What would you call someone who is eternally second or third, never the first choice; and this not because of any lack of talent or absence of showmanship. Bikaner suffers from this syndrome. This northern-most of the desert cities in Rajasthan is always the second or third choice of tourists, always playing the side role to stars like Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. And, more often than not, it gets just a single day stopover in the itineraries. Though it features in all Rajasthan Tourism brochures, apart from the Junagarh Fort, the pride of place in its descriptions goes to Deshnok, famous for Karni Mata Temple, the rat temple. The David clearly prevails over the Goliath in this case.
The city too seems resigned to this state of affairs. Sleepy, dusty and laid back, Bikaner dons the cloak of ordinary with practiced ease. Even tourist guides do not scruff the visitor by the neck, as in other destinations of note, and one can walk around without being subjected to aggressive selling. It is a small city and within 15 minutes of driving in any direction you leave its limits. Of this too, a large area is occupied by the cantonment. There are no glitzy malls here, no glass-fronted shops and the single flyover it has too seems to be supplanted from the age of the no-nonsense railway overbridges. In fact, the over a kilometre-long bridge does go over the railway line. Camel carts, with the driver mimicking the camel’s uninterested demeanour to the tee, and motorbikes and scootys weaving through the lanes, dominate the traffic. The restaurants hark back to the eighties – even the prices and portions are not up with the times; prices are comparatively low and portions huge – and, going by number of people, the roadside carts selling kachoris and samosas seem to be the most popular. The only clue it reveals of being a city of the 21st century is the number of one-way streets it has.
This is not to say that Bikaner has not much on offer for an interested visitor. What it has is at par with what, for example, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur – the two cities it gets coupled with in tourist itineraries – have. It has a fabulous red sandstone fort, another fort-turned-into heritage hotel ala Umaid Palace in Jodhpur, a plethora of havelis, not one less than the more famous ones in Jaisalmer, and desert on all four sides. It has its unique bhujia, a snack found almost all over India. In Deshnok, Kolayat and Gajner, it has close neighbours capable of attracting hordes. And, unlike other destinations, it has a temple that predates the city, in fact, even the formation of the kingdom of Bikaner.
This ‘second-choice syndrome’ perhaps stems from Bikaner’s foundation. Rao Bika, who built his fort in Bikaner in 1478, was the son of Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodhpur. He wanted his own kingdom and thus reached these arid parts, known as Jangladesh then. In a way, he left his first option and settled for the second. There is an interesting aside to the name Bikaner. While clearly ‘Bika’, the first part of the name, comes from the founder of the kingdom, the second part, ‘Ner’ is ascribed to Naira or Nera, a Jat who was the owner of the land. As the legend goes, he agreed to Rao Bika’s request for land on the condition that his name should also figure in the name of the kingdom. So, the new kingdom was named Bikaner. In Rajasthan, the land of kings, Bikaner is perhaps the only example where a kingdom incorporates a commoner’s name in its own; others are named solely after their kings, Jaipur after Sawai Jai Singh II, Jaisalmer after Maharawal Jaisal Singh, Jodhpur after Rao Jodha and Udaipur after Maharana Udai Singh II.
In this sense, Bikaner puts to lie Shakespeare’s oft-quoted ‘What’s in a name’. For, it carries its royal antecedents with a common man’s nonchalance; it has much to be admired for, but does not have the trait to aggressively publicise its riches. Even its forts – there are three of them, Bika’s forgotten old fort, Junagadh Fort, a museum now, and Lalbagh Palace, a heritage hotel – are not perched on hills or spurs, but laid out at the same level as the rest of the city. The highest point of the city is occupied by Bhandashah Jain Temple, the oldest building in the city, the construction of which started in 1468 before the establishment of Bikaner kingdom. It was completed in 1514. Commissioned by a wealthy ghee merchant, Bhandasa Oswal of a nearby village, Nal, where Bikaner airport is coming up today, it is said that instead of water, ghee was used while laying the foundation of the temple (see box).
The three-storied temple, dedicated to the fifth Jain tirthankar, Sumtinath, is elaborately painted with miniatures and has some stunning workmanship on its roof, walls, doors and windows. These, though, are said to be of much later period. Nonetheless, this temple, which attracts very few tourists, is an example of the gems Bikaner casually hides from all but those genuinely interested. For the hoi polloi, there’s the Junagardh fort that came up nearly a hundred years after the first fort built by Rao Bika. The older fort, my guide, Mohammed Zafar, told me was below the Bhandashah Temple. “It is called ‘Rao Bikaji ki Tekri’,” he said and took me to a big yellow painted building housing the ASI office and a museum. Though it did not match the description, ‘now in ruins’, repeated across various websites, it did seem to be a building of note. And, the fact that it was close to the temple commissioned a decade earlier, made it a likely candidate.
