The commercial city of Bikaner may not have the aesthetic appeal of Jaisalmer, which is more than 300 km southwest of it, but it still has a picturesque fort and an old town with many havelis, surrounded by seven kilometers of high walls. Moreover, simply because this fourth largest city of Rajasthan is visited by fewer visitors compared to other major population centers, it has a certain air of unspoiledness. Most foreign tourists spend just one night here on their way to or from Jaisalmer, but extend your stay and you can visit the famous rat temple in nearby Deshnok and the government’s camel farm 10 km to the south.
The city was founded in 1486 as a link on the overland trade route by Bika, one of the fourteen sons of Rao Jodhi, the Rathore prince who made Jodhpur the center of the Marwar state. Two scouts he sent to find a place for his new capital met a shepherd named Neer (hence the name of the city) who claimed to have seen one of his sheep repel an attack by seven wolves under the khair bush; the place was chosen with the belief that it would also inspire courage in the people who would live there. Under Rai Singh, who came to the throne in 1573, Junagarh Fort was built and closer ties were forged with the Mughals; Rai Singh gave his daughter in marriage to one of Akbar’s sons. Later, during Gang Singh’s fifty-six-year reign in the early 1900s, new agricultural technology, irrigation works, urban planning, and the construction of a rail line linking the city to Delhi contributed to the economic development of Bikaner; it had long outgrown the city wall, and its population had tripled since 1947 to nearly half a million.
It’s worth spending a day or two just wandering around Bikaner, watching dyers work, visiting ancient Jain temples, and exploring Junagarh Fort. Bikaner is famous for its elaborate lacquered and other handicrafts, which are sold in the bazaar for a mere fraction of the Jaisalmer bloated “tourist prices,” as well as handmade wool shawls and blankets. The best place to buy the latter is at the Abhivyakti store just outside the main gate leading to the fort.
Built at ground level, protected only by high walls and a wide moat, Junagarh Fort (10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Friday; Rs. 50, photo Rs. 50, video Rs. 100) is not as imposing at first sight as the mighty hill forts elsewhere in Rajasthan. But the decorative interiors and stone sculpture of the palaces, temples and 37 pavilions within its walls are almost unsurpassed in their splendor. Ignore the many “guides” at the main gate offering their services, as a guided tour is included in the ticket price.
The fort was built between 1587 and 1593, during the reign of Rai Singh, and later rulers added their own palaces, temples, and luxurious courtyards. Although the fortress was never conquered, it was attacked – the handprints on the stone next to the second gate, Daulat Pole, testify to the voluntary deaths of royal women whose men lost their lives in a battle remembered as sati.
The main courtyard opens to the Karan Mahal, with its gold-plated murals decorating its columns and walls, which was built in the seventeenth century to commemorate the victory over the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, while the dazzling Phul Mahal was erected by Gaj Singh a century later. The stained glass windows, exquisite stone carvings and wooden balconies, as well as the vibrant painted walls and ceilings throughout the fort demonstrate the extravagant tastes of its rulers. The most magnificent structure is the Anup Mahal, with wooden ceilings, inlaid pieces of mirrors, Italian ceramic tiles, and delicate openwork carvings on the windows and balconies. The huge rug is one of many made by the inmates of Bikaner Prison, a manufacturing tradition that ceased only recently. At some point in the tower, your guide may offer to unlock the door to the Chandra Mahal, normally inaccessible to visitors. Don’t be intimidated by the baksheesh requirement; it is the most magnificent room in the fort, full of gilded images of the gods and paintings inlaid with precious stones.
The tour usually ends in the huge Ganga Singh Hall. This is the newest part of the fort, dating back to 1937, and houses part of the museum, whose exhibits include the inevitable weapons and an unexpected World War II airplane, which is still in excellent condition.
The Kote Gate at the west end of MG Road is the main entrance leading through the high walls into the colorful old town of Bikaner. The main attractions here are several extraordinary havelis whose characteristic architecture is an incredible blend of local sandstone carvings and the red brick style of turn-of-the-century municipal Britain. The most impressive examples, adorned with busts of British kings and queens, stand in the heart of the old town; ask for directions to the Rampuriya Haveli, or the better known Bhanwar Nivas Haveli, located further down the same street, which was built in 1927 for the heir to a huge fortune in textile and real estate enterprises and which is now a chic hotel.
