One of Rajasthan’s small desert towns, Bikaner is an attractive alternative for those seeking a destination away from the well-trodden path of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. Those who do find their way to Bikaner are usually surprised by the variety of attractions: forts and palaces, temples and markets, and most interestingly, lavish havelis (mansions) nestled deep within a warren of lanes.
A fairly new town by the standards of this state, Bikaner’s origins date from the end of the 15th century. It was established by a prince from the rival kingdom of Jodhpur who left home in a huff after a tiff with his father. From those modest beginnings to immense prosperity under consecutive rulers and astute traders, Bikaner flourished for more than 400 years, before beginning to fade into obscurity.
The town is again finding its place under the desert sun – luxury seekers and backpackers, history hounds and foodies, are all well catered for here.
Where to stay
For a glimpse of how the royals lived, check into Narendra Bhawan, the erstwhile residence of the last king of Bikaner, Shri Narendra Singhji. Recently restored as a heritage hotel, Narendra Bhawan is a tribute to the eclectic tastes and travels of the king. From a bright-red grand piano called Edith, to collectors' issues of 1960s magazines, every corner is a showcase of times past. Double rooms cost from 11,520 rupees (Dh666), including breakfast and taxes.
An equally luxurious address in town is another mansion from an earlier vintage, the Laxmi Niwas Palace. It was built in 1904, in the Indo-Saracenic architectural style popular during that time, and has hosted Britain's King George V and his wife Queen Mary, among other luminaries. The palace grounds are also home to Bikaner's most fascinating repository of royalty, the Sadul Museum, with room after room of antique furniture, miniature paintings, letters and photographs documenting Maharaja Ganga Singhji's life. Doubles cost from 14,080 rupees (Dh795), including breakfast and taxes.
About a century ago, Bikaner was a prosperous trading town, an important stop on the fabled silk route connecting China to Europe via central Asia. Today, the only remnants of that era are the havelis of the merchants, clustered in the narrow lanes of the old city. Bikaner is said to have more than 1,000 such havelis, most of which were abandoned when their rich owners moved to large cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai in search of a better life in the mid-20th century.
Collectively known as the Rampuria Havelis, many of these magnificent red sandstone mansions are in a state of abject disrepair. However, those still standing narrate the story of exquisite craftsmanship through their delicate lattice work balconies, vibrant murals and chiselled doors.
Begin your walk at the main Rampuria Haveli – stopping to admire its Victorian façade – and explore the surrounding area on foot or a horse cart (tonga). Boutique companies such as Vedic Walks and Bikaner Magic conduct guided walks of these old neighbourhoods, peppered with legends and folklore.
Meet the locals
Soak in the flavours of the old city in the narrow lanes around the Kote Gate area. This is where residents congregate in the evenings to eat, shop and exchange the day’s news.
Where to eat
While in Bikaner, it is best to put on your game face and sample the street food; from piping hot kachori (a fried snack filled with a spicy lentil mix or dry onion and potato curry) to the sinful ghewar (a sweet disc made of flour, soaked in sugar syrup), it is impossible to ignore the siren song of the open stalls.
If you must step away from the heat and dust of the streets, then Chhotu Motu Joshi (Station Road) or Chhappan Bhog (Rani Bazaar) are highly recommended for their local snacks and sweets.
To dine like a king, make a reservation at the Swarna Mahal restaurant at Laxmi Niwas Palace, where the decor (think hand-painted wall panels and a roof made of Burmese teak) is just as indulgent as the food. A meal for two will set you back roughly Dh220. The evocatively named Pearls & Chiffon, the multi-cuisine restaurant at Narendra Bhawan, is another option for a laid-back meal against a backdrop of understated luxury.
Gallops, opposite Junagarh Fort, is a popular haunt among locals and tourists for its friendly staff and extensive menu, featuring authentic local dishes and a range of soups, pizza and sandwiches (a hearty meal costs no more than Dh70).
Where to shop
Given that Bikaner is foodie heaven, make sure to take back fiery pickles, churan (digestives) and papad. The Golchha Store, near Kote Gate, offers a dazzling range of these yummies – ask for a taste of the aloe vera pickle and the raw mango digestive before packing up some for home. Bikaneri bhujia (a fried snack made of gram flour) is famous all over the country and a must-buy.
For more unique souvenirs, head to Ajmal Hussain's small workshop, where he makes Usta art – miniature pots, photo frames, lamp shades and the like – from camel leather, with gold embossed work all over. Or shop for miniature paintings from acclaimed artist Mahaveer Swami, who has been preserving this ancient art from the region.
What to avoid
Unless you have a particular fascination for rodents, steer clear of the temple of Karni Mata, the patron goddess of Bikaner and one of the most popular deities in the region. The goddess was believed to be fond of rats, which means that thousands now crawl with abandon on the temple’s marble floors.
The 16th-century Junagarh Fort holds the distinction of being that rare citadel at ground level (as opposed to the other hill forts of the region), and one that was never captured by invaders. With its multiple red sandstone palaces, narrow corridors with exquisite mirror-work, expansive courtyards and massive rooms filled with colourful frescoes, the fort is worth several hours of lazy exploration.