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A day in Bikaner

A hot day in a desert city

semi-overcast 46 °C
View A Big Fat Indian Wedding - India 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I slept really well last night, it was rather nice to have a proper bed, in a cool room, with no sand-blasting and a private toilet nearby. Luxury! I have to say I pined for the cold shower of Dagri this morning though, as both the hot and the cold tap in the bathroom seemed to have hot water coming out of them.

Manoj picked us up this morning (along with Bwanwar of course) for a day of sightseeing in Bikaner. First stop the town's fort.

Junagarh Fort
Seven gates (two main gates) lead into the fort. The current main entry gate is called Suraj Pol (meaning the Sun gate), built in gold coloured or yellow sandstone, unlike the other gates and buildings built in red sandstone. It is the east facing gate permitting the rising Sun’s rays to fall on the gate, which is considered a good omen.


The doors of this gate are strengthened with iron spikes and studs to prevent ramming by elephants during an attack.


These days you don't ram your elephants against the gate to enter, you ring the bell and bow to the Ganesha shrine instead.


Inside are found a number of temples and pavilions as well as 37 palaces which are made of red sandstone and marble .


Each of the palaces is a work of art with carved windows, kiosks, hanging balconies and towers and are now living museums of the glorious past and grandeur. The palaces have a large number of rooms, as every king built his own separate set of rooms, not wanting to live in his predecessors’ rooms. These structures were considered as “at par with those of Louis’s France or of Imperial Russia”


The ceiling was made from stone slabs from Jodhpur covered in wood which is said to help maintain the cooler temperatures inside.


I loved this door made from 65 kilo of silver.


Mahi Maratib was the main insignia of honour conferred on the Chief Rulers by the Muslim Emperor. These insignia showing the Hand of Fatima were carried behind the Emperor in every procession.


Each room we came to seemed to be grander than the last - this was the Private Audience Room.


The Badal Mahal – the Blue Room – dates from the 1880s.


The Maharaja had a “power shower” – a slot with water gushing out and a knob which turned the jet of water. How cool is that?


The ceiling was decorated to represent clouds and lightning.


The Coronation Room was last used as recently as 1988 for the coronation of the last Maharaja.


The staircase leading to the upper floors was deliberately kept steep and narrow, so that any would-be invaders would have to walk up in a single file and could not draw their sword on the stairs.


Junagarh (“Old Fort”) is one of the few major forts in Rajasthan which is not built on a hilltop. The original fort was around a mile outside the town, but now the modern city of Bikaner has developed around the fort.


Manoj explained the use of this curious contraption – on Krishna's birthday, an image of Krishna is placed on the seat and swung. I am not sure what significance this has, however.


I love the privacy screen that allowed the Royal ladies to see without being seen.


I wouldn't mind staying in the guest rooms here.


Is this the current Royal Family?


Or feuding warlords?


One of the more curious items on display in the fort was this soup spoon with a shield to protect the Maharaja's moustache as he was eating.


In recognition of the services rendered by the Bikaner State Forces led by Maharaja Ganga Singji during the first world war, the British presented him with several war souvenirs among which were the shot down parts of two DH-9 De Haveland planes. These war trophies were transported to Bikaner by ship along with the Bikaner State Force around 1920. One of the later Maharajas, Dr Karni Singji, was keen to get the planes restored, and with the help of local craftsmen one completed trophy was created from the decaying parts of the two planes in 1985. It is currently on display in he basement of the fort.


As Jo had already visited the fort when she came to Bikaner last year, she took the opportunity to have a lazy morning. We went back to the hotel to pick her up and use the facilities. Having drunk another tree and a half of mango juice this morning, I thought it best.

For the sojourn into Bikaner Old Town, we squeezed into tuk tuks a couple of sizes too small, Jo and I in one and David and Manoj in the other.


The buildings on either side of the road closed in and the narrow lanes were filling up with people, stalls and cows as we headed into the older part of town. No wonder we couldn't take the car! In many places the alleys were barely wide enough for the tuk tuk, and the drivers impressed me no end with their skill at manoeuvring the over the drains where two small blocks bridged the gap between one road and the next – bearing in mind that the wheels are offset – the tuk tuks are three wheelers! Very skilful driving, albeit a bumpy one!


Jain Havelis
The city is said to boast of some of the most captivating havelis across the country. Haveli is the term used for a private mansion in India, usually one with historical and architectural significance. The word haveli is derived from Arabic haveli, meaning "an enclosed place." Many of the havelis of India were influenced by Islamic Persian, Central Asian and Indian architecture and usually contain a courtyard often with a fountain in the centre.


The Jain havelis belonged to the rich and the wealthy merchants of Rajasthan who earned their living in far off lands for more than half the year and returned to their beautiful homes for rejuvenating and relaxing. It is said that these buildings are a reflection of their great appreciation for beauty, art and culture. The detailed carvings of the havelis justify the persona of each craftsman and are incomparable to any other construction in the world. The oldest haveli in Bikaner is said to date back to around 400 years.


Interesting doors - one is way too large and the other is somewhat on the small side.


