At the heart of Bikaner is its fort, Junagarh, around whose battlements the town has grown. The fort is as lavish in its interiors as it is huge. The great courtyards and the painted apartments of Anup Mahal, Karan Mahal and Phool Mahal within the fort are particularly stunning.
Maharaja Ganga Singh, who had the fort’s Durbar Hall built at the turn of the last century, using carved wood, is also responsible for the building of Lallgarh, the palace that was to become the residence of the royal family. Built entirely of red sandstone and designed by the British architect Sir Swinton Jacob, it has been described as the finest example of Rajput architecture. Today, the sprawling Lallgarh has multiple uses — besides housing members of the royal clan, two of its wings are run as palace hotels.
For a small town, Bikaner is not short of museums, the principal one being located at Junagarh Fort and housing a collection that includes a World War I fighter aircraft. Recently, a separate section has been commissioned for royal robes and dresses. Within Lallgarh, the visitor will find the Sadul Singh Museum, consisting chiefly of old photographs, paintings and more memorabilia. Then there is the Golden Jubilee Museum, arguably the best place to see, under one roof, everything from paintings by the German artist Mueller to armour, coins, pottery, carpets and rare sculptures from the Gupta and Kushan periods, as well as remnants from pre-Harappan archaeological finds.
Deshnoke (23 km)
The Karni Mata Temple at Deshnoke is better known by its sobriquet of Temple of Rats. This is misleading, for the presiding deity is Karni Mata, an incarnation of the goddess Durga. However, the temple complex, with its beautifully carved marble façade, is sanctuary for thousands of mice (known as kabas), said to be the souls of those who have served in the goddess’s court. People in Rajasthan come on special pilgrimages here and revere the mice — even though they look somewhat bedraggled, because their coats are mangy on account of the humongous quantities of sweets they consume.
Gajner (30 km)
Gajner was the private hunting preserve of the royal family of Bikaner. In particular, the imperial sand grouse shoots here were popular, for the lake attracts migrant birds in winter. With shooting prohibited now, there is a good chance of spotting plenty of birds, a variety of deer and hare.
However, it is the former royal hunting lodge that visitors come to see and, now, stay in. The red sandstone Gajner Palace (Tel: 01534-55062; Tariff: Rs 3,300-5,500) is beautifully reflected in the lake’s water. The huge deck that overlooks the lake is the perfect space from which to watch the sun rise and set. And a solar-powered boat is available for rides.
Breeding ships for the desert
The camel is ubiquitous in Rajasthan, but nowhere is its presence more pronounced than in Bikaner, where there is even a camel corps — the only one of its kind in the world. Camels abound — in the countryside, the bazaar, on the roads...
Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that you will also find a camel breeding farm in Bikaner — or at least 8 km from the city centre. Here, camels are bred from strains acquired from all over the world, and prized animals are shown off with much fanfare. For most of the day, the camels are out in the countryside, so it’s best to get here early in the morning or in the late afternoon, when they return.
Those working at the farm will happily tell you about these animals — their intractable nature and ability to survive in the desert — along with their role in the region’s legends and its crafts. Arrangements can also be made for camel rides and for sampling the sweet, thick camel’s milk, not most people’s cup of tea.
Later, you can always go looking in the bazaar for a rug woven from camel’s hair to serve as a memory of the smelly beast that is truly the ship of the desert.