Bikaner is a city in the north-western Indian state of Rajasthan, known for having a remarkable history in architecture, fostering its wildlife, and the unmistakable experience of living amongst the golden sand dunes of the Thar desert. The city of Bikaner is the administrative headquarters of the district of Bikaner, formerly known to be the princely state of Bikaner. It was founded by Rao Bika in 1488 CE as a small town that has now grown to become the fourth largest city in the state.
Resonating with the visions of its founder, the city of Bikaner offers a wholesome experience as a traditional Rajasthani tourist destination with its architectural landmarks and ethnic adventures. As an architect, the visit to Bikaner would essentially be incomplete if the itinerary isn’t reflective of varied experiences starting from its historical monuments to cultural experiences, and informative encounters.
All the monuments and structures built for the Rajputana throughout Rajasthan symbolize one or more of the three purposes of being built either as a commemoration of the royals, or a portrayal of royalty and wealth or as an establishment of a new era. Bikaner is symbolic of several such architectural marvels.
1. Junagarh Fort
Every historical city of India, especially the ones isolated by natural landscapes, was guarded by huge forts and fortresses, which over time turned into historical monuments.
On the same lines of history, the city of Bikaner is known and famed for The Junagarh Fort, constructed in 1588 AD by Raja Rai Singh. It has remarkable architecture, built out of red sandstone and marble, enriched with courtyards, kiosks, balconies, and embellished windows. These elements are a blend of Mughal and Gujarati architecture.
It is one of the bastions that have never been captured by other ruling authorities of its era, and thus, stands unconquered to date.
2. Laxmi Niwas Palace
The Laxmi Niwas Palace used to be the residence of the king of Bikaner, Maharaja Ganga Singh. This marvelous Indo-Saracenic monument was designed by the British architect Sir Swinton Jacob and was built between 1898 and 1902 in red sandstone.
It was built to serve as a Royal Residence for the king and his royal family and was named after the Hindu Goddess of wealth, beauty, and prosperity – Goddess Laxmi. The Maharaja hosted several grand events in this palace for dignitaries such as King George V, King of Greece, Viceroys, and his fellow kings.
This beautiful structure, with its carved friezes, adorned ceilings, and golden frescoes have now been converted into a luxury hotel, with its awe-inspiring hospitality and picturesque views.
3. Lalgarh Palace & Museum
This majestic palace, like most of the other monuments in Bikaner, is a red sandstone architectural marvel. It was built as per the design by the British architect Sir Swinton Jacob in 1902, in an Indo-Saracenic architectural style, and was commissioned by Maharaja Ganga Singh as a celebration of the life of his father Maharaja Lal Singh.
This palace is a blend of Rajputana, Mughal, and European architecture. Initially built as a commemoration and as an extension to the Laxmi Niwas Palace, this palace has been converted into Lalgarh Palace Hotel because of its exquisite architectural experience.
The fort houses the Sadgul Museum, Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum, and the heritage hotel of Lalgarh Palace. The exhibits at the museum represent a fine collection of historical remains of Pre-Harappan and the early Gupta periods, Oil paintings, sculptures, heads of various hunted animals, Rajput weapons, and a collection of trophies belonging to the rulers of Bikaner.
4. Rampuria Haveli
Bikaner is home to several Havelis – the aristocratic homes of the olden era, and one of the most famous clusters of such houses is the Rampuria Group of Havelis. These structures too are built out of red stone, locally known as dulmera stone.
These Havelis belonged to Bikaneri merchants – the Rampurias, and for the same reason were built to represent their wealth and prosperity. The merchants made sure that their Havelis were no less on grandeur when compared with the palaces around them.
The architectural elements used were rich with intricacies – entrances, latticed windows, jharokhas (the lookout balconies), basements, divankhanas, etc. make these Havelis, part of which have been converted into hotels, a must-visit place in Bikaner.
5. Prachina Museum
The Prachina Museum is a part of the Great Junagarh Fort and consists of a remarkably different exhibition – the exhibition of Royal Clothes & accessories. The reason to consider this as an exclusive part of the itinerary is that it is amongst one-of-its-only-kind when it comes to museums and represents the rich cultural heritage of the city.
The visitors are welcomed by the traditional wear of the Rajasthani Royals who ruled Bikaner. Several Poshaks (garments that were worn by the ladies), royal costumes, textiles, and other royal accessories are put on display along with the family portraits of the rulers and their families. These depict how cultures and clothing styles have evolved and changed over time.
6. Karni Mata Temple at Deshnok
While speaking of Bikaner, it is impossible to not mention the Karni Mata temple at Deshnok, 30 km from the city of Bikaner. This religious abode, intricately built out of stone and marble, is dedicated to a Hindu warrior sage who lived the life of an ascetic in the fourteenth century – Karni Mata. She was considered as an incarnation of Goddess Durga – the protective mother goddess in Hindu Religion, and thus, has several temples dedicated to her, of which the temple at Bikaner is the most famous one.
The fame of this temple is not only dedicated to its architecture or the revered Goddess but to her loyal subjects – over 25,000 rats who live about the temple complex nibbling over the food brought in by the devotees. This view cannot be traded for any other experience in the city.
