The drive from Mandawa to Bikaner is around 5 hours over roads that are generally in excellent condition. We mostly follow toll roads and there are regular stops for snacks, chai, cola and toilets (for the brave or desperate).
Rajasthan is one of the most popular areas to visit for first time visitors to India. It is in the north west of the country, bordering Pakistan, and offers stunning desert land and numerous palaces and forts. Interestingly, it also has coloured cities: like Jaipur is pink and Jodhpur is blue. Just like its inhabitants, who wear sari’s in the most stunning colours in the middle of the desert.
Bikaner is the red city. Red is not surprising, given its location in the middle of the Thar Desert.
The town is famous for its 16th century Junargarh Fort. This is one of the few major forts in Rajasthan that is not built on the top of a hill. It is our first desert fort, and the first fort where we see the large anti-elephant spikes on the main gates.
The Fort consists of a large complex. It was built for Maharaja Rai Singh in 1588 AD and has never been taken despite repeated attacks. The history of Rajasthan consists of frequent battles between the various local Maharajas. Bikaner was an oasis on the trade route through the Thar desert and as such highly valued.
The fort is an interesting mix of military defensive structures and lavish interiors, as well as a range of architectural styles.
There is also a nice museum, with various manuscripts and an impressive collection of post medieval weaponry.
Interestingly, the fort also has an old aircraft parked in the centre of the museum area. This World War I bomber was rebuild from pieces, presented by the British Government to Bikaner in recognition of the services rendered by the Bikaner State Forces, led by Maharaja Ganga Singhji of Bikaner, during the 1st World War. In 1914, Maharaha Ganga Singh offered the British a 500-strong camel corps which was deployed in Egypt. It defended the Suez canal from Turkish advances so successfully, that more camel mounted regiments were formed. The airplane was put together from pieces by local craftsmen, who filled in “the gaps” as they saw best. No wheels, no worries, the wheels from a wheelbarrow will do….
Bikaner is also home to the famous Karni Mata Temple, the rat temple. We decided not to visit that one, as I was definitely not feeling well. I ended up heading straight for bed when we checked in, even opting out of the lovely dinner, that was enjoyed by my fellow travellers.
Our accomodation was a genuine heritage place, the Karni Bhawan Palace. This is a 1920’s holiday home to the Royal Family, which has been turned into a boutique hotel. We were the only guests, and the staff were very welcoming.
Even the furniture that populates the very large rooms is still from the 1920’s. It all has the feel of an old gentlemen’s club, cigars and whiskey in the library anyone?
We are amused by the fact that our travelling companions draw more attention from the locals than the sights we are visiting. It started with the Taj Mahal, and has not let up since then. With one relatively tall female, two men well over six foot, and one with some nice tatoo sleeves, we are a sight to be seen. These three are by now familiar faces in many Indian family photo albums. At times standing next to terrified children…..
Travel details and tips
Accomodation for the night; The art deco 1920’s Karni Bhawan Palace.
Tip1: Most accomodation can nowadays be booked via the internet. Booking.com has a large number of the heritage properties on it. They are an amazing place to stay and sample some of the colonial period. I can highly recommend these, they may not all be five star, but the character and experience is well worth it!
Tip 2: Although we had a great time posing for family photos, be conscious of men trying to take selfies with female travellers. Some of them are good enough to ask, and I will decline unless my husband (or any man I am traveling with) is also in the photo. More often though, they try to sneak you in a selfie shot. Do keep your eyes open for any phones that might be pointing in your direction. Those photos are generally NOT for the family album!