BIKANER—in the midst of the Thar

Surrounded by the great Thar Desert, lies the city of Bikaner — a city that still retains much of the ambience of its ‘not so distant’ feudal past. The narrow lanes and by-lanes of the old city appear to have remained frozen in time, and offer a fascinating insight into 16th-century architecture.

The royal house of Bikaner—an offshoot of Jodhpur’s royal family—was created by Rao Bikaji, son of Rao Jodha  the founder of Jodhpur. He decided to create his own kingdom, since there appeared little chance of his inheriting the crown of Jodhpur. Capturing 3,000 villages in the territory, then known as Jungladesh, Rao Bikaji commenced building his city in 1488. Subsequent monarchs have added to the evolution of present-day Bikaner, prominent among whom is Maharaja Ganga Singh, whose hand is clearly visible in all the modern improvements made in the city.

On reaching Bikaner, my first target is the exquisite Lalgarh Palace. Designed by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, with its ornately carved red sandstone exterior, it continues to be the residence of the royal family. The palace was commissioned by Maharaja Ganga Singh and completed in 1902. With architecture that incorporates the finest aspects of  Rajput architecture, the palace

has been built in stages around a central courtyard. The Anup library at the palace houses some extremely rare Sanskrit manuscripts, while royal memorabilia make the Sadul Museum worth a visit.

The royal family of Bikamer has always had an abiding faith in Karni Mata, a saintly mystic who lived in the 14th century. An ornately carved marble temple built after her death stands 32 kms from Bikaner. The massive silver gates and windows were gifted to the temple by Maharaja Ganga Singh, who even named his grandson after the saint.

The most interesting feature of the temple is the presence of a large number of rats that live within its precincts. Legend has it that devout Bikaneris are reborn in this form to live a life of leisure with their patron saint — fed by the hundreds of devotees who visit the temple daily.

The Bikaner countryside is dotted with ancient Hindu and Jain temples, palaces, lakes and parks. Some of the most intricately carved, painted and gilded temples are found here, dating from the 15th century, to the present day. Among the more important monuments in Bikaner are the historically important Nagnechiji temple which houses an idol brought by Rao Bikaji from Jodhpur, the superbly carved cenotaphs of the rulers of Bikamer at Bikaji-ki-tikri and Devi Kund Sagar. There are also a number of ornately carved Jain temples, Chintamani (1505) and Bhandasar (1900).  The Hindu temples include Dhuni Nath (1801), Lakshmi Nathji (1488), Ratan Bihari (1910) and Shivbari (1509).

It was, however, the magnificent Junagarh fort of Bikamer that drew me like a magnet. Visiting the fort takes at least an hour and a half, for there is much to see. The exquisitely carved exterior in red sandstone and the interior palaces and chambers in carved marble, make the fort a delight. Polished plaster with raised moulding, and gilded and painted walls and ceilings all come together to create the incomparable Karan Mahal and the Anup Mahal.  Anup Mahal, which served as the Diwan-i -Khas, has been mentioned as the most ornate coronation chamber in Asia.

While typically Rajasthani elements like coloured glass and mirrors are used to embellish the ornate Crescent Room, the more recent decorative elements at the fort include the unusual choice of China tiles of the famous ‘Willow Pattern’ design on balconies and walls. Another interesting part of the palace worth visiting, is Maharaja Lall Singh’s Music Room, with the monarch's musical instruments still preserved exactly the way he had last played them. The walls of the room are painted with blue and white clouds, interspersed with flashes of orange lightning, while niches in the walls depict monsoon ragas in traditional Rajasthani miniature style.

An early morning visit to the camel breeding farm is also a must, situated just 10 km away from Lalgarh Palace.  As Asia's only farm for camel breeding, the inter-breeding of different camel species is undertaken here, to improve the quality of their coat as well as methods to rear healthier and hardier animals. Since camel wool rugs, blankets and shawls are extremely warm, and ideal for the extreme cold of desert winters, they find a ready market in the neighbouring areas of Rajasthan.

The last location on my list was Gajner , 30 km from Bikaner.  Located on the road to Jaisalmer, this is the summer palace of the royal family. The sandstone palace Sardar Niwas, is picturesquely situated next to the Gajner lake, the water dependent on the sparse rains, is controlled by dams. Besides the original palace, there is also the charming Gulab Niwas that has paintings depicting hunting scenes by Cecil Aldin, a popular painter of the Thirties.

The Gajner lake draws sand grouse in large numbers from as far as Siberia during  winter. The deer park and wildlife sanctuary is dotted by gazelle, sambar, black buck and nilgai, a pretty sight when they come down to the lake in the evenings.

Back in the city, just to pack one’s bag, there is a distinct feeling of regret.

One visit is certainly not enough to see and appreciate the old world charm of Bikaner.

Shona Adhikari