When we were invited to stay at Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner, the itinerary included a few curated experiences to showcase the best of Bikaner to us. Among these, was a chance to see the Bikaner Havelis on the Merchant’s Trail. The very name brought to mind images of flowing silk, heavy bundles of wool, perhaps even spices, camels, and wealthy merchants that were favoured by the Maharaja. Turns out we weren’t far from the truth.
Getting to the Bikaner Havelis
Siddharth, the hotel’s Vice President, personally led us on this trail, reminiscent of the old silk route that Bikaner lay on. We settled into the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel’s car, and set off, along wide even roads, towards the tiny lanes of the old city where the famous Bikaner Havelis sat. Commerce was a key interest of the Maharaja, he told us, who realising that merchants would be the backbone of his kingdom’s economy, set up an economic zone of sorts in the old city. Here, merchants rich with the trade of silks, camel and sheep wool, opium, dates, wheat, rice and iron settled down. The Maharaja allotted to them, plots of land at a very meagre price, and they allowed themselves a bit of indulgence. For a home they barely spent a few days a year in, they went on to construct the most lavish mansions, importing architects and designers from Britain, developing Indo-Saracenic marvels.
Our car stopped where four narrow lanes opened up in opposite directions. Looming before and above us were rows of maroon buildings. But not just any buildings. These red sandstone structures were the most intricate, ornate and elaborate facades I’d ever seen. Continuing, row after row, deep into the lanes, jutting out overhead as windowsills and balconies, these buildings were breathtaking. I stood staring, and like a 15 year old, I couldn’t help but spontaneously utter a rather lame, “Oh, wow.” We stepped out of the car and looked up, mouths open. This would have been the home of the Rampurias, a wealthy merchant family, who had it built in the 15th Century. One would assume it is the most photographed and famous of the Bikaner Havelis because it’s the first one you encounter, but its fame is well-earned. Easily the most ornate, with blue shuttered windows, I stepped up to take a closer look at the exquisite handiwork of Balujee Chalva. The Dulmera red sandstone, carved into the most detailed motifs had a beautifully tasteful fusion of Victorian and Mughal designs. I read somewhere, that even Aldous Huxley (one of Charles’ favourite writers) appreciated it, calling it the pride of Bikaner. We had to agree.
Who owns these havelis? What’s inside them these days?”, we asked curiously, half hoping for a chance to walk through one, imagining it to be filled with all sorts of equally opulent objets d’art. Siddharth gestured to the boarded up Golccha Haveli from 1918. Some lie vacant and locked up, left to caretakers as the families live away. Some have been converted to hotels. And some, as I later noticed have been dismantled, piece by piece or refurbished into incredibly ugly pseudo modern structures. There must be a way to make these residents realise the value of these heritage structures, or help them overcome any barriers to keeping them intact and maintained, I thought to myself. Of the 1000 original Bikaner Havelis, there were 400 intact at last count. Thankfully, there is a movement in motion with Bikaner becoming a member of the Indian Historic Cities Network, and several initiatives underway.
Walking on, we noticed a few residents standing outside their houses. One smiled at us, asking where we were from, and pointed ahead, letting us know there’s a beautiful temple down the road. A gorgeous white marble temple sat with extremely ornate interiors that we could see from outside. In the narrow streets here, cars are the outsiders. Lording over these streets instead, are the local cows and bulls. Larger than any bovines we’ve seen across the rest of the country, these colossal creatures block the entire road by locking horns or settling down and refusing to move. Standing around in these lanes, we noticed something else. Massive square wooden tables sat in several chowks and streets. These were for socialising, where residents came to sit and congregate, go over the days events and more. Today, it’s still in use, but only by the elderly. Just then, almost as if to prove a point about all of this erosion of culture, I saw an Amazon delivery bike zip past us, deep into the lane.
Kotharion ka Chowk, Daga Sitya Chowk, Punan Chand Haveli
Walking on, we reached the Kothari chowk, and I looked up, studying the architecture. Charles took his time, taking pictures of every possible detail. This entire walk is a photographer’s dream, and I could literally hear Charles cursing in his head, wishing he’d been brought here in the early morning light. So we waited, looking up and staring at the various details of the buildings. Siddharth pointed out, that since the buildings were constructed so close to each other, each floor kept getting wider as we looked up, giving the illusion that it was all rather tall and towering. We remembered having seen this in Barcelona’s old Gothic quarter too. I tried to understand the structures better, and reading up, I found three main parts of these Havelis – the Jaalis (intricately carved screens) were perhaps a combination of a need for shade from the harsh sun and privacy for womenfolk, the chajjas and jharokas were essentially beautifully framed balconies and windows, so anyone standing at the window looking down, was like a beautiful painting or sculpture.
As we walked around, I trailed back under the pretext of waiting for Charles (who always trails back because he’s busy taking photos), but what I was really trying to do was get a peep into one of the Bikaner Havelis, I was so curious, especially since I’d managed to find one open door, opening into a massive courtyard. Siddharth smiled and stopped quite suddenly. Come, he said, as he began climbing the very steep steps into one Haveli. I struggled with my short legs, and asked him why these stairs were so steep, it’s not like the Bikaneris were taller than the average North Indian. To keep the desert sand out, to keep attacking enemies at a disadvantage, he volunteered. We stepped into a small clearing, as a caretaker opened all the shutters for us. What remained was the empty shell of a house. The intricate paintings fading on the wall, a beautifully detailed wood-carved ceiling covered the stone (to regulate the temperature in Rajasthan’s extreme climatic conditions). We walked around the labrynth, scaling floors, stone stairwells and rickety ladders, exploring this old Haveli. At the top, we had a good view into all the neighbouring Bikaner Havelis and sadly, the various ruins as well.
A Merchant’s Lunch
This Merchant’s Trail offered by Narendra Bhawan typically ends with a sit-down cross-legged, merchant-style traditional Bikaneri Meal at the Sopani Haveli. Since the weather hadn’t properly kicked into winter mode yet, the hotel spared us the mid-day heat that Merchants would have had to endure and whisked us back to the hotel for the same meal, in their air-conditioned restaurant – P&C. We devoured a gigantic platter of several different kinds of breads (rotis – my favourite being the bajra one) and different rather exotic vegetables like cashew, desert beans and more.
This post was made possible by Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner. Opinions, as always, are our own.