I had met Zafar at Junagarh Fort – earlier known as Chintamani Durg – a day earlier. As I stood at the entrance, looking for the ticket window, he had approached me diffidently. “Sir, do you need a guide,” he had asked politely. Normally, I am wary of guides swarming around monuments. But there was something in his manner that held my interest and, against my usual reticence, I got into a conversation of sorts with him. What made me accept his offer was not the names of sights he reeled off he’ll show me, but the fact that he was from Bikaner proper. His family had always lived in Bikaner and I thought he could be the person who could help me put a finger on how this city behaved. He turned out to be a good choice as he was informative and curious and took pride in his city. He soon figured out that I was seeking more than the usual sightseeing tour. He then took upon himself to show me around Bikaner on his motorbike and, in a sense, he shaped my understanding of the city which was alluring yet secretive.
He took me around Junagarh Fort, built in an area of 5 hectares by Raja Rai Singh, under whose reign Bikaner became prosperous. It, I believe, is one of the best preserved forts in Rajasthan. Though not as overpowering as Mehrangarh fort of Jodhpur and as vast as Jaisalmer fort, it nevertheless has on display workmanship of such elegant aesthetics that one cannot but wonder at the amount of painstaking effort gone into it. While golden threads weave around in exquisite designs on the deep red walls, luminous greens form serpentine designs over dark blue panels. The king’s suite, the Karan Mahal, the Anup Mahal, each and every part of the fort was a different world; the link between them all was a plethora of fruit bowls painted all over the fort.
After nearly three hours inside the fort, Zafar took me on a ride to old Bikaner where a surprise awaited me. Though he had mentioned that he’ll show me some havelis later, I had not given it much thought. Nowhere had I read about havelis of Bikaner and I presumed that they’ll be a couple of big buildings, usual in many towns of Rajasthan. But what I came across was at par with the world-renowned havelis of Jaisalmer. There were over a hundred in a small area, all built in red sandstone and with exquisite stone work. They loomed over the narrow bylanes of the old city, each a marvel in its own right. Most of them still served as private quarters and I could do nothing but admire their exteriors. And, all the while I kept on thinking as to why no brochure or website talked about them. More so, when they were not hidden in some corner but literally made a splash in the centre of the town. Yet again, the contradictions of Bikaner confounded me. Standing in the midst of these architectural gems, I realised that had I not met Zafar and probed him about the ‘non-tourist’ parts of the city, I would have gone back with memories of just another place with a fort in Rajasthan.
Of a cow, ghee and wasp
The folklore behind the temple is quite interesting. According to legend, a sadhu once came to Bhandasa’s shop and after a meal gave him a stone for safekeeping. “I will return and take it back some day,” the sadhu told the merchant, hiding the fact that it was the mythical paras pathar, which turns things into gold by touch. Bhandasa kept the stone on a shelf, but it fell on some bowls below, which thus turned into gold. Realising it was paras pathar, Bhandasa became greedy and when the sadhu came after some time to reclaim the stone, he said that he had lost it. Realising the merchant’s trickery, sadhu cursed Bhandasa that he will not have any progeny. Repentant Bhandasa asked for forgiveness. The sadhu then showed him a cow – magical cow, the legend adds – and said that he should build a temple at the spot where the cow will give milk. The cow did so where the temple stands today.
The ghee-in-the-foundation story also has an interesting background to it. According to local lore, while planning the temple with the mistri (builder), Bhandasa was having his lunch. It so happened that a wasp fell into the bowl of ghee he was having. Seeing this, Bhandasa fished out the wasp, carefully wiped the ghee off it, brushed his ghee-stained fingers on his camel-hide jutti (shoe) – kind of footwear still used today – and put the wasp on one side.
The builder saw all this and thought that Bhandasa was a miser. He began to doubt the merchant’s intent to build the temple. To allay his doubts, he told Bhandasa that he needed a lot of ghee for the construction of the temple. “Take all you want,” Bhandasa said. The legend adds that 40,000 tonnes of ghee was used in the construction.
The story does not end there. The builder later told Bhandasa that he asked for ghee because he doubted the merchant. Bhandasa then told him that he had rubbed the ghee off the wasp because otherwise ghee-dripped wasp would have attracted ants and that they would have not only eaten up the wasp but also would have come beneath the feet of people. “I did so to avoid so much violence,” Bhandasa said.