Continue south past Barra Bazaar, toward the southeast corner of the old town and you will eventually emerge at the two Bikanerjain temples (daily 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.). Built by two brothers of merchants, both are notable for their colorful and intricate wall paintings. The first floor of the Bhandreshwar temple (1571) is decorated with many columns; some are decorated with gilded floral designs known as usta, typical of Muslim artisans, and others with relief sculptures of men and women, typical of medieval India. A statue of the God Suminatha, the fifth tirthankara, stands on the third floor. Steps lead up to the tower and from there you can enjoy a magnificent view of the old city. The Sandeshwar Temple, dedicated to Neminath (the 22nd tirthankara) and dating from 1536, houses rows of statues of saints made of solid marble, and the walls are decorated with enamel and gold plate paintings.
The nearby sixteenth-century Laxminath temple was built by Lunkaran Singh, the third ruler of Bikaner, on the edge of the high city wall. It towers over the Muslim community of screen printers and screen printers and the barren desert in the distance.
Lalgarh Palace and the Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum
The sturdy red sandstone Lalgarh Palace in the north of the city is the home of the Bikaner princely family, although some parts of it now serve as a hotel. It was built during the reign of Gang Singh, who lived here from 1902, using the fort only for personal business, and despite the fine carvings, its modern appearance makes it rather ugly compared to other Rajasthani palaces. The Sri Sadul Museum(Mon – Sat 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 20 rupees) houses a huge collection of old photographs with scenes of various viceroyal visits and princely processions that will fascinate any Raj-o-phile. If you have time, it’s also worth a look at the Anup Sanskrit Library (same business hours; admission is free), which houses a small selection of unique and well-preserved manuscripts, parchments and copper engravings, plus gold and silver plaques.
The small Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum (daily except Fridays 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; 3 rupees) on NH-8 Highway, near the Dhola Maru Hotel, has a more or less interesting display of costumes, weapons, jewelry, ancient statues and paintings, one of which depicts the signing of the Versailles Treaty of Ganga by Singh. Older exhibits include terracotta pieces from the Gupta period (fourth and fifth centuries).
The surroundings of Bikaner
Several interesting places near Bikaner can be visited in a day. The most unusual are the camel farm and the Karni Mata Temple, a teeming mass of sacred rats.
This perhaps Asia’s largest camel farm (Mon-Fri from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.) is located in the desert 10 km south of Bikaner, easily reached by rickshaw, the round trip should cost about 60 rupees (including a waiting time of 30 minutes). Although Bikaner has long been famous for its hardy animals, and camel corps were a no small part of the imperial fighting force, the farm itself was only founded in 1975. Its breeding program has been so successful that it now supplies fifty percent of India’s camels, hundreds of which, young and old, can be seen proudly wading across the sands with their knees turned inward.
Believers who come to pray at the unique Karni Mata Temple (daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; admission is free, photography is Rs. 20, video is Rs. 50) in Deshnok, 30 km south of Bikaner, believe that departing souls escape the wrath of Yama, god of death, by transforming into rats. Accordingly, visitors worship and feed teeming packs of freely moving sacred rodents known as kabas; if one runs over your foot, it is considered a great privilege, but whatever you do, do not step on the rat, or you will have to sacrifice a gold model of this animal to propitiate the deity. It is also considered auspicious to eat prasad (blessed food from the main sanctuary) after tasting it kabas.
Built of unworked stone and logs from sacred jal trees, the crudely crafted innermost sanctuary, which contains a yellow marble image (pratima) of Karniji, is placed inside a much more magnificent marble building erected by Bika Rao’s grandson after he defeated the Mughals. It is entered through a striking set of sturdy silver doors donated by Maharaja Ganga Singh, the penultimate ruler of Bikaner. Other altars in the complex are dedicated to Manu Bhai (Karni’s grandfather) and, to the right of the main entrance, to Deshrath Meghwat, the shepherd boy who died protecting Karni’s cattle.
To get to Deshnok by bus from Bikaner, wait at the southwest entrance to the large area around the RV Memorial Hospital, or at Goga Gate Circle, right at the southeast corner of the old town.
Bikaner is the third largest city in the Indian state of Rajasthan, located in the middle of the Thar Desert. It is known for its rich history and the old town, which still has ancient havelis, imposing city walls and gates. However, its calling card is camel breeding. Tourists from all over India and the world come to Bikaner to attend a camel festival or go on a popular camel safari.
