There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Bikaner, Sweets and Palaces: Part 3 of Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This post covers day 4 of a 16-day journey around Rajasthan.

The size of Germany, Rajasthan is the largest of India’s 29 states. With the Thar Desert covering the north and west it is one of India’s less densely populated states, though with 200 people per km² (the same as Italy) it is hardly empty.
Today's Journey, Mandawa to Bikaner across northern Rajasthan
In the 11th and 12th centuries the rise of the Rajputs created some 20 or so petty kingdoms ruled by Maharajas - the ‘Rajput Princes’. These kingdoms, at first independent, later vassal states of the Mughal or British Empires survived until 1947, when the Maharajahs led their ‘Princely States’ into the new Union of India, creating Rajasthan (the ‘Land of Princes’). The rulers became constitutional monarchs until 1971 when the Indian government ended their official privileges and abolished their titles. ‘Maharaja’ is now a courtesy title, but most remain leading members of their communities and some are still immensely rich. Several, like their British counterparts, supplement their income by turning forts and palaces into tourist attractions and hotels.

Wildlife by the Road to Fatehpur

Next morning, we left the haveli at Mandawa and set off for Bikaner some 180 km east across the Thar desert. At first we followed a minor road, wide but heavily patched, running straight across the arid scrub to Fatehpur.

The minor road from Mandawa to Fatehpur
We had not been going long when Umed suddenly brought the car to a halt, pointed to our right and said 'nilgai.' I did not like to admit I had no idea what 'nilgai' meant (Lynne tells me she was less ignorant) so I followed his finger and saw that his sharp eyes had spotted a group of antelopes in the shade of some trees. The nilgai (blue bull) is endemic to the Indian sub-continent and is locally common.  This group were all females, we saw a male a little further on, but too far off to photograph [update: we did better at Ranthambore – coming later]. They are larger than the females, surprisingly bull shaped and really are blue(ish) hence the name.

Nilgai by the Mandawa -  Fatehpur road
Fatehpur (not to be confused with Fatehpur Sikri the purpose built Mughal capital near Agra) is 20 km from Mandawa and has one notable haveli controversially restored by the French artist Nadine le Prince. The wholesale repainting of murals has upset some but her haveli stands in sharp contrast to the once elegant but now sad, broken-down havelis around it. Fatehpur generally looked a sad broken-down town, the road surface disappearing for several hundred metres and water (where did that come from?) had collected in a dip to form a small muddy flood.

The town centre was more lively, and on the southern outskirts we re-joined the main Jaipur - Bikaner highway.

Fatehpur town centre

The Lallgarh Palace, Bikaner

The remaining 160km was on a good road and we reached Bikaner in time for lunch. Umed drove us straight to the Lallgarh Palace.

Approaching the Lallgarh Palace, Bikaner

The Rough Guide describes Bikaner as a 'smog filed commercial city'. Built on land as flat as a pancake it seemed, at first sight no worse, or better than other Rajasthani cities. Rao Bika founded the city in 1486 and named it after himself, following in the footsteps of his father Rao Jodha, King of Marwar, who had named his new capital Jodhpur.

Rao Bika was the first of 22 rulers of the Bikaner State, which later became a vassal of the Mughal Empire and then of the British Empire. His successors were granted the title of Rajah by the Mughal Emperors in the late 16th century, and Maharaja a century later. In 1947 Maharaja Sadul Singh led the rulers of Rajasthan's princely states in joining the new Republic of India. The title was officially abolished, in 1971, but Sadul Singh’s grandson Ravi Raj Singh holds the courtesy title. He is a Jaipur based banker, while his sister Rajyashree Kumari, owns and lives at the Lallgarh (or Lalgarh) Palace, Bikaner.

Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob designed the Laxmi Niwas Palace for Maharaja Ganga Singh and building started in 1896. It was later extended to become the Lallgarh Palace and part of the complex is now a heritage hotel.
The Lallgarh Palace Hotel, Bikaner

Checking in to a palace feels slightly strange, and our room was certainly palatial. We hardly had time to hike its length and breadth before grabbing a lunch of mixed pakoras and setting off with Umed and local guide, G, to Junagarh.
Our room in the Lallgarh Palace Hotel

Junagarh, Bikaner

Rao Bika built Bikaner’s first fort, but by the 16th century something larger and stronger was required so Maharaja Rai Singh oversaw the building of the Chintamani Fort. Completed in 1594 (though many additions were made in the following centuries), it is vast, walls 4m thick and 12m high, once surrounded by a moat 6m deep, defended an area of 5ha. The only major fort in Rajasthan not built on a hill or rocky outcrop – Bikaner has no such thing – it was attacked several times but never taken. By the late 19th century the comforts of a modern palace were more attractive than the security of a medieval fort, so the Lallgarh Palace was built and Chintamani was renamed Junagarh (lit: Old Fort).

Junagarh, Bikaner

With several courtyards, six mahals and a garden I apologise in advance for any omissions or misplacements.
We entered the main courtyard through the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate). Beside the Daulat Pol are the red handprints of 41 royal women who committing sati, joining husbands killed in battle on their funeral pyres. First mentions of the practice date from the 3rd century BC, but it grew in popularity (if that is the right word) between the 5th and 9th centuries among the warrior nobility, the very people who would rule Rajasthan, before spreading throughout India. At first tolerated by the British, pressure from Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers led to the practice being banned in West Bengal in 1829 and throughout India in 1861 with little opposition. G did not show us the handprints, I do not know why.

