Junagadh Fort in Bikaner was a revelation. I must confess I was totally ignorant of this fort. When I read about it a bit before traveling to Bikaner – I never thought it would such a grand fort. Today it tops my list of ‘Best maintained and nest presented forts of India’. Come with me for a walk around this magnificent fort of the city of Bikaner. On a November morning, we set out to explore Junagadh fort in Bikaner.
We passed through its bustling bazaars picking up the famous Bikaner Bhujia on the way. I was mentally prepared to have a quick round of a regular Rajasthani fort.
After all, I had seen the more famous ones at Amber, Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Jaisalmer & Bundi. This fort was not even on a hilltop, so no vantage point views to look forward to.
We entered through a gate that had the hands of Sati on its left wall. They were the first to catch my attention, even when you know they are common in Rajasthan. I tried reading what was written there but could not make out anything. We moved further inside where at the tall Karan Prole gate we read about the ownership of the fort being with a charitable Maharaja Rai Singhji Trust.
History of Junagadh Fort
Chintamani was the original name of the place. Junagadh which literally means the old fort got this name when a new residence was established by the ruling family in the early 20th CE. Founded by Maharaja Rai Singh Ji – the 6th ruler of Bikaner in 1589 CE. 20 successive rulers of Bikaner ruled from this fort till 1920 CE.
Each of these rulers added his own palace or a temple or something that would be his marker in the fort. Put together they create a brilliant collage that takes you through a visual history of the Bikaner for the 300+ years that it was the seat of power.
Maharaja Anoop Singh brought a lot of idols and Sanskrit manuscripts from his Deccan campaigns with Aurangzeb. However, the best thing he brought back to Rajasthan was the art form that is now called Usta – a gold leaf work that can be seen at various places in the fort. There is an Anoop manuscripts library in Bikaner but it is not open to the public.
The most celebrated king of Bikaner is Ganga Singh Ji. When you travel through the city, you hear so much about him. He built the first canal to Bikaner – that must have eased out the water scarcity in the region, He got the first rail link built in Bikaner and of course, he was awarded the Knight Commander of the order of the Indian Empire.
Both sandstone and marble have been used in the fort construction. The pale red sandstone came from Dhulmera which is about 70 km from Bikaner.
Walk through Junagadh Fort in Bikaner
After the ticket window, as soon as you enter the fort, you see on your right in the grand staircase – the European influence shining through the very native red sandstone. The upper stories are absolutely Rajasthani with Jaalis and Jharokhas.
On the left is the memorial stone dedicated to Veer Dalla Bhaghod – with a small plaque commemorating his bravery. The two sides are quite juxtaposed & in a way prepare you for the rest of the fort. From here we took a narrow upward slope to reach the central courtyard surrounded by carved red sandstone and punctuated by blue door frames. This is Vikram Vilas palace.
Vikram Vilas Palace
I looked at the carved red sandstone – that is a paler version of the sandstone we see in the Agra and Braj Bhumi areas. There was a photo exhibition introducing the visitor to the history of Bikaner that began with Rao Bika some 600 years ago.
We crossed this courtyard to enter another courtyard where the white color dominated, punctuated by a broad strip of red sandstone. At one end of the courtyard is a square pavilion sitting above a pond-like formation. I assume in its hay days it had fountains and apart from being a pleasure place, it may have been a place to beat the scorching heat of the Thar desert. Our guide said this is where Holi was played. Well, there is no sign of Holi at the moment, but yes, the white walls and the white pavilion do look like a perfect place to play Holi.
Surrounding this white pavilion courtyard are various palaces of Junagadh – they are actually rooms of various sizes that have been given names as ‘Mahals’. Let me take you to some of them.
The meaning of Badal is the cloud, and Badal Mahal means the cloud palace. This is a narrow room with clouds painted on all its walls and ceilings. As per our guide, there are showers fitted in this room to show the children of the desert how it rains. I am not too convinced by this. To me, this looks like a temple dedicated to Ram and Sita whose idols can be seen in the middle. The niches have paintings of Ramayana scenes.
This is probably a palace that belonged to one of the queens. It is the oldest part of the fort built by Raja Rai Singhji. I loved the painted door of Phool Mahal. It has Radha and Krishna painted on a black door. The painting is relatively new but if you go around you will see an old door with a similar painting.
There is a statue of the sun god with his 7 horses in marble – in sync with the white décor of the room with heavy gold embellishments. The ceiling carries a geometric pattern while a panel on the wall just next to the ceiling has very lifelike paintings of war scenes, court scenes and mythological scenes.
A small Jharokha-like niche here is the most creative corner of this room. It has paintings on small marbles surrounded by ornamentation. There are painted frames with a simple mirror and it gives you a perfect frame when you look at it. You see the same clouds painted on its ceiling but what is most interesting is you see Chinese women painted here. Silk route influences – probably.
