For me, the desert town of Bikaner has always been synonymous with famed Bikaneri bhujia! Overshadowed by its celebrity cousins – Udaipur, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, the remote town in Thar desert remains fairly under-explored as a holiday destination. The ravishing red is lost somewhere, amid hues of blue, pink and golden! However, only when I happen to explore the vibrant city on a long weekend break with my partner, I discover that it has a lot more to offer other than the sev-like, crunchy snack packed in shiny foil packets.
After alighting the small Air India flight at Nal airport which is also the Bikaner Air Force Station, we are on our way to Narendra Bhawan which is around 16 km from the airport.
During the drive, we see camel carts treading on clean, wide roads, independent houses (each one constructed in its own unique style) awash with colour and village belles sauntering in flowing skirts, with a ghunghat drawn over their faces, right till the chin. Our very first impression of Bikaner says a lot about the flavour of the city! We are delighted to see that it has a genuine untramelled vibe and a certain rustic charm.
As we enter the gates of Narendra Bhawan Bikaner, we are greeted with a cheerful Jai Jai! A vintage Morris parked in a corner and soft jazz tunes playing in the background instantly transport us to the Victorian Era. No, this isn’t one of those ostentatious palace hotels, typical to the Land of Maharajas.
Narendra Bhawan is the townhouse where the last reigning Maharaja of Bikaner, Narendra Singh, lived until his passing in 2003. Hence, the bhawan has a laid-back, homely vibe in spite of the elegance. We are sipping on refreshing bela (jasmine) sharbat and observing the tasteful designs and decor elements that narrate stories of Singh’s fashionable life and frequent trips abroad.
Here, modern Indian furniture effortlessly blends with Portuguese tiles and tribal artworks to create an eclectic setting. While each one of the 80 rooms depicts a phase of Singh’s life, our ‘Regimental’ room – dressed in English blue and maroon – reflects the period when the young prince was honing his military acumen which is a mandate to be king.
One of the khidmatdars points out that creativity and luxury have always been an essential part of the social and cultural fabric of Bikaner. Mainly because the city has been home to royals since 1488 when it was founded by Rao Bika.
To delve deeper into Bikaner‘s history, we start our royal exploration at the strikingly clean and well-preserved Junagarh Fort. The imposing red standstone facade of the 15th century fort takes our breath away. We spend almost two hours admiring its various mahals namely Phool Mahal, Karan Mahal, Anup Mahal, Badal Mahal, Ganga Mahal and Chandra Mahal.
What particularly catches our attention is the Badal Mahal painted all over in blue and white to depict clouds and lightning. A small tank is constructed to produce rain showers! We can’t take our eyes off the Italian marble courtyards, beautiful fresco paintings, glass mosaic, gold leaf decoration and pearl-white stucco work.
The fort museum is a treasure house of medals, dresses, headgers and other items of the bygone era. The extensive collection of weapons and swords is must see for anyone with a fetish for weaponry. Although, the highlight is the DH–9DE Haviland fighter plane from World War I!
We move on for a rendezvous with Rampuria havelis, the most famous cluster of havelis in Joshiwara or Old Bikaner. English writer and philosopher Aldous Leonard Huxley who visited these havelis called them the pride of Bikaner. And we can’t agree more! Constructed from red Dulmera sandstone for the wealthy merchant clan of Rampuria, these aristocratic homes boast of latticed windows, intricate jharokhas and exquisite wood carvings.
Simply sauntering down the narrow alleys while photographing the beauty of these sunkissed havelis is a delightful experience. The occasional passing of an embellished auto rickshaw, a cow or a tonga only adds to the photo story.
The bustling bazaars of Bikaner remarkably contrast the medieval vibe of the quaint and quiet bylanes. For a cool respite from the heat, we make a quick halt at Chunnilal Tanwar Sharbatwala. The iconic 82-year-old, no-frills joint creates and sells cordials made from a variety of fresh flowers and spices. The excited Vidhan Tanwar gets us to sample everything from chandan (sandal) and safed gulab (white rose) to paan (betel), laung (clove) and saunf (fennel); all free from artificial colours and flavours.
