It was about 10.30 in the morning and vehicles were depositing tourists outside Bikaner’s Junagarh Fort. As I walked up to the Fort’s entrance, I overheard these comments:
“This is a fort? Isn’t a fort supposed to be, like, on a hill?”
“This is no fort. It looks more like a walled palace.”
“And why is it called Junagarh Fort? Junagadh is in Gujarat. Shouldn’t this be called Bikaner Fort or something?”
“Are you sure we are at the right place? Is this the only fort in Bikaner?
Now, if I had also been deposited outside the Fort in question like these people and was seeing the Fort for the first time, it is quite possible that I might have asked some of the questions myself. But since I had the opportunity to see the Fort from my hotel terrace the previous evening (see photo below), I knew that though it was not on a hill, it was a proper fort alright with a moat and all other fortifications befitting one.
I could also see Bikaner’s flat landscape from the terrace, which indicated that the builders of the fort had no choice in the terrain. And, yes, I could also see that this was the only fort around. The only answer that the view of the Junagarh Fort from the hotel terrace did not give was why it was called so.
I hoped that a tour of the Fort complex would answer questions for all of us.
Bikaner was founded by Rao Bika, the second son of Rao Jodha (the founder of Jodhpur) in 1488. It is said that Bika did not have very good relations with his father and brothers and in exchange for giving up his claim to the throne of Jodhpur, was allowed to take the heirlooms of the Rathore dynasty with him when he left Jodhpur forever. However, rivalry between the two kingdoms lasted till the 19th century. Sometimes, this rivalry even escalated into open warfare.
In one of the courtyards inside the palace in the Fort is a cannon captured by Maharaja Gaj Singh, the 14th ruler of Bikaner, in 1808. As cannons go, this one is a baby cannon. But the pride of place it has got for display indicates that capturing this cannon must have been a matter of great prestige for Bikaner.
The Junagarh Fort is not the first fort built in Bikaner; Rao Bika had built a stone fort when he founded this city. But today, only scattered fragments of Rao Bika’s original fort survives.
Unlike most forts in Rajasthan and elsewhere in India, the Junagarh Fort of Bikaner is a land fort. It’s foundations were laid in 1589 by Maharaja Rai Singhji, the 6th ruler of Bikaner. Known as Chintamani Durg, construction of the Fort was completed in 1593 and 20 kings have resided in the Fort since then till 1902 when the royal family moved out into Lalgarh Palace. And that’s when the name Junagarh Fort came about. The Fort was “donated” to the Maharaja Rai Singhji Trust in 1968 by the 23rd ruler of Bikaner, Maharaja Karni Singhji. Since then, the Junagarh Fort has been open to the public.
The Junagarh Fort is built from red sandstone and with its cluster of low-rise buildings within has never been conquered, in spite of many battles fought in the area. And you realise why only when you enter the Fort. A land fort it may be, but the Junagarh Fort has all possible defense mechanisms in place. There is a deep, but currently dry, moat surrounding the fort walls. Then there are a series of gates that one has to pass through (each one accessed after twists and turns).
The gates are fitted with wicked looking nails at “elephant height”, that is at the height of an elephant’s head. Since elephants were used to batter down the defensive gates in forts, the nails acted as a deterrent for elephants to ram their heads on the gates.
After passing through all the gates, one enters the ceremonial courtyard to get that first breathtaking glimpse of the palace façade, which hints at the architectural treasures within. The lower levels are built of red sandstone and the upper levels from yellow sandstone. As I was to find out later, this uniform architectural style on the exterior hides a series of buildings that were built at different times by different rulers and with different architectural elements.
The palace complex is accessed through a narrow, steep ramp (see photo on left) which leads into the first of the many courtyards around which the rooms in the palace are arranged. Each courtyard is different — if one courtyard is built entirely of red sandstone, another is built with sandstone and some marble, a third is almost entirely made of marble with coloured tiling, another with painted frescoes, and yet another with inlay work.
The rooms leading off from the courtyards are also vastly different. If the Karan Mahal or the public audience hall was built with Mughal architectural influences, there was Anoop Mahal or the Privy Council Room which has some dazzling gold inlay work interspersed with some real gems like emeralds and rubies. Then there was the delicate Phool Mahal, the oldest part of the palace complex, with motifs of flowers as stucco work and glass inlay work, and the grand and cavernous Durbar Hall with the ceremonial 1,100-year-old sandalwood throne.
But the ‘mahal’ that literally took my breath away was Badal Mahal or the palace of clouds. The longing for rain in an arid area like Bikaner has been captured on every inch of the walls in the Badal Mahal with blue clouds interspersed with lightning motifs painted on its walls and ceilings. As looked around me, I swear, I could hear Raga Megh Malhar in the background.
The palace complex is full of dazzling objects like a silver throne, a sandalwood throne, a golden swing, palanquins and howdahs used by the royal family, and even a Haviland Plane, among hundreds of other objects. This plane, which is displayed in the Vikram Niwas Durbar Hall, was pieced together from the parts of two shot down DH-9DE Haviland Planes.
The Junagarh Fort also houses Pracheena, a museum that displays contemporary arts and crafts, ritual crafts, period furniture, textiles and costumes used by the royal family, royal photographs and miniatures, among many others. This museum is a veritable treat for the eyes and gives a glimpse into the everyday life of the royals. There are framed menus on display as are the delicate crockery and cutlery. Two display items caught my eye.
Only a small portion of the Junagarh Fort is open to the public and I took about 2-3 hours to cover it thoroughly. As I walked out, I noticed something that I had missed seeing while coming in: handprints of royal women who had committed sati. It was a sobering sight and somehow I am glad I saw it on my way out rather than on my way in.
There were quite a few people visiting the Fort that day and between them, their guides and some typical Indian jostling and shoving, it was difficult to keep track of where I was and sometimes even what I was seeing.
In hindsight, I really regret not hiring an audio guide for the tour of the Junagarh Fort (something which I did for my tour of the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur). Not only would I have taken a more orderly tour of the Fort, I would also have managed to shut out the din of the other tourists around. Though the mind and camera recorded what I saw, sometimes the details either didn’t register immediately or got mixed up. The grandness of the palace complex only ensured that I walked around in a daze with my mouth open most of the times.
This brings me to the point as to why more people do not visit Bikaner. A casual search on the Internet on Rajasthan reveals that Bikaner is not really talked about as much as other places; Jaipur, Jaisalmer, and Jodhpur overshadow it. This is a real shame as Bikaner has much to offer in terms of history, architecture, food, heritage and the arid desert. And after having visited these popular cities, I can say that Bikaner’s history is as unique and different as theirs. And one that must be experienced.
And you will visit Bikaner, won’t you? 🙂
Forts of Rajasthan Series
- Forts of Rajasthan – 2: The golden fort of Jaisalmer
- Forts of Rajasthan – 3: Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur
- Forts of Rajasthan – 4: Kumbhalgarh Fort
- Forts of Rajasthan – 5: Chittorgarh Fort
- Forts of Rajasthan – 6: The Gagron Fort of Jhalawar