Bikaner is not very popular on travel itineraries and remains relatively less commercial as a result. The Old City in particular is impervious to the 21st century; even ubiquitous mobile network hoardings have not penetrated this part of town. Its labyrinth of narrow lanes, lined with shops selling deep-fried street food, paan, and piles of spices, is perfect for an evening of exploring. But it has more impressive draws too.
There are modest palaces, opulent havelis, and the handsome Junagarh Fort where royal heirlooms and even a reassembled fighter jet are on display. These regal vestiges are clues to the city’s history: It was the capital of the erstwhile princely state of Bikaner ruled by the Rathores. There’s also the famous Karni Mata rat temple nearby, which draws both devotees and the curious. However, the trick to discovering this Rajasthani town is not through a whirlwind tour of the sights. It is to stroll along its bazaars, chat with locals, and dig into its sinful street food. Bikaner’s most popular export is after all, the Bikaneri bhujia which even has a geographical indication (GI) tag.
Baby camels are lanky, doe-eyed, furry, and oddly endearing. Watch and even pet them at the National Research Centre on Camel. Camels of all ages live here, from babies flopping about on the ground to full-grown adults with big teeth and huge eyelashes. Sample camel milk ice cream that’s all the rage with locals.
Junagarh Fort dominates the city centre. Its chequered history is closely intertwined with the region. Over the centuries, the fort was home to about 20 rulers, from Maharaja Rai Singhji (Bikaner’s sixth king who laid the foundation of the fort) to the family of Maharaja Ganga Singh who moved out in the early 1900s. Each added personal touches, evident from the elaborate and sometimes quirky rooms. Dazzling gold work adorns some ceilings and pillars and the fort museum includes a collection of stupendously ornate dressing tables, and a DH-9 DE Havilland fighter plane received as a World War I trophy. (Open daily 10 a.m.-4.30 p.m.; entry ₹200 adults, ₹100 children and students.)
In the early 20th century, the royal family moved into the sprawling Lallgarh Palace. The west wing of the pink sandstone manor is now The Lallgarh Palace Hotel. Its corridors have photographs of erstwhile royalty, offering intimate glimpses into their everyday life. Visit for a meal or coffee in the marble courtyard. The Sri Sadul Museum, on the grounds, has treasures such as a special soup spoon, half-covered at the top so the king’s moustache remained dry. (www.lallgarhpalace.com; +91-151-2540201; buffet ₹850 per head; museum open Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m., entry ₹20.)
I consider Bikaner the land of havelis. The Old City has a number of gorgeous mansions, each grander and more ornate than the next. Some jut out at odd angles while others run the length of a small lane; most remain empty and locked up. I spend an afternoon taking in these massive structures in the narrow lanes. Their intricate facades alone are worth a trip—the atmosphere and setting are of a neighbourhood caught in a time warp.
Bikaner’s old bazaar, inside Koth gate, is a delight. Craftsmen hammer away at lac bangles and goldsmiths fashion ornaments. Smiling shopkeepers offer passersby khoya, paneer, or paan at no charge. Dig into piping hot jalebis and kachoris at the iconic Chhotu Motu Joshi sweetshop on Station Road, or sample a mind-boggling variety of bhujias in the tiny, yet crowded Bishanlal Babulal Bhujiawala (near Koth Gate, opp. Labuji ka Katla).
Appeared in the January 2016 issue as “Best of Bikaner”. Updated in November 2017.
Bikaner is 440 km/8 hr from Delhi, 330 km/5 hr northwest of Jaipur and 250 km/4.5 hr north of Jodhpur. The closest major airport is in Jodhpur, while the main railway station is Bikaner Junction. Regular trains and buses connect Bikaner to other cities in Rajasthan and around the country.