If Jaipur, Jodhpur feel too touristry for your taste, it is time to head to Bikaner. Say Bikaner and the first thing that invariably pops into the mind is the name of its ubiquitous mithai-and-namkeen manufacturer. Take a trip to this small desert town to discover its other delights, besides bhujia
But first, a little history. Before the 15th century, Bikaner was a barren waste called Jangaldesh. In 1465, Rao Bika, younger son of the ruler of Marwar, riled by a callous remark from his father, left home with a company of Rathore warriors to found his own kingdom. It is said that during his travels, he met with a mystic – Karni Mata – who inspired him in his quest. He built the fort of Rati Ghati and soon became a power to reckon with. Karni Mata again came to his aid, settling Bika’s simmering rivalry with the neighbouring Bhati clan by arranging a marriage with the Bhati chieftain’s daughter. Many military campaigns later, Rao Bika selected a spot for his new capital. The owner of this site agreed to relinquish his birthright, provided his name – Nera – was retained in the new capital’s nomenclature. And that’s how
Bikaner got its name!
The city’s formidably beautiful Junagadh Fort has been witness to the Rathore legacy of fierce independence. A fairytale moat, lovely palaces and a temple are its chief attractions today.
Within the fort, the Lal Garh Palace rises into the clear desert air, a dreamlike confection of red sandstone lattices and chhatris; today, it is part luxury hotel and part royal residence.
The fort museum’s showpiece is a biplane of World War II vintage, gifted by the British to Maharaja Ganga Singh. Also worth seeing is the impressive collection of Rajput weaponry. The Prachina Bikaner Museum, also inside the fort, has a collection of extravagant royal costumes, jewellery and bric-a-brac.
In the town’s beautiful old havelis, memories linger on of Bikaner’s past importance as a vital trading post on the caravan routes from the west. Delve into the narrow city lanes –Gogagate, Rangari Chowk or Mohta Chowk – for a peek into the decadent lifestyles of Bikaner’s rich and famous. Drop into the stunningly carved Bhandasar Jain temple, whose foundation is believed to have soaked up several thousand kilos of ghee!
Speaking of ghee, food inevitably plays a starring role in any visit to Bikaner. Spiffy, new outlets seem to have dollar-linked prices, but you can’t really go wrong with the older and simpler joints. Try a wonderfully filling, traditional thali with favourite items like Ker Sangria; drop in at Bikaner’s best known sweet shop – Chhotu Motu Joshi – and indulge in creamy, cool lassi and decadent kesar cham-cham.
Where better than the desert to learn everything you wanted to know about camels? At the National Research Centre on Camels, on the city’s outskirts, you can go for a ride, click baby camels and try a camel milk lassi.
Feeling adventurous? Consider a jeep safari lasting from half-day sorties to 14-day trips into the desert all the way up to Jaisalmer.
While Bikaner is increasingly popular with travellers, it still hasn’t acquired the ‘touristy’ label. Get there while the going’s good.