I first visited Bikaner in February 2013 as part of a larger tour of Rajasthan with a group. Bikaner, the fourth-largest city of Rajasthan, was our first stop and it turned out to be the perfect introduction to the state as well as the perfect beginning to what turned out to be a great trip.
Five years later (and almost to the day in February 2018), I was back in Bikaner courtesy an invitation from Narendra Bhawan. And this time around, thanks to their curated trails, I was able to explore new places — the havelis and markets of Bikaner — and re-visit old ones like the royal cenotaphs. In addition, I also visited the Laxmi Niwas Palace and Bikaji ki Tekree, the site of the first fortified settlement in Bikaner. I also got the opportunity to travel out of the city into the desert one evening for a sundowner and a special dinner. An unexpected bonus of this trip was getting introduced to two master artists of Bikaner and an opportunity to see their work (more about this in a separate blogpost!).
Presenting my “Bikaner Revisited” experiences, beginning with a brief history of the city.
At first glance, the red sandstone structure that is Narendra Bhawan Bikaner doesn’t stand out or give any indication to the luxury boutique hotel that it claims to be. In fact, it looks more like a haveli or mansion of a merchant rather than the one-time residence or palace of Narendra Singhji, the former king of Bikaner.
Once past the rather modest entrance gates, you will cross a small courtyard covered with paving made from the same deep red sandstone, that Narendra Bhawan is constructed from — the local building stone. You will then pass through an arched entrance and climb up a few steps clad with golden yellow Jaisalmeri stone. And that’s when the change happens !
The floor tiles change to colourful vintage tiles. Carefully curated artefacts fill your sight, and deep and luxurious furniture beckon you to sit down and take it all in… But, wait for there is more to see and explore. You pass through a door and enter the very bold and beautiful foyer where large black and white tiles create a chequered floor pattern. Glass cabinets with the most interesting curios twinkle in the light reflected from the art deco lamps on the ceiling. At one end of the long foyer is a bright red piano…
You look around in wonder and accept the welcome drink offered to you by the ever smiling and friendly staff of the hotel and let it all sink in. This is how my Narendra Bhawan Experience began.
It is an hour to sunset when I arrive at Devi Kund Sagar in Bikaner that February evening. I have just arrived from Mumbai earlier that day and this is one of the first sites I am visiting in Bikaner. Never having seen cenotaphs for Hindus before, I am very curious and intrigued about this visit and am not sure what to expect when I walk into the complex. (I didn’t know then that Devi Kund Sagar is only the first of the many Hindu cenotaphs I will be seeing during the course of my Rajasthan trip).
Located about 8 km from Bikaner, Devi Kund Sagar has been the cremation ground for the royal family of Bikaner and generations of kings, queens, princes and princesses of Bikaner have a memorial to their names here. According to the information board at the entrance to the complex, the oldest cenotaph at the Devi Kund Sagar is that of Rao Kalyanmal Ji (1539-1571 AD).
Rows upon rows of pillared and open-sided domed cenotaphs are spread out before me when I enter the L-shaped enclosure after removing my footwear. The place is empty, save for the caretaker and a couple of children playing hide and seek between the various structures. The base of each of these domed and pillared structure is mostly square, and sometimes hexagonal or rectangular. Locally, the cenotaphs are called chhatris due to the domes, which look like umbrellas (chhatris).
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.
“This is your room, Madam,” said the hotel attendant as he opened the door and switched on the lights.
And I saw red. Literally.
“This is a very nice room, Madam,” beamed the attendant. “Don’t you like it?
“It’s too red, ” I said in a dazed voice taking in the red walls, red carpet, and furnishings shimmering away in different shades of red .
The attendant said soothingly, “This room is one of a kind, Madam. No other room is like this. In fact, all rooms are one of a kind. I promise that by the time you leave the hotel, you will love the room.”
He was right. By the time I left after 2 days and 2 nights at the hotel, I was not only in love with my red room, I was also in love with the hotel this room was a part of — the Bhairon Vilas Palace.
Yesterday my boss walked into my room to find me staring out of my office window, apparently lost in my own thoughts. He waited a while before clearing his throat and saying, “Thinking about that Rajasthan Trip of yours again?” My sheepish smile confirmed his guess that I had indeed been thinking my recent 11-day trip to Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh, Chittorgarh and Udaipur.
It has been 2 weeks since I returned to Mumbai, but you are still in my mind during all my waking and sleeping hours. The bright blue skies, starlit nights, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and peacock calls are something that I sorely miss. It was a trip that challenged and reiterated in equal measure my notions of who and what you are. It was also a trip that delighted, surprised, awed, and sometimes saddened me.
Do you know that my visit generated 1,752 photographs? That 90 percent of the photographs have been deleted is testimony to my photography skills, and not due to any fault of yours. How clearly I remember the first of the many photographs I clicked: the arid yellow landscape, green shrubs, the bright blue skies and a woman clad in bright-coloured clothes.
Bikaner Railway Station was the first of the many surprises you sprung up on me. Are you sure that it was not a sprawling haveli once-upon-a-time, which then got converted to a railway station? When I posted a picture of the railway station on my Facebook timeline, many people did not believe that it was a railway station !