7. Jain Temple Bhandasar
The Bhandasar Jain temple is a monumental marvel in Rajputana architecture. This temple is sure to leave you awestruck with its intricate design built in the composition of red sandstone and white marble, with a gold layer as a part of its finishing.
This is a three-story temple dedicated to Sumatinath, the fifth Tirthankara of Jainism. The interiors are adorned with murals, intricate mirror work, and gold leaf paintings.
8. Royal Cenotaphs at Devi Kund
As mentioned before, monuments in Rajasthan were built for three reasons – as a part of an accomplishment, as a portrayal of wealth, or as a commemoration. The royal cenotaphs at Devi Kund, 8kms to the east of the city of Bikaner, are symbolic of wealth as well as a commemoration.
This is an important site in the history of Bikaner, as it is where the members of the royal family who died were cremated. Over the cremated spots, an exquisite chhatri was erected, in memory of the royal member. Each chhatri speaks of the architecture during the era of its ruler or member of the royal family.
The intricacy of the details in the material used or the beauty of the paintings inside the cenotaphs is symbolic of the grandeur and power of the ruler cremated under it.
9. Sursagar Lake
A visit to Bikaner is incomplete without some recreational spots to relax and spend time at. Of these recreational spots, a famous one is the Sursagar lake – constructed by Maharaja Sur Singh to minimize the water shortage during his reign.
Naturally, being a manmade lake, with time the water became unsuitable for consumption and the lake turned into a sightseeing spot with a boating facility. This made it more functional to attract tourists.
10. Gajner Palace and Wildlife Sanctuary
While talking of recreational spots in the city of Bikaner, one cannot overlook the experience at Gajner Palace and the Wildlife Sanctuary around it. The Gajner palace, like all other palaces, was founded by one of the rulers of Bikaner – Maharaja Gaj Singh Ji, in the year 1784. But, unlike other palaces, this palace was completed by another ruler – Maharaja Ganga Singh, on the banks of the lake.
The Gajner palace was built to serve as a vacation retreat and hunting ground for the royal family as well as for their visiting guests. Built beside a lake, this palace redefines royalty and the experience associated with the term. For the same reason, it has been converted into a hotel that promises traditional royal experiences of Rajasthan.
The Gajner wildlife sanctuary, on the other hand, is a haven of animal species residing in the lush green forests. These include the nilgai, blackbuck, wild boar, chinkara, deer, antelopes, and several species of migratory birds who can be found quenching their thirst near the lake.
11. Rajasthan State Archives
Having dwelled over architectural marvels and recreational spots in Bikaner, it is obligatory to address the several informative opportunities the city offers. One such must-mention experience is a visit to the Rajasthan State Archives in Bikaner, especially if you are a researcher, academician, or architect with an interest in history. This state archive holds ancient administrative records that date back to the Mughal era.
12. National Research Centre on Camel
The name ‘Rajasthan’ is synonymous with its golden deserts and camels. The experience of visiting the state is incomplete without a desert encounter atop the camels. The city of Bikaner offers such an exclusive experience at the National Research Centre on Camels. It is 8 km from the city and is a dedicated camel research and breeding center – the only one of its kind in Asia.
The center is managed by the Government of India and promises to enlighten visitors about the various facilities and techniques of research used in the center in its small museum. It also offers some exquisite experiences such as – tasting samples of camel milk or lassis, and camel rides.
13. Sand dunes Safari – Katariasar Village
A camel ride in the golden desert is an experience several cities in Rajasthan can offer. But Bikaner takes this experience to another level by inviting visitors to indulge in traditional Rajasthani living practices in the Katariasar village, 45kms from Bikaner on the Jaipur road.
The Katariasar village is rich in its ethnic, rural, and cultural life. Tourists can walk on sand dunes enveloping the village and can view the sun setting against the desert landscape. This village is home to the Jasnathjis – fire dancers, who entertain the visitors with their talents. The village also offers some wildlife encounters with desert foxes, rabbits, peacocks, parrots, and partridges.
14. Station Road and MG Road for a Festive Shopping Spree
Tourists, especially architects who visit places as tourists, find it unsatisfying if a city doesn’t offer a shopping experience. After all, what is a visit without a souvenir? Bikaner doesn’t disappoint here as well. The most famous shopping spots in the city are the shopping streets of – Station road, and MG road.
Station Road, near the Bikaner railway station, is a street shopping experience filled with numerous shops and street vendors selling embroidered fabrics, footwear (also called joothis), traditional artifacts, miniature paintings, and leather crafts that can be bought at reasonable prices.
MG Road (Mahatma Gandhi Road), on the other hand, is a destination to shop for ethnic wear such as georgette and chiffon sarees and some supreme wood souvenirs to carry back home. The fabrics and crafts are reflective of the rich cultural heritage of the city.
15. Gorging over Bikaneri delicacies
All traveling experiences are tied together by the local cuisines different places have to offer. The cuisine of Bikaner is known for its wholesome dishes – namely Gatte Ki Sabji (gravy-based dishes made with gram flour roundels), Mangodi (fried lentil snack), and Khasta (another fried layered lentil snack).
Look out for local street shops and some recommended palace hotels for a wholesome experience of the Rajasthani Thali served on a large plate with numerous side dishes served in unlimited quantities.