Bhanwar Niwas
One of the havelis has been converted into a luxury hotel called Bhanwar Niwas (named after our lovely driver maybe?), and with Manoj's connections we were given a guided tour of the place. If I ever come back to Bikaner, I want to stay here!


The rooms were exquisitely decorated, with period furniture, but it was certainly not just a show house – we were positively encouraged to try out the seats for photos.


We were even taken to see a couple of the bedrooms – how is this for sumptuousness?


Further into the depth of the old city, we negotiated the narrow lanes through the bazaar.


Bhandasar Jain temple
Out of the 27 beautiful Jain temples in Bikaner, Bhandasar is considered to be the prettiest and it is also the highest.


Unlike some Jain temples we have visited in the past, the Bhandasar in Bikaner was fairly relaxed about who could enter. Often they insist you leave any items of leather, food or drink at the gate and will refuse entry to menstruating women. The most pious devotees would even make sure that they wore freshly laundered clothes which they have not worn while eating or visiting the toilet. The only stipulation here was that you remove your shoes.


The temple was built by a rich businessman called Bhanda Shah in 1540, and he dedicated the temple to the 6th lord of Jainism. The many elegant marble pillars (typical north-Indian style Jain temple architecture, called derasar) are carved beautifully with Demi god posture.


In the shikar-bandhi style of temple architecture, there is also always a main deity (known as mulnayak) in each derasar.


The custodian of the temple, who is the 31st generation of Brahmin priests, gave us a thorough tour, and spoke enough English for at least some of what he said to make sense.


As with Hindu and Buddhist places of worship, you always walk around a Jain temple clockwise.


The temple was built using more than 40 barrels of ghee instead of mortar and the foundation contains dry coconuts. The priest was explaining how the brown patches on the marble floor is ghee seeping through. If you run your fingers over it, you can feel the greasy texture.


Also typical for this style of temple architecture – called shikar-bandh – is the domed roof. Here seen from the inside.


The interior of the temple is exquisite and comprises of rich mirror works with every inch of available space decorated in bright colours.


One of the benefits of visiting in the low season is that there really aren't any other tourists. We saw an Argentinian woman and her daughter at the hotel this morning, but that is the only other western visitor we have seen in Bikaner. So we had the temple entirely to ourselves.


The entire temple building is divided into three floors and is made of red sandstone and white marble. From the roof there is a great view over Bikaner.


Back in the tuk tuks and heading for the bazaars.


Bikaner Bazaar
Small stores selling anything from fruit and vegetables, to clothing, shoes, household goods, spices, brass ornaments and everything in between, spill out onto the already narrow back streets of Bikaner.


Except knockers. We were after a door knocker featuring a Ganesha elephant head similar to this one we saw in the Karni Mata temple in Deshnok, but we had no luck in finding one. Lots of bells, but no knockers.


Vying for space with the goods and shoppers, are camel carts, cows and motorbikes.


Manoj wanted to show us the Camel Breeding Farm this afternoon, but I'm afraid the thought of a lazy dip in the swimming pool won over. Just one last visit to the loo before I put my swimsuit on and I'll be ready. We'd heard strange squeaking sounds from the toilet ever since we arrived but didn't take a great deal of notice of it. I had only just sat down on the toilet when I heard an almighty crash and felt the world collapse under my bum.

Ceramic fatigue strikes again! I suppose over the years the ceramic had developed a weakness at the pressure point where it joined the wall, and my heavier-than-average bum on it was just the final straw. The toilet was on its side on the floor, water was gushing everywhere from the cistern and I was poised in a most peculiar and extremely uncomfortable position half crouched, half leaning on the wall, not daring to let go in case I landed on broken china. My desperate screams had David rushing to scene to rescue me and switch the water off before it completely flooded the entire upper floor. Thank goodness the runs I'd been suffering from for the last couple of days had finally subsided (those magical antibiotics we bought in Jaipur at the start of the holiday worked wonders)!!!!!


After changing our room (!), we finally made it to the swimming pool, and it was certainly worth waiting for.


I arrived in India with a large cold sore that certainly didn't get any better as the days went on. I guess the sand blasting when sleeping outside in Dagri didn't help, and neither did the heat or lack of sanitary conditions. It seemed every time I eat something or smile too widely I crack the scab open again and it bleeds (I guess you could say that if I smiled my face would crack). If I keep my mouth closed for too long (which David would say is unheard of!), the puss forms a crust and effectively glues my mouth shut! And of course as soon as I open it, the sore starts to puss and bleed again. All it took in the swimming pool was for David to splash it with a little water, and me to laugh a little too much, and off it went again.


We later discovered a little surprise Jo had purchased while in the market this afternoon: a couple of blobs of bhang.


Bhang has been used as an intoxicant for centuries in the Indian sub-continent, and is preparation from the leaves and flowers (buds) of the female cannabis plant, usually consumed as a beverage (as in bhang lassi), or as a cookie. This lot, however was a mud-like consistency and it was suggested we added it to some Coca Cola. It certainly made the evening go with a bhang!


We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the beautifully lit hotel grounds, having a very nice meal and laughing a lot.


Posted by Grete Howard 08:33 Archived in India

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