Wednesday, February 01, 2017

11 Top Things to do in Off Beat Bikaner

When we think of a holiday in Rajasthan, we think of the palaces and forts of Jaipur and Jodhpur, the rolling sand dunes of Jaisalmer, the lake palace of Udaipur, the temples of Ranakpur, the camel festival of Pushkar and the rich wildlife experience at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. But, we hardly think of making off-beat Bikaner a part of our itinerary. May be, it is because Bikaner doesn’t have an airport or may be because, a lot of us have preferred to stay ignorant to the charms of this 3rd largest city in Rajasthan. I recently spent 4 days exploring Bikaner as part of a Rajasthan holiday and I have to say that it was possibly one of my best Rajasthan holiday experiences.

Ornately carved window on a haveli in Bikaner, Rajasthan, India

From forts to palaces, from havelis to temples and from a colorful desert culture to delicious food, the city of Bikaner has it all. Here are 11 special reasons to make off-beat Bikaner a part of your next Rajasthan holiday.

Live in a King’s Home

At Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner

Rajasthan is one of those places in India that allows you to live like kings  even in the 21st century and that is one of the top lures of this colorful state. Sadly, most of them are uber expensive, but not in the case of Bikaner’s Narendra Bhawan, a home of ex-king Narendra Singh ji that functions today as a tastefully designed hotel home and which mirrors the life of Narendra Singh ji.

In front of Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner

Living that regal life, chomping on that delicious food from their kitchen, getting spoiled by their amazing service and not burning a hole in your pocket…Now, that’s what I call a special Bikaneri holiday.

Pay a Visit to Rajasthan’s Temple of Rats  
Karni Mata Temple - the place where rats are worshipped

A trip to Bikaner is not complete without a visit to the Rajasthan’s temple of rats aka Karni Mata Temple. This 15th century temple, which is one of its kind in the whole world can seriously test your mettle. After all, it is not every day that we enter a temple crawling with 20,000 rats and where people are offering food to them and taking their blessings. And while you are there, see if you are lucky enough to spot a white rat. It is like a jackpot of good luck.

Lose Yourself in the Ancient Merchant Trail

Walking amidst the stunning havelis of Bikaner, Rajasthan, India

Back in the day, business in Bikaner thrived due to its prime location along the caravan routes between West and Central Asia. Precious stones, silk, spices and many other items were traded by the Bikaneri traders. Enriched by this bountiful trade, the nobles and merchants of Bikaner built palaces, havelis and temples in red sandstone that stand pristine till date.

On the haveli trail in Bikaner, Rajasthan, India

There is no more trade happening on this ancient merchant trail, but it certainly offers a stunning walking trip across Rampuriya Haveli, Golchha Haveli, Rangari Chowk, Kotharion ka chowk, Daga Sitya Chowk and Punan Chand Haveli. This merchant trail walk through the havelis and colorful bazaars offers you a delightful insight into the sheer riches of the merchants of Bikaner.

Visit Miniature Artist Mahaveer Swami’s Workshop
Mahaveer Swami ji - miniature art expert from Bikaner, Rajasthan

Rajasthan is one of those states in India that specializes in miniature art. A beautiful fusion of Mughal style of art and Rajasthani color palette and creative imagination, Bikaner’s miniature art history is stunning and worth every bit a slow and thorough experience. Bikaner’s very own internationally acclaimed miniature artist, Mahaveer Swami ji, is keeping this ancient family skill afloat. Along with his son, he runs his miniature art workshop in the city.

Workstation of a miniature artist, Rajasthan

Here you can understand everything from how paper is hand made, how the natural colors are produced to the intricacies behind the different types of brushes. And as his workshop is also a gallery of his life time’s creations, you can see the gorgeous and fine miniature art through the very important magnifying glass. You can also buy a miniature painting as a souvenir for yourself or for your friends and family.

