When it comes to choosing a place to visit in Rajasthan, Bikaner is not the obvious choice for many. Founded by Rao Bikaji in 1488, the beautiful and vibrant Bikaner has the charm of being less explored. Like most of the cities of Rajasthan, Bikaner not only displays its ancient richness through palaces and forts, that have withstood the passage of time, but is also home to some of the majestic Havelis.
Located in the Thar Desert, the densely populated walled city is nothing less than a treasure trove of opulently decorated courtyard houses, typically known as Havelis. Constructed mainly for the rich merchant community, the elaborate and intricate work on the facades make you fall in love with these large traditional houses instantly.
It was during the merchant trail, curated by the Narendra Bhawan, I visited the famous Rampuria Havelis. The moment I stepped out of the car to take a walking tour in those meandering narrow alleys of the old city of Bikaner, I was wonderstruck looking at the sublime grandeur and exquisiteness of the Rampuria Havelis, also known as ‘The Pride of Bikaner’.
Wrapped in the bygone era, the Havelis give you glimpses of the opulent lifestyle of the merchants of Bikaner, who contributed immensely to make the erstwhile princely city as one of the most flourishing trade centres of Rajasthan. The traders were invited to Bikaner by the Maharajas to make the city their base for trade. Since Bikaner was an important stop on the ancient Silk Route, the wealthy merchant class started making profits. As the merchant community started coming to Bikaner and settling down in the city, it soon resulted in the construction of the grand courtyard houses.
In the 15th century, the construction of Rampuria Havelis was commissioned to Balujee Chalva by the affluent Rampuria family, who did full justice to the responsibility entrusted upon him. The Dulmera red sandstone was used as the crucial base material in the construction of these mansions. It is said that the stones had been sourced from a nearby village named Dulmera in Bikaner. The architectural designs of the famous Havelis are a specimen of the artistic proficiency of the workers in that era.
The delicately curved stones, perforated screens (jaalis), beautiful balconies (jharokhas), the intricate and exquisite detailing of the motifs on the walls, the stone overhangs (chajjas) of the façade — present the most stunning amalgamation of varying influences from the Rajput and Mughal rulers to the British Empire. The interiors are said to be the most aesthetically designed, though it is out of bounds for public. It is left to one’s imagination as to how it must have been living a larger-than-life lifestyle in these astounding mansions.
While imagining the lifestyle, my heart sank after seeing the big lock on the grand doors, buried in dust for ages. I wondered why the Rampurias had left these Havelis in a neglected state. I was later told by the guide that the original owners no longer live here and have settled abroad. These Havelis are looked after by the appointed caretakers. Unfortunately, these grand mansions are sub-divided which has led to their crumbling state. Due to poor maintenance and negligence, these heritage buildings are decaying. I was told that there were over 1000 Havelis at one point of time, but only a few hundreds remain.
It takes less than an hour to take a quick tour around the cluster of Havelis in the old city of Bikaner, but if you wish to delve into a detailed exploration, it will take longer. The sights were so fascinating that I kept staring and admiring at the same time. The flower motifs, use of tiles and a variety of design inspirations from the bygone era got me hooked onto the forgotten alleys so much that I decided to come back again to see the Havelis basking under the glory of morning sunshine.
(The writer is a well-known travel blogger who writes at www.traveldiaryparnashree.com)