Let Narendra Bhawan Take You On A Tonga Ride To See The Grand Havelis In Bikaner

Narendra Bhawan

What Makes It Awesome

Once home to the wealthy merchants, this part of the city is now a tale of red sandstone, chisels and hammers. Our ride began at a forked entrance. I gazed at probably the most magnificent structure in that area—the façade carved with numerous natural motifs; window shutters drawn. No one lived here; dust had accumulated on the intricately carved doors. The grand haveli rose high in the sky, the narrow lane making it look taller than any skyscraper. The stone inscription said ‘Rampuria, Bikaner, 1933’. This family was among the wealthier ones, as was evident but it didn’t stay here any longer. While this haveli was close to 100 years old, the oldest ones go back to 400 years. In the entire city, there are around 1,000 such heritage structures, clothed in the dust, as my research later showed. As we walked closer, motifs from the natural world and the surroundings became clearer. Most of the havelis were built between the 17th and 20th centuries. This area has over 400 of these grand homes. They were an amalgam of influences that the city had seen since its formation in 1478 by the rebel prince of Jodhpur—Rao Bika. Before that, this was ‘jungladesh’, a land of thorny shrubs, which can still be seen on the outskirts as you go deeper into the desert.

What's My Pro Tip?

Bikaner was once a thriving city, part of the trade route with other Asian countries. Always ruled by warriors, the city’s architecture too was influenced by them. The Mughals had intermingled with the warrior clan of Rajputs here, and then the British had stepped in. Finally, after independence, the princely states had merged into unified India. All these were evident in the sculptures and carvings. One haveli even had the bust of King George. What makes them remarkable is the way they are constructed to combat heat and dust. The narrow windows and doors keep a lot of it at bay. The jaalis or intricate latticework allowed the women to see the street activity but the outsiders couldn’t see what was happening. It also let the air blow in, not making the stone structures too hot. There were balconies or jharokhas for them to see processions. The culture of those days did not like women moving around in public spaces or be very visible. There was an inner courtyard and the walls of the Sopani haveli (where we had lunch) had coloured murals and in-built shelves. The rhythmic clip-clop of the hooves kept moving me across eras, from the past to the present, from opulence to decay. In 2012, World Monument Watch had stepped in. They associated with the Bikaner Municipal Corporation to hold a watch day, and even a campaign involving the locals was rolled out. Now, the first phase of documentation of these heritage structures has been completed.

Anything Else?

Winter is a good time to do this ride which can involve a lot of on and off the cart. Two to three hours is good if you are a history buff. Else, just enjoy the ride for about 30-odd minutes. Wear walking shoes and carry some water and hand sanitizer with you. The neighbourhood is calm, but it is better to take the help of your guide when communicating with the locals. The designer hotel is a story in itself and also organises more unique trails across the city. Also, check out their website. .

Narendra Bhawan