Beauties and bounties in the bylanes of Bikaner…
“You won’t be able to find them on your own.” The hotel manager dismisses our valiant declaration of self-exploration with a mysterious smile. “I’ll arrange an auto rickshaw to guide you. The lanes are too narrow for a car.” Intrigue levels: brim high.
Our driver, Wali, nods knowingly, when I show him the google pictures in my phone. We climb into the well-padded back seat of our colourful three-wheel drive towards the oldest part of the city. At 11 am, its still a lazy morning in the marketplace. Steamy curls rising from chai cups, brooms swooshing across verandahs and biscuit-laden carts rumbling along to designated spots. The man stirring hot milk at Ramji Ghewar Wale sweet shop seems absent-minded…still not fully awake yet?
Wali manoeuvres expertly into lanes that get narrower and tighter. No cars here. No heritage structures. Only ordinary, cramped, whitewashed houses. The heart of the city, and the oldest neighbourhood in all of Bikaner hides some of the most unexpected treasures one can imagine. A dozen odd turns and the lanes broaden without warning. I uncap my camera lens…chin up. Within a few seconds, Wali comes to a halt and suggests that we walk. Anticipation build-up. Around a corner a few meters ahead, I spot something familiar. Exactly like one of the pictures I had shown Wali! Its one of those gorgeous havelis of Bikaner!
And there are more of them ahead! Generously proportioned, many adjacent to each other. Graceful. Ornate. Exquisite. These traditional mansions (from Arabic haveli, meaning ‘private space’), were once luxurious residences of wealthy merchants who migrated to more prosperous towns for business. Built as havens for rest and symbols of status between 17th and 20th centuries. Now abandoned, proud testimonies to the stunning artistry of the past, pieces of priceless heritage, still largely hidden from public eye. And this is the most famous cluster…the Rampuria Group of Havelies built by Balujee Chalva.
The entire area is spotlessly clean, paved streets lined with magnificent red Dulmera-stone townhouses. Not a soul in sight. Except a bearded photographer diligently at work. And one elderly moustached guard in a vivid red turban and spotless white dhoti-kurta. He scrutinizes us from his chair, never moving a inch. I touch the delicately designed iron street lamp and observe the lime-aqua window frames, the fine patterns on the walls of the buildings. These fabulously created mansions are deserted. Is this a movie set? It takes me a few minutes to believe it is all real.
“There are many, many more ahead,” Wali urges us. The next couple of hours are a daze of dazzling splendour…we weave in and out of lanes, ogling at the havelis. Not all are as famous or in impeccable shape, or in the cleanest of areas. But the marvel continues, unabated. I can’t stop taking pictures.
A pigeon coos over the carved chajja (sloping eaves) of an intricate jharokha (window), unmindful of its arty perch. I study the jharokas…they’re high up, to protect from swirling dust storms, perhaps. The decorative, textured surface and the jaali work (lattice) in wood or stone served a dual purpose back in those days…a safe peek-spot for ladies of the house to look out unseen by outsiders and an ingenious cooling effect much needed in this hot climate on the fringes of the Thar Desert, where summer temperatures often hover around 50 degree centigrade. The sloping chajjas…more protection from the heat and a natural drain for rainwater.
I look closer. Flowers and leaves dominate the design palate, so exquisite, like precious jewellery. Compensating for what the arid desert landscape around lacks. Columns embellished with lotus (symbolising worship), peacocks (symbolising the monsoon, a blessing in this dry land). Some doors with simple panels, others with elaborate carvings. Solid wood latches and knockers before the time of doorbells. Not so subtle indicators of beauty, valour, wealth. Even in some smaller havelis, the exteriors are ornate…a camouflage for cramped interiors, maybe. Even the streets are oriented in the East-West direction at right angles…the direction of dust storms? Architecture made a lot of sense back then.
I visualise the interiors. A traditional central courtyard, from where all spaces emerged, earmarked for all family activities, ceremonies and rituals. A sacred tulsi (basil) plant worshipped daily to bring prosperity to the house. The lung space, the light well of the house, bordered by an arcade to keep the interiors cool. Demarcating separate areas for men and women, even separate diwankhanas (drawing rooms), where guests were received. The richer one heavily adorned with art, valuable murals, glass mirrors, paintings of gods and goddesses, wooden ceilings with stunning Usta gold embossing. Some of them converted into heritage hotels. Others out of bounds.
A resident stepping out of his haveli notices my camera and dismisses the auto-rickshaw with a haughty wave. “Will you park that to a side, you’re blocking our entrance.” Heavy iron grills hide the ornate carved door and wooden laminates have replaced the delicate lattice work windows. In these narrow bylanes, ancient art is co-existing with modernity and convenience for now…but for how long?
As we drive out of one of the city gates, my mind is overflowing with images of the lace-like borders beneath the windows, the pretty curvature of arches, and the decorative details of the filigree panels. Bikaner’s old city is an open museum of dozens of miniature palaces. Unlike its more popular cousin cities in Rajasthan…Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, this one is still waiting in the wings. Till then, pigeons coo. And peace prevails.