Of champagne, drives and explorations in Rao Bika’s empire
Words & photographs: Ambica Gulati
Sitting in the front seat, I almost went right through the windshield in my haste to capture the nilgai in my camera. The sun was about to go down. We had watched the sky change colours during the 30-minute drive to Darbari Lake. This was another surprise for me on this trip to the red city. During the last visit, I had enjoyed champagne and snacks at another pasture. That had left me breathless but now it was difficult to decide which was better. Of course, the company was excellent–Siddharth Yadav, the vice president of MRS Hospitality, had spent all his time taking us three writers around (namely Suman Tarafdar, Navneet Mendiratta and me) for the two hurried days that we were there.
The orange and red were fast fading, the nilgai had disappeared. The little lake was lit by lamps at the edge and the candles where our dinner was getting ready. The closer I went towards the birds, the faster they flew away into the thorny shrubs. All along, 20-year-old Prakash kept playing melodies on his flute. Our conversation kept moving between goof-ups to fun times, champagne kept flowing and dinner under the stars was just another unforgettable memory.
The hours at Bikaner had flown. It was just yesterday that we had arrived, and walked around the ancient Junagarh Fort, within hours of being there. Most forts in Rajasthan are found on hills but not this one. Built from 1571 to 1611 by Karan Chand who was the prime minister in the reign of the sixth king of Bikaner Raja Rai Singh, it was originally called Chintamani. It was renamed when the family moved to Lallgarh Palace in the 20th century. The ancient fort area was huge and I had seen the wall ramparts near the Laxmi Narayan temple, quite a distance away from this structure that we were seeing now. Probably this was the centre in those days, our guide Mahavir Singh kept telling us tales. The fort has different European influences along with the traditional craftsmanship. After all, the city has seen many historic changes with different communities and their influences–the British, the Mughals, besides the many nomadic tribes of that area. Despite many attacks, the fort was only captured for a day by Kamran Mirza, the second son of the Mughal emperor Babur who attacked Bikaner in 1534. The city was ruled by Rao Jait Singh then. If you watch the buildings made of red dhulmera sandstone in Bikaner, you will know why it could be the red city.
Spread over five acres, the fort has palaces and temples. Walking through the many levels, one is privy to the ancient arts such as the painted walls, the idols of the different gods. The throne area and the chambers of the king and the queen are particularly embellished with gold and the famous Rajasthani art. The ceilings have the famous lac work and the clouds are the main feature in these paintings.
If you leave the main town and see the thorny shrubs which we did en route Gajner and Darbari Lake, you won’t be surprised to know that this was once known as ‘jungladesh’. Founded by Rao Bika in 1472, Bikaner formed part of the trade route between Central Asia and the Gujarat coast. But the city grew a lot under the sixth ruler Raja Rai Singh. Patronised by the Mughals, he held the position of an army general in the times of Akbar and his son Jahangir. He won the land of Mewar and was gifted the jagirs of Gujarat and Burhanpur by them. Revenue from these jagirs was used to build the fort. The successive kings kept adding to the magnificent structure. There is also a Prachina Museum in this complex which houses artefacts from the current royal family. You can carry back some souvenirs from the shop.
Even though the April sun was fierce in the day, it didn’t stop us from exploring. Lunch, siesta and we were on the road to meet the famous miniature artist Mahaveer Swami. The treasure of paintings is enormous for the humble man who has been awarded the Padam Shree and at the entrance of his home a huge certificate on the wall will tell you that. Coming from a lineage of miniature artists, even today he paints in the same room that his father painted in. Every morning, he prays to his family deity seated in the small shrine in the wall of this room, which is about 250 years old. All around him are paintings and each could take about a year or more to finish, depending on what’s being painted. Most of the paintings are focussed on the mythological tales and gods and goddesses of India. He is even the author of a book titled The Art of Bikaner. He has worked with painters from other countries too on special projects and is currently working on one with plants. His works can be found in MOSA, Belgium and more museums across the world. Opening the cupboards of natural colours, the artist introduced us to his son who works with him.
Happy but not satiated, Siddharth zoomed us to the Gajner Wildlife Sanctuary. As the sun set, we had to forgo our plan of a safari but took a round of Gajner Palace which is now a heritage hotel. Aroma of sandalwood and camphor flitted around us. We were standing in front of the temple and the distant sounds from the waters beyond kept distracting us. A party was going on. The palace was the hunting lodge of Maharaja Ganga Singh. It was connected to Bikaner Palace by rail in 1922 and there are plans to lay the tracks again, as our guide explained. The lodge has played host to the Prince of Wales in 1905, Governor General Lord Elgin, Lord Erwin in 1927 and Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten and more. The interesting thing was the open bar in the courtyard where one can drink till the wee hours, I guess.
Each trip reveals a new facet of the red city. The next morning had begun with a quick trip to the area where the havelis of the merchants stood. These have been in existence for over 200 years and one can see the many architectural influences of art deco, nanak shahi bricks, kings and queens sculpted on the walls, paintings of trains and the fast losing culture of old times. The crowded area could do with some cleaning. The traders such as Rampurias and more have left the beautiful buildings. Some stand abandoned, others part restored. There was even a campaign to save the structures. A little more effort to preserve the heritage would go a long way in making the red city a must visit town.
Lunch had been at Laxmi Niwas Palace, the group’s ultra-luxury property. This had taken Maharaja Ganga Singh over 20 years to build. Besides the fine lattice and filigree works, there are artefacts from all over the world here. Blue chandeliers from Belgium, utsa work on the mirrors, clouds on the ceilings, palki of yore, the trophies or heads of the hunted animals, Laxmi Niwas was once the home of the maharajas.
Leaving the candles, the hospitality and the good times, it was time to head back to smoky Delhi. However, you never say goodbye with Siddharth and Karan Singh Vaid, the group’s president, because they have already planned your next stay.
Shopping & Recreation: There is a mall and a cineplex. One can shop for namkeens at Chotu Motu Joshi on Station Road and then there’s a wholesale Kote Gate market. Try the gulkand milkshake at Vardhman.
How to get there: The best way is by train. You can take the overnight trains from Delhi. We took the Dee Bkn S F Ex – 12457 which leaves from Sarai Rohilla station at 23:35 and arrives at 7:10. The hotel arranges a pick-up and sends an SMS with the details. Else, the nearest airport is at Jodhpur and then drive to Bikaner.