Getting better with age: Bikaner
If beauty ever bloomed in a desert, it was in Bikaner. Bikaner is a swirling desert with an imposing fort and an eerie desert outpost like feel. The stark beauty, the widespread sand dunes, the moonlit glittering beauty and desert agility, the marvelous world heritage sites, wildlife and bird sanctuaries, naturally formed oases which have turned to lakes combine to make this city one of lasting charm and fascination. It is relatively less dominated by tourism compared to the other cities of Rajasthan, mostly because of the inaccessibility by air, but this has helped preserve the city and its heritage in pretty much its original, pristine condition. Bikaner, situated in the heart of the desert has been known as the ‘tapo bhoomi’, or the place of the ascetics, because of the harsh living conditions.
The architectural wealth of Bikaner lies in its forts, palaces and temples. The most common monuments of interest are the Junagarh Fort, largest fort in Asia with intricate murals, paintings, mirror and artwork and sculpture, sprawling gardens and water fountains, and a mind boggling collection of war equipment and uniforms. Though slightly smaller in size, the royalty maintain the grandeur and glamour of princely states of Marwar. They made many other palaces and havelis during their reign and the lakeside Gajner Palace, Lakshmi Nivas palace, Karni Vilas palace and many others. Independent havelis were made by the wealthy and royally blessed of the city. Rampuria group of havelis is a must visit, which showcases exquisite marble carving skills of the artisans of the day. Most of these monuments are world heritage sites and need to be experienced.
Another famous must visit place in Bikaner is the Karni Mata temple, located in the village of Deshnok, 30 kms outside Bikaner and famous for its resident rats. They serve as places of worship for the local populace. The city is also famous for temples, some of which are located in the inner arms of the city, unreachable by car, and you must either walk or take an auto rickshaw. The most famous are the Bhandasar Jain temple and the Lakshminathji temple. The Bhandasar temple is devoted to the Shwetambar sector of the Jain faith and is known for intricate carvings and dizziyingly vibrant paintings on the walls. This three storied temple also offers a panoramic view of the city of Bikaner if you manage to climb all the way to the top. Right next to the Bhandasar temple is the 1100 year old Sheetla Mata temple, the goddess of cooling, where devotees offer prayers in the month of March.
One can also do some off the beaten track things in Bikaner, like ride a camel cart into the desert and have a desert picnic. At sunset, one can ride a camel and watch the sun go down over the horizon into the sandunes. As the moon rises, the sanddunes are bathed in silvery moonlight that make staying out on the dunes that much more exquisite. Or one can wait until the camel festival held in second week of January, the annual celebration of the ship of the desert, the magnificent beasts that have helped and aided human existence in the desert since times immemorial. Gangaur, celebrated in April is the celebration of the goddess of power with the Rajasthani locals. The festival is accompanied by idols of the goddess, dressed in the best Rajasthani finery, carried on the heads of married Rajasthani women, dressed in their most regal finery. This is accompanied by the Ghoomar dancing, bhavai and chari dance, where women dance on nails and broken glass with a pot of water on their heads and the fire dance where men dance barefeet on hot coals and amber.
One can visit the army run Chetak restaurant right opposite the Junagarh temple or the Gallops restaurant right behind the fort and sample some of the most amazing delicasies of meat and vegetables that the city has to offer. Almost all the palaces and havelis have now been converted to heritage hotels, and all of them have hatted chefs that will whip up the most exquisite Rajasthani delicasies such as the dal, baati, churma, or Kadhi chawal, or laal maas (red meat- cooked in chilli paste) for you. But to get the real taste of Bikaner, one must visit the old city and taste bhujia fresh out of the wok or you could visit a factory in the Rani bazaar industrial area and see the snack in mass production. While you are at it, try also some mirchi bada (fried chilli dumpling), or some kachori and khaman dhokla. To cool off the heat, walk across the railway line near Kote gate and eat the legendary sankhla kulfi.
Rajasthan is famous for its colorful clothes and most of the textiles are handmade. Tie and dye is the most famous art and craft form of Rajasthan, the most common forms being bandhani (bandhej), leheriya and shibori. Gurunanak market and Labhuji ka katla are old markets, bustling with activity and traders where one can buy textiles where the ties are still tied. The traders will open them for you, and as you watch, magic on cloth will unfurl in front of your eyes. Alternatively, you can take a short class in making tie and dye in the inside reaches of the labhuji ka katla and inside kote gate, where most of the artisans work, but make sure you bring old clothes along and be prepared to get very colored.
Bikaner is a small, colorful town in the remote corners of Rajasthan, but once you visit, the dusty, ethereal, eerie aura of this city will have you spell bound, and you will never want to leave. It is a city that is struggling hard to stay untouched by modern advances and trying to preserve its roots the best it can, and this is the magic of Bikaner, that only grows with every year that goes by.
The Naal airport is under construction and is expected to open to the public by 2017.
Bikaner is connected by the rail line to all the major cities of India such as Jaipur, New Delhi etc.
The city is interspersed by many national highways connecting it to many major neighboring cities
Transportation within the city is by cabs or autorickshaws within the inner reaches of the cities where the lanes are too narrow for cars.