Frenzy! That is what I felt when I visited those small lanes of the uber-rich merchants of Bikaner. The “fear of missing out” – FOMO was running high as I walked the lanes from Rampuria Havelis of Bikaner to Kothari Havelis and its other equally beautiful neighbors. There was so much to see and so little time. In fact, as I write this, I have a FOMO of sharing the many details that I saw. What am I gushing about? Well – its the stunning, ornate, magnificent, out-of-the-world heritage homes of the erstwhile silk route merchants of Bikaner.
Of the many trails that Narendra Bhawan – my host in Bikaner took me on, the Rampuria Havelis Merchant Trail was my favorite. So much that I not only went along with everyone else but on the last free day, requested my host to take me back there again. I had only seen pictures of these mansions (called Havelis) but in real life – they are something else. Everyone talks of the glorious Junagarh Fort and the various palaces of Bikaner but these merchants had homes that can only be termed as “mini palaces”. Don’t believe me – just see it for yourself and I bet you will be including it in your places to visit in Bikaner.
Background of the Merchant Locality in Bikaner
Bikaner as a town was one of the places on the famous Silk Route of Asia. With the flourishing trade and the encouragement of the Bikaner Royal court, a lot of wealthy merchants set up their homes here. Elaborate courtyard mansions with artistic windows & doors, these Havelis of Bikaner are a symbol of the flamboyant lifestyle of these merchants, especially between the 15th and the 17th century. The havelis are a stunning mix of Mughal, British and Rajput style of architecture. Over time, with the need to modernize, families moving overseas and a nuclear set-up popping up, these were abandoned.
Of the many that thrived in that era, only 400 have survived. Most of these are closed, while a few have been refurbished to either newer residences or converted to hotels. Some are opened once a year during festivals when the family who owns it, visits the city. They might not be as well maintained as you might like them to be but they are still grand – so much that this historical part of Bikaner is now its pride.
Rampuria Havelis – Grandest of the Havelis in Bikaner
Among the surviving Havelis of Bikaner, it is a common consensus that the Rampuria Havelis are the grandest of them all. One look at them and you will also, agree to the same. The Rampuria Havelis is actually a group of 7 Rajasthani Havelis made by 3 brothers. The seven havelis are across each other on a narrow street. Stand in the center of the street and you will see a triangular mansion with the other two along its edges, except that the Haveli is not really triangular. The layout is so unique that it reminded me of that Farmville kind of game where you design your plots to create an artistic layout.
Most of your trail starts at this point. Here is where I got the first frenzy attack for I really did not know what to look at. The construction of the Bikaner Rampuria Havelis is credited to a local architect – Balujee Chalva. They are possibly one of the best examples of Rajasthani haveli architecture. Made out of dulmera red sandstone, it was as if every nook and corner was fighting for my attention. However, you take a deep breath and stay calm. I am going to just decipher it all for you so that you don’t suffer the same fate. Hopefully, with this, you will know where to look when you are there 😉
Bas Reliefs on Rampuria Havelis
Red bricked walls fitted with delicate windows and doors and carved overhangs – this is the sight you get when you stare at each of the Rampuria Havelis. However, even on this red sandstone facade are some interesting Bas Reliefs and Paintings that you can make a note of. On the oldest Haveli is a row of reliefs depicting the British King and Queen. Our Guide said that it was King George and as to why – maybe it was just allegiance or design, no one knows.
Look carefully and you will see plenty of deities on the other Rampuria Havelis. And then, there are some in the form of paintings. Like the ones on the triangular looking Rampuria Haveli. Glance above the first window to see various circular panels of colorful paintings of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
Windows & Doors of Rampuria Havelis of Rajasthan
What enhanced the beauty of the Rampuria Havelis of Bikaner were its aesthetic windows and doors – some contrasting its red facade while some blending right in with elegance. Each fixture was set on an intricately carved floral frame. The oldest Haveli had simple brown wooden doors. These got replaced by elegant brown ones with rich frames in the triangular looking Haveli.
The contrast of the green against the red in the Haveli opposite the triangular one made the entire Rampuria Haveli set-up stand out. This one also had a lovely carved balcony parapet – one of the few open structures facing the roads.
As was the custom in those days – there were separate entrances for the men and the women of the Rampuria Havelis. The ones facing the front were for the men while the side entrances were for the women – away from the public eye. While this may seem like a discriminating factor, the Rampuria family did seem to ensure there was no difference in the decor of each of those doors. There was a uniformity as far as the architecture of the Haveli was concerned.
The only obvious difference was the presence of two types of entrances – large ones directly onto the street and a few that led up the stairs to even more ornate doors. Our guide mentioned that these were for different types of visitors. The more important ones were led up the staircase.
The central triangular haveli had an interesting use of Stained Glass for their windows, adding that little dash of color to the otherwise red facade.
