Treasure hunt for the most exquisite hidden havelis

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?  

  

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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! 

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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98 thoughts on “Treasure hunt for the most exquisite hidden havelis

  1. Woow.. The havelis look so well maintained. I have traveled to a few places in the Shekhawati region but the havelis are in quite a dismay there. I m glad to discover this treasure through your post. I haven’t visited Bikaner yet, so there goes another must-visit place to my pending list for Rajasthan 🙂 Btw, loved the picture with green windows.

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  2. I’d only ever heard about the amazing food in Bikaner. Stands to reason that where good food prevails, the place obviously has a deep and rich heritage too! These Havelis are beautiful!

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  3. Such great storytelling here– I could feel the anticipation. And the havelis are gorgeous! Those colors are unbelievable. It amazes me that deserted buildings still look so good. I would think people still live there, just from the look of them.

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  4. Love this post! Havelis were my favourite part of Bikaner as well…in fact, I went there thrice in the week that I spent in the city, and came back with such wonderful memories!

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  5. Wow! I can see why you wanted to go and see these. I had no idea they existed. Simply stunning. And rather sad that so many are abandoned. I love Seeibg the intricate architecture on buildings like this

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  6. Your post reminded us of the Havelis in Jaisalmer, the Havelis here too have some of the amazing intricate lattice work. We haven’t yet been to Bikaner but if we had to the old city exploring these beautiful Havelis will definitely be on the list. From your pictures, it’s evident that the old city isn’t much frequented good that you had enough space to explore the heritage.

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  7. It pained me to see the neglect some of these havelis are facing. Little by little they are crumbling not noticeable in a span of few months but definitely yearly comparisons will show the damage taking place. I too loved my tour there.

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  8. Nicely written to draw someone in, and I like that your prose is full of detail. Kinda neat that you focused on a particular sight (building) that was your hunt for that day. Did you get to see any interiors?

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  9. I felt like I was reading a novel…Your writing is really good! The description was so detailed that along with your photos, it was like I was walking with you! Sounds like you had a great day and you gained experiences to have for all your life with you. These buildings look so old and so well preserved at the same time!

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  10. I have never heard of this area and I dont know much about this region but this is why I am sourcing information from blogs like yours so that i can plan my future trips. It is so much better to hear such detailed stories from those that have traveled there first hand. I love the photos

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  11. Wow, that’s surprising and amazing – it looks surreal, in India – such a beautiful place that seems abandoned and so quiet. The architecture is beautiful – the balconies remind me of the wooden carved architecture of Tbilisi in Georgia. I’ve been to many places in India – but I must visit this site when I’m there next!

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  12. Those havelis are just stunning! I missed going to the old part of Bikaner when I visited but, like you, I know I would’ve spent lots of time ogling and photographing these grand dames!

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  13. Learning something new is the best part of any travel and your article and the the you wrote it had me hooked from the start. Your passion is clear in this article and I certainly enjoyed along with the pictures.

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  14. Your adventure getting to these Havelis is exactly what I hope to have next month when I go to India. I’m glad you shared this post because I don’t think I’d have any idea about the importance of these buildings, their history and architectural significance otherwise.

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  15. I was living in India last year and was working for a travel agency. I saw a lot of Rajasthan but not Bikaner. I already wanted to come back but your post makes me want to come back even more if it’s even possible. Bikaner sounds really beautiful with lovely havelis. I will definitely consider visiting on my next trip !

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    1. Ah! India is really vast, and even locals cannot claim to have seen everything there is to see. But its so wonderful that you were able to explore a lot of Rajasthan..its one of the crowning glories of our country.

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  16. Bikaner is indeed a lesser known gem, a place that flourishes in the shadow of cities like Jaipur and Jodhpur. But probably because of that very fact it is all the more alluring. The rich and regal history of Rajasthan dances in the lanes andd bylanes of this desert town and there is something to discover around every bend and corner. We were there a couple of months ago and loved the place.

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