New age ills and old world charm in Bikaner
W hy should nearly every travel piece be written from an urban perspective? Every writer on travel, including myself, keeps harping on about the serenity and peace in places off the major highways, revels in the languid pace of life out there, juxtaposing them with the congestion, the rat race and the other such
maladies of city life. But what would happen, I thought, if somebody from, say, Panna in Madhya Pradesh wrote about Kolayat. I was in this little village about 50 km from Bikaner on a winter morning, sitting on the shores of a dried lake that was surrounded by, it seemed, a thousand shrines.
A couple of sadhus squatted on the ghats that ringed the lake, while a group of children pestered me for money. Burly trees, their leaves covered with a thin layer of dust, spread from the edge of the ghats onto the pavement, while the dried-up, cracked lake bed had acquired a golden tan. I ruminated about the kind of
experience a man uninfluenced by concrete jungles would have in Kolayat while walking around this village which is increasingly being touted as a mini Pushkar.
Its narrow alleys were bordered by sweetmeat and savoury shops, and yellow-and-black STD booths. There were the familiar FMCG and soft drink hoardings along with lesser known regional brands. A certain Dr Arora guaranteed a cure for everything from alcoholism to VD every Tuesday, while a beauty parlour promised great skin. Every now and then, a rickety bus would groan into the village, spit its passengers out, upon which my immediate surroundings would turn active. Colourful turbans and sarees would then flicker across my line of vision along with the odd grey safari-suited gent. The chatter in the market would rise steadily and then all of a sudden, it would again go quiet until the next busload of passengers and pilgrims came in.
According to a sadhu I chatted with, I had come to Kolayat at the wrong time. He advised me to come after the rains when this little village acquired a Pushkar-like feel. He spoke about its temples being full of pilgrims, and a fair sprinkling of foreign tourists on its ghats. In a way, I was glad I came to Kolayat at the wrong time. Pushkar a year back was wonderful, but there were times when I felt like an outsider in my own country there. There was more of mashed potatoes and spaghetti bologniasse than plain old rotis, more didgeridoo than regional music, but it was the people that confounded me the most.
Tourism, along with its developmental benefits, has this immense ability to change the intrinsic character of a place, to reduce it to yet another consumerist offering, which was what happened in Pushkar. In spite of the novelty that a town around a lake offered, I viewed the entire experience with much cynicism. I couldn’t
connect with the people I interacted with, and was forever suspicious about their genuineness. So much so I wished I had visited Pushkar during the off-season. Then it would have been like Kolayat, true to its real self.
I left the little village after about two hours and headed back to Bikaner in an ancient state transport bus, which shuddered every inch of the journey like a south Indian witch doctor. It was already crowded by the time we’d covered 10 km, and soon the conductor was asking people to get on top of the bus. It was a colourful crowd that jostled around me – moustachioed elders, veiled women and irritable children, plus a man who grabbed my mineral water bottle and told me that he would get it filled at the next stop from a borewell.
The bus got to Bikaner by noon and after a light lunch I took my Palio around, looking for photo-ops. The narrow streets of the town, especially around the station, were as cruddy as any other Indian city, and I found relief only on the series of roads almost outside it that lead to other cities in Rajasthan. I was back in a flash in my hotel room and spent the rest of my time until dinner reading.
“So, how is Bikaner?” asked my friendly hotel owner at dinner, and in response to my non-committal murmur, asked me to go to the various temples that dotted the city. I nodded and asked him about the old city. “Ah, that’s just ten minutes from here, within walking distance. I’ll send one of my men with you tomorrow. They know all about it.”
I woke up rather early the next day and went along with one of the room boys, pillion on his Bajaj M80, dodging another thousand two-wheelers as he took me around town. If India lives in its villages, it moves on its two-wheelers. After a cursory round of Bikaner and a couple of errands the boy had to run, we made our way to the old city, the outer fringes of which were ringed by enormous walls of a fort built when the town was established over 500 years back.
The lanes we passed through got narrower, hedged between newly built concrete houses and open drains, and all of a sudden along a stretch of around 200 metres was some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen. A profusion of intricate filigree work, overhanging balconies, stained glass and red sandstone filled my eyes as the old havelis of old Bikaner came into view. Lining up, at times, on both side of the streets, the sun poured its rays on the havelis’ riot of colours, alternately brightening and easing into the shade their blue, green and red exteriors. There were old nameplates on some of them – Mohatta Trading House, if my memory serves me correct, Head Office Karachi 1905 – remainders of a time when Bikaner still served as a trading post, in spite of Bombay’s increasing prominence, on the route linking North India and Central Asia. While some of the havelis have been converted into heritage hotels by their owners (mostly prominent business families in the metros), a fair number of them have people still living in them. Yet others, like in the old market, are business establishments selling the same stuff they hawked 200 to 300 years ago. In spite of the congestion caused by parked cars and indolent cows, I stayed there for a long time,wondering whether somebody in the year 2203 would be interested in seeing my poky hole in Mumbai or the gaudy mansions that dot its upmarket areas if they still happen to be there. Sometimes, in spite of its potential, I pity the future.
