March 7th 2020
Bikaner, in the Thar Desert, was established in the mid 15thC by Rao Bika, the second son of the Maharaja Rao Jogha – who founded Jodphur. During the latter half of the 16thC Raja Rai Singhji, the sixth ruler of Bikaner, was given the jagirs (a sort of land system whereby the recipient collected taxes on behalf of the Mughals) of Gugarat and Burhanpur,on the Tapi river, in Madya Pradesh. With what he was able to cream off he built the Junagarh Fort that was completed in 1594.
It was to this fort that we headed. It is massive. Although the moat is no longer, it once was up to 25 ft deep and 30ft wide. The walls are 40ft high and over 14ft wide; it covers over 13 acres; has 37 bastions and 7 gates.
We were welcomed by a fort guide at the Daulat Prol gate. In the pillar to the left were the handprints of 41 wives who had committed sati on their husband’s funeral pyres. A grim reminder that despite earlier attempts during the 19thC, The Sati (Prevention) Act was not enacted until 1987. A few widows have continued to practice ‘voluntary’ sati in the 21stC. The gates themselves had the customary spikes at elephant brow height to prevent their being charged down in a siege. It was not only being in the shade of the red sandstone arches that was rather chilling.
The place was almost empty and we were the only tourists to go through the ticket formalities into a high walled courtyard where the guide explained to us that the intricately carved zig-zag staircase was a copy of “…those typically found in English houses.”
Just like home ….. seriously – no kidding.
We took the ramp beside it, created for horses, to the first courtyard. The Karan Mahal Palace, of which this is the courtyard, was built by Karan Mahal Singh in 1680 to celebrate his victory over the Mughal emperor Aurungzeb. It is a glorious mixture of the red sandstone and white Carrera marble. It has been used for coronations and public audiences and at one end there is a marble canopied throne, surrounded by water approached by two delicate little bridges.
In one corner a tower has three delightful, beautifully painted panels. The top one illustrates a two carriage train with six rigidly upright passengers. The middle one is a double decker-paddle boat with an elephant bowsprit. Someone sitting on a conveniently placed island appears to be shooting a water monster. In the bottom one an elephant is pulling a very elegant carriage with nine passengers. All three paintings have an important personage in the middle. The Maharaja seems to say to the merchants of Shekhawati – “….you can’t compete with my transport ….!”
The fort, is a beautifully maintained and joyful place to visit. Doubtless our visit was greatly enhanced because, except for one Indian family and an apparently random television film crew, there was nobody else there. We wandered between treasures and immense rooms. The paintings throughout were exquisite.
The pride of place amongst all this beauty, was in the museum – a WWI bi-plane now sitting rather sadly in the durbar hall – the Ganga Singh Hall. Ganga Singh ruled from 1887 -1943 and was a committed anglophile. It wasn’t so much that those English royals loved to expend cartridges on beautiful animals while staying at Ganga Singh’s palace on a lake at nearby Gajner (which they did), but he was heavily involved in WWI – his uniforms and medals are on display. He was an honorary ADC to the Prince of Wales at the 1902 Coronation; was made a Knight Commander of the Star of India; was a member of the Imperial War Cabinet and represented India at the Versailles Peace Conference 1919/20.
Now the whole place is under the custodianship of the Maharaja Rai Singh Trust that besides improving visitor experience (which it does well), backs educational and research charities. As we were leaving the film crew caught up with us and asked for interviews. They wanted to know about our foreigners’ take on Coronavirus.
“Where are you from?”
“The UK and the US of A…”
“Are you worried about being in India with Coronavirus?”
“Why not? ”
“Because we are so well looked after…..”
We weren’t worried. We sniffed Narenndra’s posies frequently (they smelled rather good anyway). If we sneezed or coughed we did so into our elbows; we hand-sanitised with viral wash at every opportunity and washed our hands, singing ‘Happy Birthday Hanley’ twice (it had been Hanley’s idea) with a frequency that would make Nanny smile with approval from her cloud.
On the way out a street musician, with wonderful curls and troubling eyes, did his best to hypnotise money from us. He would not make much that day….. neither as it turned out, for unknown months.
We stopped for lunch on the way to Jaisalmer. It was such a far cry from anything we had experienced that it came as a surprise. A hundred or so Europeans, disgorged from coaches, were pouring over aisles of merchandise that were on sale for IR100 an item. A pound shop. For a start we hadn’t seen many Europeans since hitting India. Secondly some tourists, perspiring in the heat, tried on T shirts and then threw them back onto the pile – it was skanky. I felt more likely to catch the virus in this petrol station than anywhere we had been. However Sally bought some very good bangles that she wore for the rest of the trip – I wished I’d spotted them too.
We hit Jaisalmer at dusk. Tuk-tuks took us from the bus through the town gates and up the increasingly narrow streets to our haveli built into the ancient city walls. Sally discovered that Mick Jagger had occupied hers – disappointingly some time ago. After another delicious supper downtown, we tuk-tukked back and, high above the town with its soundtrack of motorbikes, tuk-tuks and the extended families of dogs guarding their respective streets, I relished the view from my room.