The lanes are narrow, twisting and turning amidst buildings old and new. Crumbling old structures with intricate workmanship stand side by side with art deco buildings, and more modern constructions, which follow no particular style. Autos, bicycles, motorcycles and vans rush past, blowing their horns as loudly as possible, while cows saunter past peacefully, completely unaffected by the noise. In the midst of all this chaos, children play by the side, and women go about their chores, as we explore these by-lanes of Bikaner, and its beautiful Havelis.
|Facade of one of the Rampuria Havelis|
The Havelis are homes of the rich merchants of Bikaner. Most of them are from the early days of the 20th century, when Maharaj Ganga Singh, the then ruler of Bikaner, invited merchants from far and wide to come and settle here, giving them a variety of incentives to ply their trade. The biggest incentives were the Havelis themselves, and it is said, that each Haveli was handed over to the merchants, at the nominal rate of one Anna, and one coconut!
|Narrow lanes with Havelis on both sides|
The most popular among all the Havelis are the ones belonging to the Rampuria families. The Rampuria Havelis are grand structures, their façades exquisitely ornate. They stand all around one chowk or junction, and each Haveli belongs to one branch of what must be quite a big family. The first Haveli we spot is a unique one, with stone faces of British Monarchs glaring down their noses at us.
|King George and Queen Mary?|
The couple, in all probability, are King George V and Queen Mary, and they present quite an incongruous sight in this small town. By their side is another queen, who appears to be an Indian, from the nose ring she wears, along with the other ornaments.
|An unknown queen|
She could probably be the then Queen of Bikaner, which gives rise to the question – Why isn’t the king of Bikaner represented here, along with all these others?
The other Havelis here are bigger, and grander, and tower over us. However, it is a surprise to see how narrow most of them are, and they seem to fit into the available space like a piece in a puzzle, and I wonder how they were first built. Were they intended this way, leaving little space for the narrow lanes, or did they perhaps replace existing structures, or built wherever there was space?
|One of the most beautiful havelis|
But it is infinitely more interesting to see the details, than ruminate over how they were built. Atop one of the biggest Havelis here are these painted medallions…
The central one depicts Krishna with Radha, and on the side are landscapes, which seem to resemble scenes from Europe. All of them seem to have been copied from prints, which would have been in vogue in the early days of the 20th century.
|Radha and Krishna|
Once, medallions like these would have lined up the entire row on the second floor of this building. Sadly, only these three remain today!
If the medallions are an indication of western influence, the doors and the arches are, in sharp contrast, very traditional. They are covered with ornamentation, and, over the entrances, we can see Ganesha or Gaja Lakshmi. You can even see the name of the owners on some of them.
|One of the entrances, with the name atop the door|
|Notice the intricate work on the door arch, both in wood and in stone|
|Ganesha with two attendants atop one of the doors|
|Gajalakshmi over one of the doorways|
|Another intricately carved doorway with a beautiful grill|
All these Havelis have a row of doors at the floor level, with separate entrances for the male and female members of the family. The other doors lead into small rooms, where the merchants would have sat to transact their business. The entry to the Haveli itself is at a higher level, and we have to climb a steep set of stairs to reach the main door.
|Entry into the Haveli|
These might be the grandest Havelis here, but along these lanes are so many more, all belonging to rich merchants. A little further away is another chowk, this one surrounded by the Havelis of the Daddas, another business family closely aligned to the royal family. They are said to have helped the king in so many of his ventures, that they were given special privileges usually reserved for royalty!
|One of the Dadda Havelis|
Riding in a horse cart or Tonga, arranged for us by the folks at Narendra Bhawan, I feel rather regal as we weave our way in and out of the narrow lanes. Children shout as we pass by, asking for a ride. Their huge smiles, when we oblige, brighten our day further. But these are mere distractions, for I have eyes for nothing but the curious hodge-podge of art which surrounds me.
Art deco buildings stand amidst profusely carved Havelis; there are structures built over others, extended to accommodate growing families perhaps.
|Concrete, stone and plaster.. together|
|One of the Art Deco structures, atop a traditional haveli, with a traditional one on the left and a new one on the right|
|Another Art Deco structure|
But in the midst of it all are gems – like these intricately patterned parapet walls…
|Krishna and the gopis|
|Krishna playing the flute|
This gold and silver paper covered shrine, to some form of Shiva….
|A shrine, decorated with paper...|
A beautiful doorway to a Jain temple…
|Entrance of a Jain temple|
And this big wooden platform, seen at regular intervals. This is where the men gather every evening, to talk, to discuss…
|One of the wooden platforms|
Decorative tiles seem to have been popular with the owners. The most common pattern seen is that of a rose…. But there are more interesting ones too, such as these…
|A tile covered wall of a haveli|
Covering the outer wall of one of the more derelict Havelis, these tiles are patterned with the figures of Lakshmi, Saraswati and Krishna, based on the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. Here again is the influence of the new medium of print!
|A closer look at the tiles. Notice the variety of roses, and Saraswati at the centre|
The same influence is seen inside the Havelis too. The one we enter has these paintings on the walls of one of the rooms.
|Paintings inside a Haveli.. from left: Krishna defeating Kaliya, Krishna at Nathdwara, Saraswati and Lakshmi|
The rooms of the Haveli are small and intimate, perfect for a small family. This sounds surprising, till we think of the number of Havelis belonging to the same family here. These might have been the earliest set-ups for nuclear families.
|View inside the Haveli|
Settling down for a traditional Jain meal, a thali, it takes us a while to realise that there is no fan, no air conditioning, and we don’t need it! The small room is naturally cool, with cross ventilation and its placement taking care of the air flow.
|The arrangement for lunch|
Completely at ease, after a wonderful meal, I stretch out on the cushions, look up at the beautiful wooden ceiling….
|The sun, on the wooden ceiling|
…and I can just close my eyes and imagine myself here, with a book in my hand, a pot of tea by my side. It is a tempting image, one that makes me want to stay here forever. It is so easy, up here, away from the clamour of the streets below, to forget the outside world, for a while at least.
As we finally rouse ourselves, and step back down into the street, the chaos hits us again, and once more, as we make our way towards our car, my eyes are drawn upwards – to the brilliant art that surrounds us. Siddharth points out something I have missed – a painting of a train….
The train is painted on the outer wall of one of the smaller Havelis. It is shown passing on a bridge over a river or canal, between two stations. The painting indirectly highlights two of the greatest achievements of Maharaj Ganga Singh – the railways, and the Gang Canal!
|Full view of the train|
It strikes me, as I click the photograph, that the Haveli this is painted on, itself is an achievement of the king, who managed to bring in traders and businessmen to Bikaner. As for the Havelis, they themselves are symbols of the changing times, of new techniques coming in, of the influence of art from far and wide, of new forms of architecture, yet retaining many aspects of tradition. Which is what makes them unique!
Disclaimer: I visited the Havelis of Bikaner with Narendra Bhawan. The ride on a horse cart or Tonga, followed by the traditional Jain thali in one of the Havelis is part of their ‘Merchant Trail’ experience. The experience is heightened by the conversations during the ride, the many stories, and the food of course. It is the perfect way to see these Havelis and experience a different side of Bikaner. While the experience was courtesy Narendra Bhawan, the words, needless to say, are my own.