Considerably enthused by this totally non-touristy experience, I headed out in the Palio towards the Karni Mata temple in Deshnoke, an hour’s journey from Bikaner. The landscape was arid and nearly lifeless, apart from the solitary camel whose graceless, seemingly uncoordinated body movements blurred past the speeding Palio.
The Karni Mata temple in the town of Deshnoke must be among the weirdest in the world. According to legend, and Hinduism has loads of it, the goddess was an incarnation of Durga who lived in 14th century Deshnoke. When her plea to Yama to restore a storyteller’s son to life, the goddess reincarnated all the dead storytellers around into rats! This was ostensibly done to deprive the God of Death of human souls.
Today, these holy rodents or kabas hang around in the temple, scampering past the feet of the devout (it’s
supposed to be lucky if one of them actually runs over your feet), feeding on sweets, milk and other offerings, and generally having a good time.
I didn’t spot a white rat, supposed to be a harbinger of good fortune, and stayed away from the prasad which, in most cases, is salivated over by the rats. I made my way back past the devout crowd, trying to think of a couple of forms of life Hindus don’t worship, and this despite having a pantheon of innumerable gods.
On my last evening in Bikaner, I headed to the Junagarh fort, as impressively impregnable as Mehrangarh in Jodhpur. Grandiose opulent inside, the fort was built around the 16th century and teems with kiosks, balconies, courtyards and towers.
I joined a group of tourists who were led around the fort by a guide who droned on intermittently of the times and kings past, the valour of the royal family and the romance of it all. The Rajputs were surely brave, like all other frontier people, but romantic is an abetting adjective conveniently used by the present, that cloaks more than it reveals.
I wondered how the lay people lived then and where, and 500 years after the fort was built, I figured not much had changed.For, while talking about one of the king’s personal artefacts, the guide also showed us a lift imported by Maharaja Ganga Singh in the first decade of the 20th century. At that point, a wiry old man in a dhoti turned to his son, and in a situation that would only arise in the Indian sub-continent and perhaps, sub-Saharan Africa, asked him “What is a lift?”
Situated to the north of Rajasthan, Bikaner is, like most other cities in the state, a royal walled one. Dating back to 1486 A.D., Bikaner, on account of its location on the ancient caravan route, was a major trade centre linking central Asia and North India with the seaports of Gujarat. There’s a lot of the past in Bikaner, but one has to look closely for it. The modern town, which has all but swallowed the old walled city, with its fort and colourful havelis, is as cruddy and congested as any of India’s other cities. The city’s major attractions are the impressive Junagarh fort, and the Lalgarh palace, apart from a couple of ancient temples. But we found the old city and its havelis even better. Go take a look. Kolayat, Deshnoke (with its rat temple) and the Gajner wildlife sanctuary make for interesting excursions around Bikaner.
Bikaner lies at a distance of 550 km from Delhi via Jaipur. The roads are a pleasure to drive on – pothole-free, not too narrow, and smooth. The NH8 leads you to Jaipur, from where you turn northward for Bikaner. The NH11 passes through Sikar and Mandawa finally depositing you at Bikaner. As with nearly all national highways, there are both down-to-earth dhabas, and decent if gaudily coloured joints along the way.
While the city has everything from luxurious heritage hotels to 100-buck-a-day fare, we found the Marudhar Heritage (Ph: 0151 522524), which was the place we stayed at, positively brilliant. Prices for singles and doubles in this family-run hotel range from Rs 250-990. The food is home-cooked, the rooms are spotlessly clean, and the staff is friendly.The upscale Bhairon Vilas (Ph: 0151 544751) is pretty funky and worth the Rs 500-800 price range for doubles. But nothing, we suppose, beats the opulence and the extravagance of the Lalgarh Palace Hotel (Ph: 0151 540201) for a sybaritic weekend. Well-appointed singles and doubles are in the range of Rs 3,000 to 5,500. While every hotel mentioned here has an in-house restaurant, try Amber on Station Road, for some delicious vegetarian Rajasthani food.
Palio 1.2 ELX
Total distance covered: 1,230 km