Location: Bhanwar Niwas, Rampuria Street, Joshiwara, Old Bikaner, Bikaner, Rajasthan
Imagine having your own artist living in your home, adding a flourish to a ceiling, a flower garland to a wall, a bespoke painted lampshade to a bedroom, as the fancy takes you. Bhanwar Niwas has not one but two resident artists who patiently add delicate Bikaner beauty to the already stunning haveli lived in by the Ranpuria family since it was completed till today.
This is just one footnote to my rediscovery of Bikaner, a forgotten gem in north Rajasthan sitting quietly amid the Thar desert’s tough climate (too hot or two cold, and mostly too dry) getting on with its traditional life, camels and cows still vying with the motorbikes. I found another in the fort’s entrance temple: omnipotent Shiva’s son Ganesh is wearing the Rathore clan turban of the Bikaner rulers, of course. Another is the street food – hot freshly-fried dal pakora with green chili chutney, cauldrons bubbling with sweetness that will become irresistible honeycomb topped with a dollop of custard, and the classic Bikaneri bhujia snack of moth bean and gram flour.
Bhanwar Niwas is the only one of the many grand merchants’ havelis in the bustling old city that is now a hotel. It was completed in 1927 by Bhanwarlalji Rampuria who inherited textile and real estate fortunes and kept close to the exceptionally able Maharaja Ganga Singh (ruled 1888-1943) who hauled his Rajput state into relative modernity, supported the British with the Bikaner Camel Corps in both world wars, and was a signatory at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.
Bhanwarlalji incorporated Indian Art Deco ideas into a traditional haveli plan that now has 11 bedrooms and multiple living spaces surrounding a central courtyard. He employed local stonecarvers to work with abandon on the pinkish-purple sandstone from nearby Dulmera, and his city’s fine artists to paint the lofty ceilings and vast expanses of wall. When you walk through Bikaner old city, through streets of mansions with exquisite facades, it’s a bit like being in Venice when it’s staging an Indian carnival. The big plus is you go behind the facade to stay inside one of them, run by Bhanwarlalji’s great granddaughter Sneha.
There is plenty to do in Bikaner. Founded in 1488 by Rao Bika, son of Rao Jodha (founder of Jodhpur), it sat on the Central Asia-Gujarat coast trade route and, importantly, had supplies of water. Wealth followed. Junagadh Fort (late 16C – 20C) is one of the biggest, most extravagant and best preserved fort-palaces in India – countess suites of small rooms and halls each exquisitely decorated (plus costumes and furnishings in the annex). Later, as a British Protectorate from 1818, Maharaja Ganga Singh brought in Sir Swinton Jacob to design his third new palace, the ridiculously vast Lalgarh (now two big hotels plus plenty of space for the former royals). Out and about, visit the Swami family to find the Bikaner painting tradition thriving, find textile dyers in back streets near the Jain temple, and don’t miss Manvendra Singh’s textile shop at Kirti Singh Circle where discerning locals buy their silk chiffon bandhani (tie-dye), lahari (diagonal stripes) and other treats. Out of town, find weavers in Raisar village 20km away, before enjoying sunset, sundowners and home-grown vegetables cooked the Bikaner way at nearby Raisar Camp.
Must-do wellness experience: high tea, a robust family tradition
Bhanwar buzzwords: can I come and see your painted bedroom?
Ideas for unpacking your kind of slow-down wellness at Bhanwar Niwas
Exploring the quantities of exquisitely decorated rooms and halls of Junagadh Fort, even the most experienced palace-hopper can get full up with the sheer extravagance and quantity of decoration.
The drama of the soaring, intricately carved facades of the merchants' havelis is all the more impressive enjoyed at night, a perfect time to take a stroll out from Bhanwar Niwas.
Spot bundles of newly dyed fabric, some with silver sparkle fused into the cotton, waiting collection from backstreet dyer families in the old city.
Entreprenurial Bikaner dyers are pushing their skills to the edge: after tying the fabric they first dye the background, then inject different colours into the tied areas to save time on multi-stage single-colour dyeing.
Desert-bound arid Bikaner receives very little rain. Here is a rare optimistic wall-painting of a downpour, part of Badal Mahal added to the already vast Junagadh fort-palace by Maharaja Dungar Singh in the late 19C .
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