Bikaner – and the second word that pops up with it is Bhujia. I never thought of Bikaner as anything more than a desert town. Of course, like any other Rajasthan city, it would have some heritage Havelis, some stories. On my Bikaner trip, day 1 Junagarh fort impressed me – it is arguably the best-maintained fort in India. The second day, when I was expecting nothing, I was taken on this Merchant Trail through the old Bikaner Havelis by my hosts Narendra Bhawan. What I was expecting was a walk through some dusty markets and some heritage here and there.
When we landed in the corner from where our walk started, one side of a tall haveli in red sandstone framing its blue windows appeared. I walked towards it to click pictures. When I looked on my left it left my eyes wide open for some time. I was in a time warp. I had these huge chunks of carved red sandstone in front of me. The design of the streets looked very European. The triangular building in the middle with two streets going on either side of it. The carvings on stone were quite Indian. There was jaali or latticework that looked very symbolic of Mughal era. The closed colorful doors and windows looked like they were holding many stories or maybe skeletons behind them.
We moved into the street closer to these tall narrow Havelis. Sun and shade played with the facades of these Havelis of rich merchants and added a sense of playfulness to them. After soaking in the ambiance all around me, I started looking at the intricate details on these facades.
Architectural elements of Bikaner Havelis
Chhajjas, Jharokhas & Jaalis
The facades of Havelis in Bikaner are made up of three primary elements that you must notice:
These are overhanging part of the facade, usually carved or sculpted. Chajjas are an integral part of North Indian architecture. They add ornamental value to the facade while also providing a 3rd dimension to otherwise 2-dimensional wall.
These are ornate hanging windows – literally a window meant for looking out. This is a quintessential Rajasthani element. You can see women in colorful Odhnis looking out, with Jharokha acting like a perfect frame. Your camera would love that frame.
This is nothing but the intricate latticework on stone. It gives the stone a lyrical perforated look. You can see on the other side, but then not really. This is a Central Asian element that has now become pretty much an Indian element.
In Bikaner Havelis, you see a creative amalgamation of all these along with European elements like stained glasses, Victorian arches & some royal busts.
Other elements of Bikaner Havelis
Most Havelis have some bas-reliefs. The entrance door has a Hindu deity carved or painted. The rest of the walls sometimes have rich & royal of the English sculpted, though most walls carry primarily ornamental designs. A nameplate always tells you whose Haveli it is and when it was built. Most of them are less than 100 years old, built in the 1920s.
The facades of Bikaner Havelis have ornate doors and windows, but the real entrance to the Haveli is usually a narrow flight of stairs leading to the main door. The width is such that it is difficult for more than one person to take the stairs at once. The doors are lovely, usually very ornate and displaying the taste of the owner.
A couple of Havelis that I could get into had a central courtyard, no matter how small it is – it is always there. This courtyard is the vantage point – visible from all parts of the Haveli, except the basements of course.
Each Haveli has the 1-2 level of basements and 3-4 stories above the ground, making them 5-6 stories tall. Haphazard staircases take you to different levels. You have to really know the Haveli well to be able to move up and down. Was it a security feature or a lack of planning – we can only guess.
Wall Murals or Paintings
The walls and ceilings of the Havelis have paintings all over them. The niches on the walls are decorated and usually, carry the painting of a deity. The ceilings have ornamental designs in bright colors. At Sopani Haveli, we saw the Raja Ravi Varma style paintings of Saraswati & Lakshmi. Most paintings are done on the white wall with predominantly blue and red color.
Tijori or lockers were an essential part of Havelis. Remember the banking system was yet to become mainstream and all these structures belong to wealthy families. These are families with an army of servants and a constant stream of visitors as hotels were still to crop up. People needed to keep their wealth hidden from everyone. The lockers were inbuilt in the walls, beneath the floor or wherever the builder’s creativity could take him. When you visit a Haveli, look out for these secret slots in the walls, behind the paintings.
Stone used in the building of these Havelis came from Dhulmera. It is a dull shade of Pink.
Unfortunately, most Havelis are lying empty and closed with no access. You can only wonder how the interiors of these grand Havelis look like.
Space Between Havelis
I found a lot of Takhts or the large wooden cot like platforms on the corners of the streets. These were the cafes or the meeting hubs of the residents of the Havelis. I could only visualize that in evenings people sitting here and chatting as the children occupied the streets to play. Today, of course, most of the streets are taken up by the parked cars
Slowly, a few Havelis are opening up.
History of Bikaner Havelis
Bikaner Havelis belong to the traders and merchants from the city. After Bikaner was found about 500 years ago by Rao Bika, it remained an important trade center. However it was 100-200 years ago when many traders of the city like Rampurias made wealth in Calcutta, they made these lovely Havelis.
Most of these Havelis were built during the reign of Maharaja Ganga Singh who ruled from 1887 to 1943. It is also said that he commissioned 1001 Havelis in Bikaner. These Havelis are in all possible sizes. Even the smallest one has an ornate facade and follows the architecture of a Haveli.
Some popular Bikaner Havelis
Havelis of the Rampuria family are the grandest and most popular with the visitors. Striking colors of their doors and windows make the red of stone stand out. The carvings vary from busts of colonial rulers to Hindu deities.
They are smaller than Rampuria, but a profusely carved exterior.
This is one of the Havelis open to the public though not really in a walk-in manner. On request, they arrange a walk through the Haveli and an optional lunch.
Travel Tips for Bikaner Havelis
- You have to take pictures of these gorgeous Havelis, so go at the golden hour either in the mornings or in the evenings.
- You can walk around the lanes, but if you want to see a lot of them, take a Tonga ride and watch the heritage all around from the luxury of your carriage.
- Carry water – there are not many shops in these lanes where you can pick up water. Of course, you can use water as a pretext to open conversation with some residents.
- Try and step into one of the Havelis to see how they look from inside.
- Look at the paintings on some Havelis.
- You need about 2 hours to comfortably walk through the Havelis. However, if you are in a hurry you can do them in 30 minutes on a Tonga.
Recommend you read following travel blog on Rajasthan tourist attractions.