Geography and Climate of Bikaner
The city is located in the northwestern part of the country, 490 km from New Delhi and 330 km from Jaipur. It is located in the north of the Thar Desert, the only one in India. It is characterized by a flat, hard, rocky surface in places. There is almost no vegetation around Bikaner. Only the occasional blackthorn can be found, which can only sporadically make its way through the lifeless soil.
Bikaner is located in a hot, semi-arid climate characterized by sparse precipitation and extreme temperature fluctuations. In summer the temperature here is about +48 °C, while in winter it can be as low as -4 °C. The average annual rainfall in Bikaner is 320 mm. Most of it (108 mm) falls in July, while a smaller amount (0.8 mm) falls in November.
History of Bikaner
The city was founded in 1465 by the Rajput chieftain Bika, who was a member of the Rathore clan. He made Bikaner the capital of the principality of the same name. For many centuries the Bikaner princes were in conflict with Bika’s father, Jodhaa, who founded Jodhpur, the second largest city in Rajasthan. Through their friendship with the Great Moguls, who were members of the Padishah dynasty of the Mughal Empire, the rulers of Bikaner were able to withstand such a powerful enemy in the person of Jodhaa.
Around the 18th century, the British invaded the region. They saw in Bikaner a nest of rebels, which forced its rajas to sign a subsidy treaty with the British. The Bikaner Agency was then established to administer the town and report to the Rajputana government agency. During the years of British colonization, the Bikaner Camel Corps was considered the pride of the Royal Army.
Modern Bikaner is a city whose economy depends entirely on irrigation projects. With a relatively small area (270 sq. km) it has a population of almost 648 thousand people.
Attractions and entertainment in Bikaner
The city has a rich and interesting history. Despite the internecine wars and British colonization, it managed to retain its national colors. This is especially evident in the architecture. The most famous landmarks of Bikaner are:
Another popular attraction is considered a camel breeding farm (Camel breeding farm), located 10 km from the city. Here they breed pale Bikaner camels, known for their stamina, short powerful legs and shaggy ears. Entrance to the farm is free, but you have to pay about $0.14 to take pictures. From Bikaner, you can get there by tuk-tuk (round-trip cost of $2). Right from the farm you can go on a camel safari through the sand dunes.
Hotels in Bikaner
The ancient palaces, traditional Rajasthani architecture and the camel festival attract a large number of tourists to the city. The following hotels in Bikaner are available for them:
- Narendra Bhawan;
- Vesta Bikaner Palace;
- The Laxmi Niwas Palace;
- Jaswant Bhawan;
They provide guests with comfortable Indian-style rooms, free parking and internet. Rooms at these Bikaner hotels start at $22.
Bikaneri bhujia, an unsweetened snack widely eaten around the world, is a trademark of the city. You can enjoy it in such restaurants in Bikaner as:
- Sankhla’s Kesar Kulfi;
- Laxmi Niwas;
- Bhikharam Chandmal Bhujiawala;
- Kings Pavillion;
They also offer Bajre ki Roti chapati, Dal baati lentil rolls, Ghevar sweet cake, halwa, Papadum flatbread, mithai sweets and namkin snacks. Tourists tired of Indian food can find restaurants with Italian pizza, fast food and desserts in Bikaner.
Transportation in Bikaner
Bikaner is a major railway hub, whose history dates back to 1891. Today Bikaner is connected by train with the capital of India, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Mumbai, Agra and other major cities of the country. It is also connected to them by a well-developed road network.
Located 15 km west of Bikaner is the airport, serving domestic flights. Bikner is mostly traveled by tuk-tuks, small vans or animal-drawn carts.
How to get to Bikaner?
The ancient city is located in the northwest of the country about 490 km from New Delhi. You can get to Bikaner from the capital of India by taking an Air India flight. The planes fly once a day. The round-trip ticket costs about $200 and the flight time is 1.5 hours. It takes about 8 hours to travel to Bikaner by train from Delhi Sarai Rohilla station. If travelling by car on NH 48, the distance of 490 km can be covered in about 9 hours.
You can also travel to Bikaner from the state capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur by Air India. The flight time will be just over 1 hour and the round-trip ticket price is around $57. The trip by Redbus bus, as well as by car (NH 52), will take about 6 hours.