could head over to the Bhanwar Haveli, which is a part of the Rampuria Havelis and has been renovated into a hotel and restaurant.
6. Be enthralled by the Sadul Museum at the Lallgarh Palace:
The Lallgarh Palace was commissioned and built by the British for Maharaja Ganga Singh as they deemed the Junagarh fort unnecessary for the Maharaja during a time of peace. A massive palace, away from the fort, replete with all the modern amenities was built, so huge that even the maintenance of it seems a huge task today. It was after the construction of the Lallgarh Palace that the Chintamani Durg was renamed the Junagarh Fort.
The palace now houses two hotels and a museum in addition to the private chambers of the Bikaner Royal Family. The most fascinating of these is the museum, which houses the world’s fourth largest private library. Contrary to what is given online, the museum is not on the first floor of the hotel inside the palace. Though the museum houses the regular artefacts of the royalty, the presence of one item here makes it stand out from the other museums. That item is the Royal Coach, a railway coach that was retained by the Maharaja after Independence for his personal use. Indeed, the royal family could travel for free on this coach till the metre gauge existed. This gauge no longer exists in India except for at Gwalior.
When you exit the museum, you can capture a quick photograph of the palace before the guards signal that you should move on. If you would rather book an ultra-luxury room to leisurely take in the view, this link is for you.
7. Get intrigued by the fabulous paintings at the Bhandasar Jain temple:
Built by Bhandasa Oswal before the city of Bikaner was even founded, the Bhandasar or Bhanda Shaha Jain Temple is an architectural gem that is thronged by visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the intriguing paintings on the walls and ceiling of the temple. The temple is dedicated to Sumatinath, the fifth Tirthankara of the Jains.
An amazing fact about this temple is that instead of water, which is so precious in the desert, ghee was used in its construction. A staggering 40,000 kilograms of ghee was used to seal the stones used in its foundation, stones that were brought all the way from Jaisalmer. To this day, when the sun gets too hot, a little grease oozes out from the spaces between the tiles; the caretaker even pointed out little stains on the floor caused by the grease. 6 centuries later and the original Shikhara remains in place, towering above the surroundings; the paintings depicting Jain scriptures were not a part of the original structure and have been added later on.
Right next door is the Lakshmi Nath temple, a Hindu temple which is definitely worth a visit. Though photography is not permitted inside the temple, you can observe the architectural beauty of the structure. Close by is the Bikaji Ki Tekri, the original fort that was established before the city was founded, a structure that now contains the white-marble Chattri of Rao Bika and his wives. It is also home to a few other Chattris that are in red sandstone, signifying the importance of Rao Bikaji’s role in establishment of Bikaner. Though culturally significant, this structure is now mostly neglected, with shrub overgrowth and illegal settlements nearby threatening to destroy it.
8. Visit the Ganga museum housed in a heritage-building:
Museums may house many heritage items, but very few museums themselves are a part of the heritage, Ganga Museum is one such museum. It was donated by Maharaja Ganga Singh on the eve of his golden jubilee celebrations, hence the name is Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum, or Ganga Museum in short. The various sections here are the Armoury, Numismatics, Scrolls, Lithography, Terracota sculptures, Usta work and a separate section for Miniature Paintings that are famed in Rajasthan.
The life size model of the court of Maharaja Ganga Singh and the miniature model of the Royal Coach are of special interest here.
Another museum worth visiting is the Prachina Museum next to the Junagarh Fort, inside the fort complex. Most people simply opt to skip the wonderful museum despite its proximity to the fort. The museum contains stunningly beautiful crockery that would put most modern crockery to shame. Entire rooms of the Maharajas have been shifted to this museum and the furniture and decorations of their rooms is kept on display for visitors.
9. Pay obeisance to the erstwhile rulers of Bikaner:
As with most other cities of the Rajputana and nearby areas such as Orchha (click to read our experiences), the Chattris of the kings of Bikaner have a special prominent spot on the city’s heritage tourist run. Located near the Devi Kund Sagar lake, they lie on the outskirts of the city, next to a source of water which was deemed necessary in the afterlife.