Rai Bika – the founder of Bikaner when he set up his kingdom here brought some heirlooms from his father’s home – some of them are displayed in a room next to Phool Mahal. It includes some celebrated swords. We saw another heirloom in the fort museum – a 12th CE sandalwood bed that is the museum’s prized possession.
This is the most ornate part of the fort. It is the hall for private meetings. Adorned all around in the colors of gold and red, it is as opulent as a place can get. One of the thrones can be seen here.
A board here explains the artwork on the walls of Anup Mahal. Apparently, Maharaja Karan Singh who ruled in the early 17th CE was on a military campaign in Golconda near present-day Hyderabad. He was presented with artwork in gold by a local artist. One of them was the plating of a gold pillar in a manner that made it look like a pillar of solid gold. Upon inquiry, the artist explained that he originally belongs to Jaisalmer but his family migrated to the South. Karan Singh invited him to Bikaner and gave him royal patronage. The work is now known as Usta work. This work can be seen in a lot of places in all palaces of Bikaner. You can also buy a small piece for yourself in the market.
There is a wooden door with miniature paintings on it. If it is Rajasthan, mirror work cannot be too far.
Standing in front of this place made me think if it is really possible to work with so much opulence around you. Then I realized that the view from this room is pretty much white, so it can distract the passer-by but maybe not those who use the room.
Gaj Mandir Palace
Passing by a well-protected and well-maintained silver door with impeccable carvings and door handles, we reached the first floor. There is a small museum display here too. The star attraction is a Jharokha made of blue porcelain tiles from Europe. It is a strange fusion – where the architecture is absolutely local and the material used is from far away. I am not sure I liked it, but it was a curious thing to see.
A famous painted wall depicts 3 modes of transport – an elephant-drawn carriage, a boat, and a train. I understand the carriage and the train and I assume the boat refers to the canal built by Ganga Singh Ji. Incidentally, the boat has its front carved as an elephant head.
You get to see the top view of the courtyards below – they look beautiful even from the top. There is a view of the surrounding city, but since the height difference is not much, all you see is the fort wall and some gardens.
In one of the rooms, there are hooks on top of the bed so that the bed can become a swing. How interesting!
It is a giant hall with walls covered in carved wood. The heirloom sandalwood bed I mentioned earlier sits at one end of the hall. This was the public audience hall where the kings would have met their subjects or listened to cases.
Must see Museum Items at Junagadh Fort
Jhoola that makes Gopis Dance
This Jhoola has a mechanism when it swings – the Gopis carved on its frame start dancing – so we were told. You cannot touch or operate the Jhoola but you can still admire the creativity of the artist.
First World War Plane at Junagadh Fort
Maharaja Ganga Singh got a trophy plane – a DH – 9DE Haviland for his participation in the 1st World War. This is one of the planes that was shot down and brought to Bikaner by ship in 1920. The plane is maintained in impeccable condition and occupies a full room in the Museum. What is interesting is that the plane came in parts and was re-assembled for display as late as 1985.
Around this plane are various traditional modes of transportation that includes wood carved palanquins.
Jasnathis – a group of Siddhis who displayed their great spiritual and physical strength by walking on nails or swords. Some of their equipment is on display.
There are galleries in other rooms that have an amazing collection of royal images. What you cannot miss noticing is the presence of royal women in these portraits – as young girls as well as queens.
The genealogy of the Bikaner dynasty is displayed in many places.
Prachina Museum has an interesting book with a silver cover.
This painting of a Rajput woman killing Akbar is interesting. The story goes that Akbar liked the woman and he sent her husband on a campaign to another country. When he tried to get her, she took out her Kataar or dagger and was ready to kill Akbar – who literally pleaded for his life. Talks about the social structure of that time as well as empowered women who would not shy away from killing the king. The name of the woman mentioned in the verse below this painting is Kiran – so it may not be a figment of the imagination.
Travel tips for Junagadh Fort visitors
- Tickets for Adult Indians were priced at RS 300/-. All private palaces & forts have high-priced tickets. Saw the same at Laxmi Niwas Palace in Vadodara.
- International travelers are directed to a different ticketing window. I assume the ticket for them would be different.
- There is a Prachina café inside the fort, though I did not use it, so cannot comment on the quality. Carry your bottle of water.
- You need at least 2 hours to see the fort. If you have time, spend half the day here to observe the nuances of all the work that I shared above.
- Prachina Museum is located within the fort premises but outside the main fort. It is a small museum and would need 15-30 mins depending on your interest.
- Guides are available near the ticket counter.
- Free Audio Guides in a few languages are available.
Recommend you read the following travel blog on Forts of Rajasthan.
Udaipur Fort – Royal city of Rajasthan.