Served in a kulhad, topped with crushed ice, these refreshing, desi drinks remind us of days when a glass of sharbat was the first thing served to a guest who’d turn up at home unannounced.
However, the whiff of freshly-fried bhujia quickly brings us back to the present! Bikaner‘s bazaars have bhujia and mithai vendors around every corner. And why not? More than 30 per cent of India’s bhujia is produced here. Though we aren’t fans of deep-fried namkeen, we can’t resist buying some packets of Bikaneri bhujia that’s made from besan and ground moth beans. Best to skip mass producers for more local, hole-in-the-wall shops like Bishanlal Babulal and Bhikharam Chandmal.
Evenings are spent by the rooftop infinity pool of our hotel, watching the Bikaner sky changing its colours with the setting sun. This is followed with a few drinks at Gaushala — an al fresco lounge that is a tribute to the king’s love for animals. Yes, Singh raised 500-plus cattle along with more than 100 dogs and horses at Narendra Bhawan.
However, one of the most ethereal and intimate experiences is the sundowner at Darbari village, around 22 km from the city. A stretch of soft green pastures and lush oasis, Darbari lake was once a favourite game hunting spot for the maharajas of Bikaner. Post hunting, they would dine here in style and feast on their shikar. We enjoy a glass of wine and traditional game meat like quail and goat amid a mesmerising ambiance of white shamianas, surrounded by lanterns and candles. With a flutist serenading us under the star-lit sky, we recreate the enchanting “White Night of Rajputs”!
OTHER MUST-DOS IN BIKANER
– Take a day trip to The Camel Research Farm, located on the Jodhpur bypass road about 8 km from Bikaner city. Make sure to be there by 3 pm when all 400 camels, with their young ones, return to their shelter after a session of grazing. A sight to behold! Learn to distuingush between Bikaneri, Jaiselmeri, Kutchi and Marwari breeds of camels. At the milk parlour, enjoy ice-creams and kulfis made from salty camel milk.
– Tour the splendid Laxmi Nivas Palace. Built between 1898 and 1902 in an Indo-Saracenic style, the former royal residence is where you can gaze at hand-painted friezes, gold-laden walls and an extensive collection of hunting trophies preserved over the years through taxidermy.
– Visit the 600-year-old Karni Mata Temple at Deshnoke, 30 km from Bikaner. Home to more than 20,000 rats, this is the only place where you might want a rat to scurry over your foot. If it does, you’re really lucky!
GASTRONOMICAL ADVENTURES in BIKANER
– If you like relishing food instead of simply eating it, the seven-course Literary Lunch curated by Narendra Bhawan is an unmissable experience. With each course, you read out a passage from a novel before its representative dish is presented. Inspired by discriptions of food in fiction, the luncheon is a treat for lovers of literature and gastronomy.
– Traditional Rajasthani thali (with Bikaneri specialities) is a window to the culinary scene of Bikaner. The royal platter comprising panchmel dal, mirchi ka salan, mutton korma, Rajasthan-style chicken, chane ki sabzi, mutton biryani and raita accompanied by warki paratha and khamiri roti, apart from a range of pickles and papads. Swarna Mahal at Laxmi Niwas Palace serves a dauntingly elaborate thali!
– For breakfast or snacking in-between meals, try Rajasthani khasta kachori and lassi at Chotu Motu Joshi. Stuffed with potato and moong dal filling and topped with yogurt, chutneys, onion, pomegranate, sev and coriander, the deep-fried kachori is simply delicious.
– To bring back Bikaneri churn, mouth fresheners and pickles made from ker sangri, aloe vera, fenugreek and more, visit Golchha Store, near Kote Gate.
HOW TO GET THERE
Bikaner has direct, daily flights from Delhi and Jaipur. Also, the city is well connected to major cities like Delhi (496 km), Jaipur (342 km), Jodhpur (251 km) and Jaisalmer (330 km).
WHERE TO STAY
Skip those ultra formal, luxurious palace hotels for a chic mix of modern and old world. At Narendra Bhawan Bikaner, expect a lot of warmth, well-curated local experiences and delecatable meals. Also, you can check in with your pet!