If it wasn’t for Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner would probably have never featured on our India travel list. While the state of Rajasthan most certainly is, it’s the usual suspects that feature on the list – Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur. Charles has visited Jaipur and Jaisalmer several times thanks to his day job, and I’ve been to Jaipur on a shoot myself. But we’ve never really visited as tourists or travellers. But this time, something swayed us. An invitation to stay in the erstwhile home of the Maharaja of Bikaner, isn’t something anyone should ever turn down.
We’re sitting in driveway under a canopy of creepers. Below our palms the marble table top is aglow from within. There’s a gigantic crystal bowl at the table. The wind is changing, the day’s heat slowly lifted away by the cool sunset breeze from the desert. We’re looking up the beautiful lit-up facade of this palace. Charles recognises strains of Hotel Costes wafting through the air. Our barman arrives, with yet another tray of goblets of Gin and Tonic. We’re transported miles from here. It’s our second day at Narendra Bhawan and we’ve come to realise this eccentric place doesn’t do touristy.
The final push We emerged from the tiniest airport we’ve ever been to. With just one flight a day from Delhi, the recently inaugurated one-room airport at Bikaner, we believed was a wonderful indicator of what the trip would entail. Quaint and charming. Were we wrong! As soon as we got through the gates, I spotted a turbaned chauffeur holding up one of the prettiest airport arrival nameplates we’ve seen. Welcoming us to Bikaner, he ushered us to a deep red vehicle, emblazoned with the hotel’s insignia on the side. And that’s where things took a turn. We inhaled the unmistakeable perfume of jasmine in the air-conditioned as we heard him rummaging around in the trunk, with what we assumed was fishing for a cold bottle of water. Imagine my delight when he materialised at my door side, holding out a large silver platter, lifting ice-cold towels off a marble slab with tongs, and offering us an array of refreshing drinks. I sat back, letting the wet towel take the desert sand off my face.
A royal arrival:
Narendra Bhawan doesn’t have a traditional hotel reception. We pulled into the driveway, and were immediately welcomed by the hotel staff, who led us through the verandah, corridor, and into a rather opulent sitting room. Small goblets of a jasmine drink emerged, little samosa and pastries and we felt at home in an instant. Our room was on the third floor, the door overlooking the gorgeous courtyard below, through intricately carved jharokas laden with Mughal jaliwork. We’d been told each of the room categories are a peek into different stages of the Maharaja’s life, and we couldn’t wait to see which one we’d be living. We entered the doors and discovered an opulence surrounding us. Mirrors and other bits of bling, velvet and all the luxurious trappings of the Maharaja’s youth. A quick Lamb Burger and Croque Madam later, we sat back on the sofa, nursing one of the best Gin and Tonic’s we’ve had in a while, in anticipation of the evening’s Diwali festivities at the neighbouring Laxmi Nivas Palace. (More on that in another post)
Life at Narendra Bhawan
Narendra Bhawan is a design-lover’s dream. The whole place is filled with gorgeous objets d’art, custom-made furniture, several nooks and crannies spread across the property, each with a story, a theme or a purpose. Just like the guest rooms, the entire place is designed to give guests a sense of the Maharaja’s home, life and interests. From the Gaushala (Cowshed) where he had his hundreds of pet cows at the entrance, to several framed photographs of his hundreds of dogs, to corners dedicated to his manicure set, crockery collection, books (included every single of the Penguin volumes). On the ground floor sits a scarlet red grand piano, aptly named Edith, emblazoned with the lyrics to Je ne regret rien in gold. We spent our afternoons in the jharokas (intricately carved windows) overlooking the central courtyard, or on the cane cots, rocking chairs and sofas strewn about the property.
