Caparisoned camels with tinkling trinkets, women in sequined ghagras, men flaunting multi-hued turbans, red-and-yellow sandstone temples, undulating golden dunes of the Thar under an azure sky—Bikaner is nothing short of nature’s own canvas. Founded in 1488 CE by Rao Bikaji, this royal, fortified city encircled by a wall with five entrance gates exudes the surrounding desert’s warmth. Imposing palaces, sprawling havelis, mellifluous ballads, painted puppets, high-flying kites, sparkling jewelry, tasty savories and dune-caressing camel safaris—through the slightly disheveled edges of the city peeps a land that still harks back to an age of chivalrous princes and alluring princesses.
It was a son miffed at his father, who transformed an uninhabited, harsh wilderness called Jungladesh into a diamond of the desert. Determined to form his own kingdom, Rao Bikaji, son of Rao Jodhaji, founder of Jodhpur, succeeded in his objective, while being ably complemented by 600 Rathore warriors. However, if legend is to be believed, then, the formation of Bikaner was a foregone conclusion. It was prophesized long before it actually came into existence in 1488, by Karni Mata, the celebrated mystic and venerated saint of Rajasthan. The initial kingdom of Bikaner that comprised 84 villages was destined to be even bigger than Jodhpur.
The name ‘Bikaner’ is an amalgamation of ‘Naira’ or ‘Nera’, and ‘Bika’. The former was the owner of the piece of land which Rao Bikaji chose as the capital of his kingdom. Within no time, true to Karni Mata’s prophecy, Bikaner prospered into a city that could rightfully claim its place beside its other more illustrious counterparts.
After the death of Rao Bikaji in 1504, the 3000-village-strong kingdom, caught the attention of the marauding Mughals, primarily due to its proximity to Delhi. But the arid terrain proved a tough nut to crack. Where force failed, diplomacy delivered. Under Akbar, an alliance was forged with the individual Rajput states, which lasted till the demise of Aurangzeb in 1707. Then on, the history of Bikaner comprised one bloody battle after another with the Marwar kingdom — a state of affairs that continued till the signing of a Treaty of Perpetual Friendship with the East India Company in 1818. Ironically, while the British put an end to the incessant skirmishes, they resulted in choking the kingdom under a burden of debt. Curiously enough, it was the ship of the desert that extracted Bikaner from the sea of debt. The king of Bikaner, by simply maintaining a steady supply of camels to the British army, who were then engaged in the Afghan war, turned the economic tide in his kingdom’s favor.
It was under Maharaja Ganga Singh, Bikaner’s most illustrious, reformative and visionary ruler that the kingdom graduated from being a principality to a premier princely state. In 1947, Bikaner joined the Indian Union and two years later, it was recognized as a district of Rajasthan. Today, the state’s fourth largest city, though not as much a tourist’s cynosure as Jaisalmer or Jodhpur, still manages to pleasantly surprise its visitors with its abundant attractions.
The best way to maneuver around Bikaner is on a ‘tonga’, or a horse-pulled cart. Not only are these light on the pocket — with an entire day’s fare ranging around Rs 250, but it also makes more sense to hire one instead of a car, which has every chance of getting stuck in the narrow and crowded roads. For those who would rather not be seen on an animal-drawn carriage, there is the omnipresent auto-rickshaw. While this two-side-open vehicle is undoubtedly a convenient, as well as comfortable option during the summer heat, the downside is that the rickshaw drivers are known to overcharge their passengers. So, always be ready to haggle and bargain. For the environment-conscious and adventure-minded, bicycles are available on rent near Bhairon Vilas and the railway station at a very nominal rate.