Sandstone end of the main courtyard, Junagarh

The mahals largely surround the main courtyard which maybe sandstone at one end but has a Mughal style pool in Carrara marble at the other.
Marble end of the main courtyard, Junagarh

The highly decorated Karan Mahal…. 
Decorated ceiling, Karan Mahal, Junagahr, Bikaner

…was built by Raja Karan Singh (r1631-67) to celebrate a victory over the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Above the raja’s throne is a punkah to keep the great man cool, though now the room is air conditioned the punkah-wallah has had to find another job.
Throne in the Karan Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner

We crossed another courtyard…
Courtyard, Junagarh, Bikaner

To the Anup Mahal. After his initial defeat Aurangzeb did not back down, deposing Karan Singh, installing Anup Singh in his stead and promoting him to Mahajara. The Anup Mahal is the grandest room in the palace. The carpet in front of the sumptuously decorated throne was made by the inmates of Bikaner jail, a manufacturing tradition that survived until recently.
Anup Singh's throne, Anup Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner

The walls of 19th century Badal Mahal (Cloud Palace), more a wide corridor than a hall, are painted to representing a sky suffused with monsoon clouds threaded with snakes of lightening.
Badal Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner

Up the stairs we entered a room full of oddities, the medals given to the local rulers by the Mughal empire who did not mess around with little things to pin on your chest…
Mughal medals, Junagarh, Bikaner

…and various beds of nails and swords….
Swords for standing on, should you so desire, Junagarh, Bikaner

…used by sadhus to demonstrated whatever it is they demonstrate.
Sadhu standing on swords, Junagarh, Bikaner

We passed the maharaja’s swing (apparently his slide, roundabout and dodgems not on show) on our way to…
The Maharaja's swing, Junagarh, Bikaner

…the Chandra Mahal which includes the royal bedrooms. The low bed prevents assassins hiding beneath it, while strategically placed mirrors ensured the maharaja could observe any who approached.
Chandra Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner

A window gave a view of the gardens as we made our way downstairs to the 20th century Ganga Mahal.
Palace Garden, Junagarh, Bikaner

Maharaja Ganga Singh

In the twilight years of India’s ruling maharajas, Maharaja Ganga Singh (r1887-1943) - General Sir Ganga Singh - was a colossus. ‘He was a general in the English Army,’ G told us, slightly awestruck. My inner pedant wanted to tell him there has been no such thing as the ‘English Army’ since the Act of Union in 1707, but I suppressed the irritating know-all. Ganga Singh joined the army in 1898 and fought for the British in China during the Boxer rebellion. He formed and led the Bikaner Camel Corps which fought in the Somaliland campaign (1902-4) and in Egypt during the First World War. In 1917 Lloyd George appointed him to the War Cabinet, a group of 12 men (no women) who met throughout 1917 and 18 to discuss the nature for the post-war British Empire. The cabinet included Lloyd George himself and the Primer Ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa while India was represented by the Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces and Ganga Singh, the only non-white face at the table. He later represented India at the Versailles Peace Conference and at the League of Nations.
War cabinet 1917 (and aides), Ganga Singh is second from left, middle row with resplendent Maharaja's moustache
Quite how he came to acquire a de Havilland bi-plane during his First World War exploits is obscure, but it is currently exhibited in the Ganga Mahal.
Ganga Singh'a de Havilland bi-plane, Ganga Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner
At home, he responded to the 1899-90 famine by building an irrigation system to ensure it never happened again, he established a Supreme Court with independent judges, established limited local democracy and promoted the education of girls and women. He was an all-round good egg, who devoted his life to the service of Bikaner, India and the British Empire, but found time to build himself the vast and comfortable Lallgarh Palace.

Rasgulla and Bikaner's Other Famous Sweets

More than once G had mentioned the excellence of Bikaner’s sweets so it seemed a good idea to hunt some out. Umed drove us into the city centre and G led a short walk past some vegetable stalls…
Vegetable stalls, Bikaner
… and several havelis, some in poor repair, others carefully repurposed…
Restored havelli, Bikaner
… and near the Ashirwad Eggs Zone…
Ashirwad Eggs Zone, Bikaner
… was the city's foremost sweet stall.
Sweet stall, Bikaner
We perused the goodies on display and at G's suggestion bought a couple of Rasgulla, fluffy white balls of cottage cheese steeped in rose water. ‘Give them a pinch,’ G instructed, ‘to squeeze out the excess rosewater then pop then in your mouth.’ We did, they were lovely, but at 10 rupees each over far too quickly. At twice the price we tried their larger yellow cousins flavoured with saffron. They were even lovelier, so we bought some more.
Eating saffron rasgulla, Bikaner (I don't know why the fellow on our left is regarding us with such suspicion)
We arrived back at the Lallgarh Palace as the light was beginning to fade but had time for a walk round the gardens and a look at the statue of the redoubtable Ganga Singh, who built it all.
Maharaja Ganga Singh at the Lallgarh Palace

Laal Mans and Ker Sangria - Dinner Rajasthani Style

Rejecting the buffet in favour of the à la carte at dinner we choose laal maas (or maans), the same dish, we discovered, that we had eaten under a different name in Jaipur. Laal maas, red lamb, is a local stew, the meat slowly cooked in a rich sauce packed with fire and flavour. A good Laal Maas should put sweat on the brow, and this one did, though we eschewed the bowl of yogurt supplied in case our tender foreigner’s palates needed some fire-fighting. With it we ordered ker sangria. According to legend, ker, the berry of a wild shrub and sangria, the bean of the Khejari tree, were only eaten in time of famine, then someone put them together, cooking them with chillis, asafoetida, turmeric ajwain, mango powder and coriander and created a local favourite, served at every Rajasthani wedding.  A dry dish it went well with the laal maas with its ample sauce, its flavour mild but unusual, though the ker berry was a little sour for my taste.
Lynne, laal maas and ker sangri, Lallgarh Palace, Bikaner

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