To put it in a nutshell, the city of Bikaner was a destination waiting to happen. Quite apart from its position on the Jaipur-Jodhpur-Bikaner circuit, it has superb infrastructure for hotels, all the best ones being heritage homes, where real palaces have been converted. The oldest one is Lallgarh, followed by Laxmi Niwas and then by Karni Bhawan. Each of these is within a four kilometre radius; each one was built within a period of 100 years, and each one has a completely different character and offers a totally diverse experience. Then, there is the hunting lodge of Gajner, an hour’s drive from the city, which also offers lodging and presents yet another facet of the royal state of Bikaner.
The last maharajah of Bikaner was the rather unconventional Narendra Singh, who didn’t seem to care much for the trappings of his vast wealth and estate and did not leave behind much in the way of architectural splendour. Indeed, by the time he passed away in 2003, all he had built was a bungalow in a quiet, unexceptional part of town, which was, however, in the line of sight of the other palaces built by his ancestors. The single-storey house has since been taken over by the hotel group that owns Narendra Bhawan, a luxury hotel that has been a successful re-imagination of the entire life of a king, merely by looking through the possessions he left behind.
To cite just one example, the chevron design is an element that you’ll find throughout the hotel. It establishes the antiquity of the Bikaner royal family (its characteristic zigzag lines are said to be the oldest decorative element known to man), the military character of the dynasty as a whole and the orientation of the period of the interiors to the Art Deco phase. You’ll see chevron in the flooring of the corridors, even in the metal accessories in the guest washrooms. It showed up in the two-tone cushion covers in my room, which was a masterpiece of understated luxury that showcased the wool industry for which Bikaner is famous, without appearing to be an advertisement. The wall-to-wall floor covering, woollen rug, bed runner, the chairs – all were woven in wool, yet were saved from looking like products in a catalogue because of the same artistry that has defined folk crafts in Rajasthan for millennia, albeit in earth tones and ecru.
From what is known of Narendra Singhji, he was not a man who followed convention overly scrupulously, so the management of Narendra Bhawan has had a carte blanche to make some of the activities within the hotel a trifle unconventional. My literary dinner embodied this. Six paragraphs had been taken from literary classics by Sylvia Plath, John Fante, Nicole Mones, Herman Melville, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Dainty morsels, served appropriately, made their quite magical appearance. For example, The Last Chinese Chef contains a passage where a delicate dish of drunken chicken with white fungus and honey hoisin is mentioned in the context of an American Chinese food critic who is forced by circumstance, to travel to Beijing, where she discovers more about her husband’s family and culture than she had bargained for. There, she is fed a morsel of chicken, soft as velvet, flavoured with ginger and onion. Lo and behold, at our table, appears, as if by magic, a dainty bowl with a piece of chicken nestling in it, that is waiting to be savoured with a pair of pink chopsticks. The flavours, indeed the whole description, recreates to perfection, what a staff member had read out to us a moment ago.
And so it goes on. Moby Dick calls to mind a bowl of juicy clams mixed with salted pork, and within seconds, that is precisely what is served at our table, all meticulously chosen soup plates and charming period silverware. But the biggest surprise of all was the array of ingredients: in the midst of the Rajasthan desert, it is no easy task to requisition clams “no larger than hazelnuts” and “anchovy paste and caviar”. In a metropolitan city, all this would be par for the course. In an inland city like Bikaner, it is no short of a mirage in the sandy desert.
Narendra Bhawan is a perfect place from where to explore the fascinating city with its fort, temples and buildings with art deco motifs. Even here, the shadow of the last king looms large. It is known that he was passionately fond of animals, particularly dogs and cows and indeed, the city seems overrun with them. Two ladies outside a Jain temple in the bowels of the old city, near the famous Rampuria haveli, told me that many, if not most old-time residents of the city made it a habit to feed cows at least once a day, in continuation of the memory of their last king. They themselves were there to wait for the cows in the area that inevitably make their stately progress to the temple, where they know they can expect sustenance. And though HH Narendra Singh fancied pedigreed dogs, every canine in Bikaner appears to live a more pampered existence than its counterpart in any other Indian town.
Like all deserts, this one too has its fair share of mirages. The Marwari havelis remain frozen in the inner lanes of the old city, refusing to crumble into dust. No less than ornate frozen sculptures carved (as legend has it), for 2 paisa per kilo of red sandstone dust that the carvers could prove their labour with, all that remains is the occasional decrepit old chowkidar and a rusting padlock, of families who have settled in more progressive climes, leaving their homesteads a pleasant, if distant memory.
Weddings, when they do take place, see the old haveli homesteads inhabited by a profusion of family members, many of whom come to buy polki, the jewellery said to have originated in the city of Bikaner: anyone can do the enamel work on 24 karat gold, but it is only a Bikaneri goldsmith who can shave a semi-precious stone into a sliver, a few microns thick, the better to set it into an intricate pattern to delight a bride. Any thicker and the jewellery will become too heavy and too expensive; any lighter and the colours of the stone won’t glow with incandescence.
As you thread your way through the innumerable bulls and cows on the surprisingly wide roads of the city, you notice the ubiquitous Bikaneri bhujia that is a byword here. It is made with a ‘secret’ proportion of besan (powdered gramflour) and moth ki dal, the ingredient that is used nowhere else but Bikaner. “We all have our secret blend of these two ingredients, besides of course a few spices”, Shivratan Agarwal of Bikaji tells me. The grandson of the founder of Haldiram Bhujiawala heads the only company that is legally permitted to use the hallowed name of the city in his namkeen: the eponymous sev or bhujia that serves as a geographical index of origin. Not even his own cousins are allowed to use the word ‘Bikaner” as a descriptor, because their production units are outside the city. In the enormous factories that occupy a full road, Bikaji namkeens and mithai count their stock keeping units (sku) in tons manufactured per day. “That one uses no fewer than 32 components” the Director of Sales tells me with more than a trace of pride, but his voice drops to a hush as we walk past the Bikaneri bhujia machinery that occupies an entire building. No less than 90 tons of it are made in the factory every single day: approximately as much as five of their other products put together.. When I buy a half kilo packet of a similar version of bhujia from Chotu Motu Joshi, the most famous shop in town, I do note how technology at Bikaji has infused a certain amount of airiness and crunch (as well as more even colouring) into their bhujia, but don’t voice my opinion for fear of being set upon by the howling mob: that’s how emotive the subject of bhujia is in the homeland.
As I prepare to leave this elegant city that seems to me to be a microcosm of the grandeur and scale of what New Delhi was to become a few decades later, the elegant roads, the varied shape of the domes of the palaces and forts that pierce the skyline, I feel that a modern hotel built upon a structure made by a royal which exudes touches from his personal collection, yet is easy to air-condition and maintain, wins over a 100 year old pile where antiquity and heritage are forced to win over comfort and modern luxury.
Thanks to Navneet Mendiratta for the use of two food pictures.