One of the Havelis seemed to be used as an office and had one of the windows opened. This gave me a good idea of how it might have looked when opened. I found these as perfect picture frames. All I had to do, is just hop over and pose behind those elegant frames for one. Sadly, this time, it was not to be.
Overhanging or Chajjas of Rampuria Havelis
One of the things I enjoyed spotting was the carved overhanging (chajjas) and the corners of the haveli. What made them interesting to me was not just the variety of designs but for the fact that these are parts of a building often neglected. In the case of Rampuria Havelis – these had their own story to tell. And one that could not have been told any better.
Kothari Havelis of Bikaner
I was stood transfixed by the opulent Rampuria Havelis until my guide politely jolted me out of this spell to remind me that there were some more of these elegant havelis that I would love to catch. Right he was, for if I had not gone ahead to the others, I would have sorely regretted missing my second most favorite cluster of Bikaner Havelis – The Kothari Havelis.
Where the Rampuria Havelis had a brick-walled facade, the Kothari Havelis of Bikaner had every inch of theirs covered with stunning floral carvings. There is no missing the carved beauties of the chajjas and the doors. Some of them had these lovely paintings on their walls – quite like the Bikaner Miniature Art that I spoke of in my last post.
The Kothari Havelis seem to be in use for they definitely seemed better maintained – with flower pots in the balconies & curtains on their windows. However, there was no one in sight who could confirm that.
Dadda Havelis of Bikaner
The third important group of Havelis along this Bikaner heritage walk. In actual life, this might have been probably the most prominent family. The Dadda family supported the royal family in terms of offering wealth when required and in return, were quite favored by them. Not as traditional as the Rampuria and the Kothari Havelis, the Dadda havelis showcased a touch of the British- European influence in its design.
As our guide pointed out – the use of colors like cream and white, with straight-lined balcony parapets were some indicators of that influence. However, there is still no missing out on the traditional haveli designs – the doors, windows and the Chajjas. I particularly found this facade interesting for its symmetry of doors and windows – which are different and yet not so.
Inside a refurbished Haveli – Bhawar Niwas
As impressed as I was with the outsides of a Haveli, I was dying to see the insides. I am sure that you too, were quite curious to know that. I wish I could have met one of those family members who could have allowed me a peek within. Since that was not to be, my guide suggested a visit to one of the Rampuria Havelis – turned hotel – Bhawar Niwas.
Though refurbished, you get a clear idea of what might have been the layout of these havelis from inside. A central courtyard dominates the inside while around it are the rooms. Bhawar Niwas had the drawing room and the guest rooms right near the entrance. These were quite ornate with the family crest at various points and elaborate use of gold to add that glitter.
The other rooms as you move in further, were the various bedrooms of family members while the kitchen and dining room were on the first floor. Even within the haveli, the decor had the traditional carved parapets and window frames. My favorite among all these – the clock set in the courtyard on all four walls of the haveli. Guess, everything in those days was timed to the minute 😉
Other sights of the Merchant Trail
The merchant trail of Bikaner is not just limited to these groups of Havelis that I have described here. There are plenty of other smaller ones that you can still see. Colorful wall paintings and tile work with Hindu Deities are common sights that you should watch out for.
The Jain temples at various squares add to the exquisiteness of this trail. The white marble structures with their gold and silver doors add a certain serenity to the atmosphere. If you look carefully at the walls of these Jain temples, you will see delightful marble engravings – some floral and some with a religious significance.
Though I spend at least 3 hours here, I felt I still could not capture everything. There were quite a few hidden Havelis that I missed. And then, there were some more that I saw but will let you discover for yourself. I know that you are already planning your visit there. Pretty sure in fact! For there is no other way. The Merchant Trail of Rampuria Havelis has to be on your list of Bikaner sightseeing!
- Bikaner is very well connected by road and railway to all the major cities of India. It has limited flight connectivity with one regular Air India Flight every day from Delhi. The seats for the same are limited and it is best booked early.
- Once in Bikaner, you can hail a cab or an auto to take you to the old city of Bikaner – specifically the Rampuria Haveli. Click here to get the location on your mobile.
- You can always hire an auto to take your around this area but I highly recommend that you walk this place.
- The roads are very narrow and are two-way. Hence, please be alert when taking pictures here.
- There are plenty of cows and dogs on the roads here. Be careful where you step.
- Keep drinking water handy as there is a lot of walking to be done.
- Dress in comfortable cotton clothes and wear walking shoes for this trail.
- If you can hire a local guide through your hotel, you are likely to enjoy the trail better.
- Early morning is the best time for visiting this area as there is little traffic and also, you get some good light for photography.
- If you are clicking pictures of people here, I would request my readers to please ask them for their permission. It is only polite.
P.S: I experienced this merchant trail as a part of my Narendra Bhawan stay in Bikaner.