Try out a Safa

Donning a colorful Panchrangi Safa

In Rajasthan, one is not too far away from a man sporting a colorful turban and a handlebar moustache. This colorful turban, locally called as the safa, is an integral part of Rajasthani culture. Such is the safa culture that it is worn as  a day to day accessory and as a fashion accessory when attending weddings and family functions and it is considered derogatory to touch a safa with your foot. Moreover, each city, district and region in Rajasthan has its own unique way of tying the safa and the locals can easily identify the city that the person belongs to just by looking at this safa. Fantastic, right?

Colorful Safas on display at Rajwadi Safa House, Bikaner, Rajasthan

Such glamor over a turban definitely requires you trying it out at least once. Rajwadi Safa house near the Bikaner railway station is ideal as they host a lot of designs and their safa experts can tie you any of the different safa styles while giving you a good understanding of their meaning, history and background. Personally, I have a panchrangi tied in the Barmer style (this is the one that you see in the photograph).

Eat Traditional Marwari Lunch at a Haveli

Marwari Lunch time at a haveli in Bikaner

In Rajasthan, one is never far away from delicious food. But, to enjoy a delicious meal the local way while sitting inside a haveli is definitely a rare experience. My mouth is already watering just thinking of Dal Baati Choorma, Kher Sangri, Govind Gatta, Bajra de Roti, Peshawari Dal, Halwa, Kheer and other delicious foods of the desert.

Have a Sunset Drink in the Desert

Listening to the Rawan Hatha next to a oasis in the desert off Bikaner, Rajasthan

Bikaner and its surroundings are smack in the middle of the Thar desert and hence offer great access to gorgeous sand dunes, sunset camel rides in the desert, a sundowner drink by a oasis and/or a camp over under the star-studded and amazingly clear desert sky. And thats not it, if you are an early riser, you can catch a surreal sunrise in the desert while chinkaras, blackbucks, raptors and vultures keep dropping in and out of your vision.

Explore the Royal Trail

Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner, Rajasthan

History lives in every nook and corner of 500 year old Bikaner. From its palaces to museums and from its forts to temples, every art and history lover is bound to be amazed by these historical storehouses. Be it the spectacular crafts of the Mahals inside 16th century Junagarh Fort ( a land fort that was never conquered) or the royal residence of Laxmi Niwas Palace, the resplendent Lalgarh palace influenced by Victorian architecture or  the rich architecture at Laxminath temple, the royal trail of Bikaner is bound to impress one and all.

Float into Ghevar Heaven

The making of ghewar, Rajasthan's famous dessert

Made up of flour, ghee (clarified butter), kewra (extract distilled from the flower of the pandanus plant), milk, sugar, almonds, pistachio, saffron and green cardamom, this disc-shaped sweet cake and a traditional Rajasthani dessert possesses all the ingredients to transport you into sugary heaven. Even though the Ghevar hails from Jaipur, one can also try it out at the sweet meat shops in the bazaars of Bikaner. A word of advice: Go easy on the dessert and make sure you have not had a lot of food prior to eating this dessert as it is quite heavy.

Seth Bhandasar Jain Temple

Inside the colorful Seth Bhandasar Jain temple, Bikaner, Rajasthan

Dedicated to the 5th Tirthankar of the Jain faith, this 15th century temple is the oldest and the most distinct monument in all of Bikaner.  Carved in red sandstone and white marble, this temple is famous for its rich mirror work, frescoes and gold leaf paintings. And when you are there, ask the priest (the local pandit) for the best selfie location and he will guide you to the whereabouts.

Catch a Sunset at the Royal Cenotaphs of Devikund Sagar

The beautiful Royal cenotaphs of Bikaner at Devikund Sagar

While the sunset in the desert is definitely special, I kind of liked the sunset at the Royal Cenotaphs of Bikaner too. The cremation ground of the Bikaner Royal family, these cenotaphs or chhattris are marvelous examples of a fusion of Rajput and Muslim art and architecture. Get here an hour before sunset, admire the different art and carvings and make your way to the cenotaphs on the far right to capture your perfect sunset shot.

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