Bikaner is situated in northwestern Rajasthan, in the middle of the Thar desert. Summer temperatures are scorching hot but in winter it can get very cold. We visited in January and while the days were pleasantly warm, the nights were quite cold and I was glad I had brought a sleeping bag because the blankets provided by the guesthouse were not enough to keep me warm.
The main sight in Bikaner is Junagarh Fort, built in the 16th century and now surrounded by the sprawling city. The fort is immense, and the various halls, palaces and rooms display the splendor the Maharanas lived in. Included in the entrance fee is an audio guide but for some reason they were all out of order so we were told that there would be a guide waiting for us in the first hall. The guide was nowhere to be seen so we went on exploring the fort by ourselves. It’s enormous and the Maharanas must have been absurdly wealthy. Each room is decorated with either tiles or paintings, mirrors, gold, or precious stones or all together and the craftsmanship is astonishing (except for the wall with the tiles that seem to have been put up by a child having fun).
Halfway through our visit, one of the guards asked us to follow him and lead us to the rooftop to a small, beautifully decorated room which is usually closed to the public. In this room, the Maharaja used to spend hot summer days, laying on a mattress with a big fan overhead, which was being operated from the outside by a servant. Now converted into our guide, the guard showed us the most astonishing rooms and hallways, the bedrooms of the Maharaja and his wives, the halls and the fort museum. Despite having visited forts all over Rajasthan, this was again something very different and fascinating and once more I was astonished by the architectural achievements these forts are and the beauty and grandeur they emanate.
If you’re hungry after visiting the fort, head across the street to Rajasthani Dhaba (not Gallops and not the cheap place right alongside the road), they have excellent curries and some of the best naan we’ve tried.
And how to get to the fort? Well, either by auto rickshaw or on foot, if you don’t mind the traffic. We decided to walk from our guesthouse, it wasn’t too far. On the way to the fort, we had to cross the railway. As soon as we arrived at the railway crossing, the siren started beeping and the barrier closing. However, this didn’t deter people from crossing. Motorcyclists blared their horns, daring the ones in front of them to cross, dragging their motorcycles with them under the barrier, people on the phone, idling on the tracks, seemingly not aware that the train, now audible, was quickly approaching. We stood there, watching half fascinated, half shocked how people continued crossing until the train was just a few meters away and then sped loud and fast over the crossing, just inches away from the waiting crowds. I’m not surprised there are so many fatal train accidents each year in India.
Our last overnight stop before going back to Delhi was Mandawa, famous for its many beautifully painted havelis. Mandawa is small and sleepy; the whole region seems half abandoned because of its proximity to Delhi and the metropolis’ promise of much bigger and better opportunities, especially for young people.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, merchants living away from home sent money to their families to build big homes and show off their fortune. These homes were decorated with paintings and the whole region became kind of an open-air gallery. Sadly, many of these havelis are now empty and abandoned and the paintings decaying. A few are open to visitors (for a fee, of course, that should help cover restoration costs although it’s obvious that so far, nothing has been done in that regard) but you can just as well simply walk through town and admire the many, many painted buildings and walls. Some paintings are quite explicit while others are hilarious, like the Hindu god talking on the phone or taking a ride in a car.