But come evening, and the mood changes. We’re sitting in driveway under a canopy of creepers. Below our palms the marble table top is aglow from within. There’s a gigantic crystal bowl at the table. The wind is changing, the day’s heat slowly lifted away by the cool sunset breeze from the desert. We’re looking up the beautiful lit-up facade of this palace. Charles recognises strains of Hotel Costes wafting through the air. Our barman arrives, with yet another tray of goblets of Gin and Tonic. We’re transported miles from here. It’s our second day at Narendra Bhawan and we’ve come to realise this eccentric place doesn’t do touristy. It’s miles from being predictable and we wouldn’t be surprised by anything by now. Yet again we were wrong, as the staff ushered us to the terrace for a beautiful surprise by the poolside.
Dining amidst Pearls and Chiffon
The quintessential uniform of every Indian Princess, a chiffon saree and a simple string of pearls has always been looked at as most elegant and regal. Naturally, we expected nothing less from a restaurant by the same name. The silk clad walls, with Art Deco lampshades shaped like pearls, gave the whole place a very chic feel. We first experienced this restaurant over a multi-course Bikaneri breakfast, where chalices of watermelon juice and lassi sat alongside plates of papad puri, methi ki sabzi, kachori, sabudana pancakes and more. Lunch on another day was a beautiful vegetarian thali of local delicacies (and Charles didn’t miss his meat one bit!) Another time we chose to stick with our favourites – Biryani for Charles and Mutton curry with Roti for me. It’s a favourite among locals, this restaurant as we discovered it got full up pretty fast on weekends.
A Poolside Rendezvous for Two
This was the surprise the property had in store for us (among the several others) The pool is on the terrace, where the design is very middle eastern, complete with palms et al. Set up, exclusively for us, was a romantic dinner in the flickering light of candles, as we looked out over a city that was beginning to fall asleep. Several kebabs and curries later, we sat flummoxed that some of the best kebabs we’ve tasted now come from an unassuming destination like Bikaner. But the piece de la resistance was the dessert. It wasn’t just any Kheer. This one had Gulkand (Rose puree) and nuts. And it was absolutely divine. As we sat devouring this, all the while talking about Kashmiri feasts with the hotel’s very charming, part-Kashmiri Guest Relations – Amara, we realised, we’re incurable gluttons.
A Royal Exploration
There’s no dearth of things to do in Bikaner, but as is our experience with most Indian heritage destinations, the whole experience can be rather fragmented, leaving hapless tourists to put together a puzzle of history. It’s almost as if Narendra Bhawan had looked into our minds, because of the two beautiful curated sight-seeing experiences they offer, the royal exploration is a story of the past. Weaving together several sites, from the beginnings of Bikaner through it’s illustrious eras, we were able to understand this gem of a city’s past. We began at the first temple, Lakshminath Temple which is older than Bikaner and traces back to the early 1500s. From there, we looked out on to the first ashram for handicapped cows that we’ve ever heard of. (That’s another thing about Bikaner, the sheer number of cows roaming around is bizarre, even for India). From the Bhandasar Temple, to the Sadul Museum (which was sadly shut) to Lalgarh Palace (the original residence of the royal family, now a hotel), back to Lakshmi Niwas Palace, we ended our exploration by eating our way through history – all seven courses of a menu served to the Maharaja in 1927.
The Merchant’s Trail
Another day, we made our way to the old city. Where the Maharaja, who was sharp to realise merchants would be the backbone of his kingdom’s economy, granted land to a bunch of wealthy merchants at one Anna each. They set up their elaborate Havelis here, bringing in architects from England, flaunting the most intricate of Indo-Saracenic, including a touch of British style. The hotel’s Vice President, Siddharth walked us through the history and the illustrious families of these narrow winding streets, as we gave ourselves a sprain in the neck from looking up with our jaws wide open at these beautiful buildings.
As I mentioned earlier, everything about the Narendra Bhawan experience was unpredictable and surprisingly tasteful. We love the way this property has shed it’s label, becoming more of a state of mind than anything else, and seducing our senses. Definitely our pick of favourite experiences in India thus far.
This post was made possible by Narendra Bhawan Bikaner. Opinions, as always are our own.