Slightly off the regular tourist circuit, they are a good place to look at and understand Rajasthani architecture and its trends across the ages. Do remember that this place is out in the open and you have to explore it barefoot, so remember not to choose a hot day or time for exploration.
10. Gorge on delicacies in the Old City:
If you arrive at Bikaner by train, then you are in luck, for you could start your experience of Bikaner from the various food-joints on Station Road. One of Bikaner’s iconic restaurants is just opposite the Railway Station, Heeralal, best known for their traditional vegetarian Rajasthani dishes. If you are not in the mood for a sit-down meal, then this part of Bikaner would certainly not disappoint you.
When walking towards Kot Gate from the Railway Station, the first stop on the right should be Chotu Motu Joshi. There should be no difficulty in spotting it, given its popularity with folk who throng the shop and ensure that no item is left for those who dare to arrive late. A breakfast of Kachoris, with any of the delectable combinations of chutneys, is suggested here, but be here early lest you miss them.
Further down the road, on your right, is Lalji restaurant, a place that serves amazing sweetmeats. Try the Gond Halwa here, a sweetmeat made with the Tragacanth herb. Get them to reheat it before they serve you and enjoy biting into the hot ghee that flows down. Our personal favourite here was the Raj Kachori, served with a dollop of curd and tamarind chutney. If you are in the mood for some fresh juice, head over to the Parshwanath juice centre.
There is a food-street here, which is quite prominently visible as it is opposite the Junagarh Fort and even named Junagarh Chopatti. While it may seem inactive during the day, come evening and a number of stalls line up, with zones demarcated for each type of dish. In addition to the ones on the road, a few such as the Rajasthani Dhaba are also available if you prefer a place with seating arrangement. They serve traditional food and can whip up a great Bajre Roti that you can have with a dash of Ker Sangri.
11. Shop in the lanes near Kot Gate for the best Bhujia :
For most Indians, the name Bikaner brings up imagery of Bhujia, a fried snack that put Bikaner on the food map through its famous Haldiram and Bikaji brands. These mega-brands however have had very humble origins at Bikaner and have merely steadied their growth by providing the same taste generation after generation. The taste that is imparted to this snack is a combination of all the factors around it, from the Bikaneri air around to the Bikaneri water used in the preparation to the groundnut oil so meticulously used so much so that the Bhujia has earned itself a GI tag. Nowadays, the humble shops are merely used as places to stock the packets of Bhujia made in factories nearby.
Do head over to the original Haldiram store, which is just a few steps away from the Lalji Restaurant. The store just next to it, Agarwal Churan But the best secrets of Bikaner are not the ones that are exported; after a tip from a local, we headed over to the Girdharilal Bhujia Wale store, a store that sells Bhujia that is fit enough for royalty. We recommend heading over to this shop if you want to get a taste of authentic Bhujia.
But the lanes of Kot Gate are not famous just for Bhujia, the Nokha Razai from the village Nokha nearby provides stiff competition in terms of quality and weight to the Jaipuri Razai. This light-weight Razai can be purchased around Labuji Ka Katla and Guru Nanak Market. A shop suggested by our friend was Deepak Textiles, but sadly, the folks there were unable to convince us into buying one.
A stroll around the Kot Gate market will also show you the stacks of dried spices that are an integral part of the desert cuisine as they remain unspoiled for longer periods of time. Although we were unable to find any Mojiris (shoes made of camel leather) that matched our foot sizes, the rows and rows of Mojiris on KEM road attracted us instantly. Mojiris would be a great souvenir to carry back home or rather wear back home.
Although Bikaner was founded by the clan of Jodhpur, the city has managed to maintain a distinctive identity of its own, without being shadowed by the former. The city of Bikaner, by itself, is rather small and offers to the traveller a small number of things to do. You could comfortably cover all places to see in two days, the places around Bikaner, however, would require another two days. A visit to the nearby town of Phalodi with the birds of Khichan is a great idea for a one-day trip. Alternately, you could opt for a desert safari that covers Dhingasarai, Satika, Dharnoke and Khara Lohan. It is with these other things to do that Bikaner becomes a full-fledged tourist destination offering many things to do. We suggest at least one of these day-trips perhaps on the way back from Bikaner, perhaps to Jaipur or Jaisalmer.
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