Bewitching Bikaner beckons
RAJASTHAN never ceases to fascinate. For the more intrepid, who cock a snook at destinations nearer to Delhi like Jaipur, Ajmer, Alwar or Neemrana, a kingdom in the desert founded by a boy awaits you. One of 14 sons, Bika was charged by his father, the sovereign of Marwar (Jodhpur), as aspiring to usurp the throne. Bika left the court to travel northward and came face to face with the sandy wastes of the Thar. There he met a wandering seeress and asked her to bless him. She did and prophesied that Bika's fame would be greater than his father's. Bika then built his city on the spot of this encounter—a city we know of today as Bika-ner. That was 400 years ago.
Today at Deshnok (30 km
from Bikaner city) a magnificent temple erected by the grateful King
Bika to 'Karnimata' stands as testimony to the origins of the city. So
great was her following that she was asked to intercede with Yama to
bring a child back to life. Yama declined, saying that the child's soul
had already been reincarnated in another body. In order to preempt the
cycle of death, Karni held that, when they died, all her devotees would
inhabit the bodies of rats, and when the rats died, they would assume
life as humans once more. Details can be had at www.karnimata.com
Seeing a white rat here is auspicious. Milk, grain, and water in huge salvers are kept for the rats to gorge on. Devotees bring coconut and pedas to feed the rats. The silver doors which enclose the image of Karnimata have beautiful inlay work depicting scenes from Karnimata's life. The stag on a crescent, the sun with a face, Ganeshji, and Karnimata holding court with the rats are some of the themes depicted. The fa`E7ade has intricate marble work, one frieze depicting miniature rats scurrying up the panel in a row complete with their tails of 1/4th cm. width. Numerous marble jharokhas (Rajasthani windows) adorn the place where pigeons come to rest. On the left and right of the entrance on the upper level are a maharaja astride a peacock. Entrance to this temple is free. Camera charges - Rs 20. Local bus fare from Bikaner is Rs.10. Travel time - 25 minutes.
The two palaces in Bikaner are a study in contrast. There is the sprawling sixteenth-century Junagadh fort built by Raja Rai Singh, the sixth Rathore ruler of Bikaner, and the prim Lallgarh palace built at the auspices of the British, early in the twentieth century. The former, with its vast perimeter and impassive front, nevertheless houses a museum of delights, if at times rococo in taste. Inside, on a somewhat breathless tour chaperoned by a tour guide, one finds Belgian chandeliers, German paintings, Dutch, English and Japanese marble tiles, iron beds of nails on which the Bhishnoi - a tribe in Rajasthan - slept or walked and even a World War I plane. This last was presented by the British to Maharaja Ganga Singh in recognition of the services he rendered to them during the first World war. By far the most arresting is the sandstone Hall of Public Audience with its lofty heights and illumination from the lattices in the dome above. Intricate carvings of birds and animals adorn the panels on the walls. For Rs 40 you can purchase a set of 10 war paintings on Bikaner done by A.G. Mullar. These commemorate the battles fought in the defense of Bikaner and are a paean to her heroes. One of these paintings depicts the rout of the invading Mughal forces of Kamran, son of Babur, at the hands of Maharaja Jaitsi, fourth ruler of Bikaner in 1534. The entry to the Junagadh palace is Rs 50, with Rs 30 for camera.
Rupees 10 is the fare to the Sadul Singh museum, across the open court which houses handicraft items designed by Urmul trust - an NGO collective in Rajasthan. Items include jholas, kurtas, puppets, and decorative pieces. Painting exhibitions are also organised in a closed concourse nearby where one can pick up Rajasthani music - perhaps Allah Jilai Bai of Bikaner ('Jhalo Maro Diyo Na Jaye'). One striking painting was of Meerabai in the desert with her back to the viewer. Arms outstretched, she seemed to be floating away to embrace the desert content with playing her simple lute. The Sadul Singh museum houses items used by the royal household and art objects. Here you can find crockery sets used by the Maharajas, a splendid sandalwood carved vsword, notes on vestments ladies of the time wore, and paintings. Beautiful zardozi work accentuates the grandeur of royal attire. One panel informs the observer that Rajasthani women, be they royal or otherwise, were distinguished by the same items of clothing , viz. a ghagra - a flaring skirt; a kurti - a sleevless blouse; a kachli - a short bodice worn over the blouse, and an odhana - veil for the face. One particular painting has a Rajasthani queen astride Akbar , dagger in her hand to state her objection to his ways. The poetic caption read : Kiran sinhnee-si chadi/ Ur par kheench katara/ Bheekh mangta praankee/ Akbar haath pasara. (Like a lioness did Kiran mount/ Grasped in her hand a dagger/ Supplicating for his life/ Did Akbar extend his hands).
Lallgarh Palace Hotel, 5 km from Bikaner station, is now a private property owned by His Royal Highness (HRH) group of Hotels at Udaipur. Built under the supervision of the British—with whom the rulers of Bikaner collaborated—it was deemed necessary for greater ease and to support a European lifestyle. Apart from its English-manicured lawns and its cascade of (turrets), there is also a museum on the first floor. This is largely a collection of black and white photographs documenting the honeymoon with the British Raj ,when Bikaner continued to be a princely state, prior to its merger with the Indian Union in 1949.
The piece de resistance of a trip to Bikaner is a visit to Gajner, 30 km from Bikaner railway station. Perched on the lips of the Gajner lake, this palace (now also a private property maintained by the HRH group) is veiled from casual eyes. Beyond the local bus stand at Gajner one needs to walk 20 minutes till one gets to the property. The tranquility of this place has to be experienced to be believed. The entry fee is Rs.100 with an additional Rs 50 for a boat ride of half an hour. Nestled in the Gajner wildlife sanctuary (which is also private property) the place exudes the romance of days gone by. Tucked away, almost out of sight , among the lush greenery is Shabnam Mahal - a spacious living space arranged for Shabnam, a princess of Lucknow -- with whom the raja used to spend time with.
Eight km from Bikaner station, at Jorbeer, is the Camel Research Institute. Seeing the cavalcade of camels come back from their grazing in the farmland is a sight to behold. This usually happens between 4.30 - 5 pm. A small retail outlet sells knick knacks, postcards and jootis of camel hide. Though a little spare in size, the camel museum offers interesting fare, like notes on the difference between the Kutchi camel and the Jaisalmer camel ; items made of camel hide and hair like blankets, curios and mats. What catches ones eye are the Mughal miniature paintings depicting Babur's cavalry and the role camels played in them.
Bikaner is a place that beckons. From out of the silken darkness of a desert dawn / Emerged the dream of Bikaner' sang the bards who accompanied Bika. A oneness with self and soul in this desert land steeped in history, vibrant in tradition, and graceful in opulence is the reward of going there. There is much to see here - the Jain temples, the Maharaja’s cenotaphs at Junagadh, the Ganga Singhji museum in the city, and the Ganga canal at the north-west of Bikaner. A visit is well worth the experience.