The story of Rajasthan has significant chapters apart from its Rajput legacy. While the tales of grandiose forts and bloody battles hold prominence, other cultural and demographic factors are no less important. One of the most important aspects of the region is its formidable merchant class, with roots in Rajasthan and branches all over the world. The merchants, or Marwaris as we often call them, may not be great swordsmen, yet their skills with money see to it that they make a mark wherever they are, be it on the streets of Shekhawati or the upscale districts in London.
The wise rulers of Bikaner went out of their way to encourage the business community to come and settle in their kingdom, often luring them with subsidies and other incentives. The political will coupled with a convenient location on an important trade route acted as a catalyst and by the 19th century, Bikaner had established itself as an important centre of trade and commerce in the region, ushering in an era of prosperity that lasted for over a century. The merchants built grand mansions, beautiful temples, step-wells and lodges, contributing immensely to the heritage of the city. Naturally, our hosts at Narendra Bhawan kept the exploration of this merchant heritage of the city as one of the main items in our itinerary.
Bhandasar Jain Temple
Bhandasar Oswal, a Jain merchant in the 15th century, was so rich that he chose not to bother with the ordinary while commissioning the construction of a temple that would bear his name. While the stones for the temple came all the way from Jaisalmer, the architects used ghee instead of water for laying down its foundations. The temple stands today as one of the earliest structures built by the merchant community, a reminiscence of the times when it all began in Bikaner.
Dedicated to Jain Tirthankar Suminath Ji, the Bhandasar Temple sits on a small hillock overlooking the town. While the sandstone and marble exteriors are plain in a traditional way, the interiors are remarkable with a colourful decoration of paintings and glasswork. The marble pillars are ornately carved and figurines of celestials as well as geometrical and flower motifs adorn the walls of the inner shrine. The rich decoration extends to the upper floors and the dome-shaped ceiling, depicting scenes from scriptures and daily life in the region. Periodic restoration of the motifs has kept them in good shape and the later paintings show relatively contemporary elements as well.
As per the popular belief, the walls of the temple ooze ghee and floors become slippery when the temperature peaks out during the summers. I was not sure how did animal fat survive disintegration for 500 years, but chose not to ask too many questions.
The Havelis of Bikaner
As the merchants grew wealthy by trading in silk, wool, camel skin, dates, opium and metal work with far-off lands, it was time for some indulgence. This is when they started building grand mansions (or havelis as they are called) to assert their position in the society. During our walk in the serpentine streets of the old city, we came across many such beauties. At the turn of the last century, there were more than 1000 havelis in Bikaner but time seems to have run out for many of these buildings, made apparent by the ruins scattered around and newer ugly constructions taking up their place. However, about 400 still stand in proud defiance to the ravages of time and it was a joy exploring some of those.
The Rampuria haveli is so magnificent that it is commonplace hearing tourists let out a gasp when they first set their eyes on this building, a marvellous work of excellent artisanship and the pride of Bikaner in every sense. They deserve a post dedicated exclusively to themselves and the only reason I am clubbing those with others is that out of sheer laziness.
The Rampuria Havelis are a cluster of mansions owned by the Rampuria family, one of the wealthiest merchants from Bikaner; of which, the grandeur of the complex gives a clear indication. It was constructed during the days of the British Raj and has an unabashed colonial undertone to it which will make a Londoner feel completely at home.
This red Dulmera structure is three-storied, with each level built in its own unique design. A true treat to the eyes, its opulent facade, intricate latticework and overall, a very high level of architectural aesthetics, which looks very elegant, are the prime features of this mansion. In a typical Rajasthani fashion, there are rows upon rows of jharokhas (narrow windows) on the levels above the ground, while the ground level has rows of doors, everything in perfect harmony to the overall design.
Unlike the Patwon ki Haveli in Jaisalmer, the interiors of the Rampuria Haveli are out of bounds for visitors, so we had to be content with ogling from the outside. The owners do not live there anymore, having migrated to greener pastures long back, and the mansion has been put under caretakers for whatever upkeep that goes on. A part has been turned into a heritage hotel and there is a small jewellery shop in an annexe.
We were so fascinated by the Rampuria Haveli that some of us decided to come again the next day when the rays of the morning sun fell on these beauties, and believe me, we were not disappointed. In the calm of the morning, when the air was still chilly and not many vehicles were on the street, these havelis shone like jewels on the crown of Bikaner. It was a privilege standing on their front and click away to glory.
The Merchant Trail Goes On
From the Rampuria Haveli, we walked in the narrow lanes of this densely populated area, occasionally stopping to talk to locals and take photographs. The people are usually very friendly and do not mind if you take photographs (with their permission of course). There are many other havelis around, like the Kothari haveli, Punan Chand Haveli and some others the names of which were not known, with varying degrees of the elaborate facades, some of them truly remarkable. This place still retains that old world charm that is fast vanishing from our cities, there are takhts set on the sides of the lanes where people sit and read newspapers or just talk (another art that is fast vanishing).
The havelis of Bikaner have recently been brought under the aegis of World Monument Fund and have been given the category of a heritage. However, it is often economically unviable for the families (many of them now fragmented), to manage their upkeep, leading to many abandoned and tumbling down structure. We wish that the residents become more aware of their legacy and are adequately supported by the system for maintenance. Once these are gone, a precious part of Bikaner’s identity will be gone forever. We hope that tourism helps in reviving some of it.
The Sopani haveli was our chance to see from inside how life in a haveli looked like. As we climbed the steep stairs of this rather vertical building, we were transported in another era. Though reduced to an empty shell of what once would have been a house busting with sounds, smells and activity, it retained a lot of its old dignity. Fading Ravi Verma-isque paintings adorned the walls and the chajjas and jaalis wore the kind of intricate carvings that we were slowly getting used to by then. It was a happy-sad feeling walking in those empty rooms. How I wished I could go back a century ago in a time machine and witness the charm of this haveli and the surroundings when they were yet unspoiled by the vagaries of crude modernism!
In the Bazaars of Bikaner
How can one go on the merchant trail in a city without actually visiting the bazaars? So, to get a real feel of what the markets of Bikaner are like today, we were in the old city again, exploring the Kote Gate area.
The market near the very crowded Kote gate looks as old as the city itself. A maze of winding-intersecting lanes, hardly wide enough for people to walk, is jam-packed with shops selling clothes, jewellery, utensils and curios of all kinds. Some bylanes are dedicated to trades of only one type; for example, we entered one which had workshops of cloth dyers from end to end. The light was not very favourable for taking photographs adding to my hesitation for street photography but did manage to capture a few images.
Some shops have unique names that stay in your memory with their quirkiness. There was a cloth store that went by the name of ‘Do Bhaiyon ki Dukaan’. The most famous sweets store was called ‘Chhotu Motu Joshi’, a must go for best Bikaneri sweets and bhujiya, while the ‘Golcha Store’ sold awesome sweet and sour confectionaries. The best kachoris, that I have ever tasted, were available at a store that bore the name of Jodhpur. If you are a foodie, you are going to love Bikaner!
The exploration of the Merchant Trail was conducted by our awesome hosts at Narendra Bhawan, as part of their #ExperienceBikaner initiative. All the thoughts are our own and we present this post with a hope that it will generate some more awareness of the beautiful heritage of Bikaner, and help in its conservation.