Marryam H Reshii travels to Bikaner, Rajasthan, and discovers the luxurious Narendra Bhawan, the former residence of a very individualistic and kind-hearted Maharaja, and an old town where time seems to have stopped still.
Rajasthan is that magical land that springs a new surprise when you least expect it. So, after you have been to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and Udaipur innumerable times and are restively looking around for another state that offers as much romance as Rajasthan does because ‘there are no more towns left’, along comes Bikaner! Of course it was always there. From 1488, as a matter of fact, when Rao Bika more or less invented it in what was, in hindsight, a fit of inspiration. But Bikaner has only just been ‘discovered’ by the cognoscenti, and that is because of a recent upstart, Narendra Bhawan, built in memory of Bikaner’s last ruler, Narendra Singh-ji, a most unusual man.
Bikaner is a city of utterly charming palaces, temples, bazaars and havelis. It has historically managed to turn adversity into triumph. When Rao Bika was turned out of his home state Jodhpur, to create Bikaner, the area was called Jangladesh. Few would call it that today, especially when they have driven up to the royal residences Lalgarh Palace, Laxmi Niwas Palace, and Karni Bhawan, all arranged formally on a grid that suggests gravitas and grandeur, where heritage, Indo-Saracenic, and Art Deco give way to each other, sometimes in the same building! Another example of turning adversity into advantage just has to be the woollen carpets for which Bikaner is famous, but they were originally made by prisoners in the local jail as a means of keeping them busy. Today, the eponymous carpet, not necessarily made in the jail, is exported to countries around the globe.
Wander around the bazaars and you’ll notice a preponderance of cows and dogs. Whether you are in the bowels of the old town with merchants’ havelis bearing ornate façades of red sandstone or buying the famous Bikaneri bhujiya to take for your friends back home, you cannot escape them. You will see them even when you are stepping into a jeweller’s shop to inspect meenakari jewellery, said to have first been practiced in Bikaner whence it travelled to Jaipur.
Narendra Singh-ji, whose private residence was Narendra Bhawan, was a maverick who was the antithesis of his illustrious forbearers who were diplomats and army men, sportsmen and hunters. He loved animals, particularly dogs and cows, hence their numbers on the roads. His home has been turned into a monument fit for a king. The management of the Narendra Bhawan has created a façade of carved sandstone around the house, and surroundings he would have felt at home in: luxurious yet not conforming to the standards set by others; comfortable and well-appointed, yet individualistic.
Most hotels the world over use beige, cream, and gold as colourways, but those are the three colours that are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, maroon, mauve, emerald, red, and soothing tones of green dominate. Expect to find a ‘doormat’ of rose petals at your bedside during evening service, or a jar of custom-made hand lotion made of oudh for your use. The fragrance of attar of roses that envelopes you has been distilled from tonnes of roses grown in farms around Pushkar, Rajasthan. And when you want dinner, it will be in a delicately powder blue dining room called, evocatively, Pearls and Chiffon, that recreates the menus of the Art Deco period, albeit in a 21st century interpretation.
But above all, Narendra Bhawan is the royal residence of a person who could afford to go against the norm and indulge his whims, so there is a gaushala (cowshed) on the premises, where cows of the indigenous rathi breed spend their day being groomed, unlike their country cousins on the streets. All the top management in the hotel have dogs by happy coincidence. Or perhaps it was just a meeting of kindred souls that resulted in the creation of Bikaner’s newest hotel that embodies luxury, even while refusing to conform to any popular stereotype.