1448 was a tumultuous year in the history of the Kingdom of Jodhpur. That year the young and ambitious second son of the Maharaja of of Jodhpur, gave up his claim to the throne in exchange of to take the family heirlooms. The young man decided to move to an uncontested barren piece of land, 'Jungladesh', and decided to his own royal lineage. This young man was Rao Bikaji and the kingdom he founded came to be known as Bikaner.
Exactly five hundred years later when India was at the cusp of independence, the last reigning Maharaja of Bikaner, His Highness Narendra Singhji, was born and with his deeds left yet another lasting legacy, embracing the spirit of young, independent and democratic India. His residence in Bikaner is now converted into a luxurious five star hotel appropriately called Narendra Bhawan.
However, it's not like any other hotel that you will come across in Rajasthan. The hotel is an delicious mix of the past and the present, the young and the old, the classy and the kitsch.
While the overall architectural style is reminiscent of the typical Rajasthani style, the interiors will certainly delightfully surprise you. Wherever you look, there is a story - on the walls, on the floor, on the table next to you, in a book on the drawer. In fact one can easily spend a day exploring the art work at the hotel and still not be done with it. In fact I would suggest having your morning coffee on the porch with Karan, the visionary behind the property, because he will tell you stories that no one else will even know. Well, you need to get up a bit early for this privilege though as he likes to start his day at 5am :)
Here are some of my favorite things to look out for - Wall of silk, the Red Baby Grand Piano called 'Edith', painting of the gown, among others.
This theme of design carries forward to the room as well. The large central courtyard is a typical Rajasthani feature, but inside the room you witness the mix once again. Needless to mention, there are stories in your room as well, you only need to look :)
You might think that as designer, the design of the hotel might have been the highlight of the trip. However, as it turns out, that wasn't the case. The highlight of my trip, unequivocally, was the food that I ate here. In fact I didn't just eat the food, I devoured it (and I am a vegetarian). True to the typical Rajasthani tradition, almost all the time I spent at the hotel was primarily used for eating food, or thinking about it.
Mad hatter is not just a typical confectionary, but typical of the hotel, it's a mix of tastes and flavors. While the baked goods will entice you with the nostalgia they evoke, do mix the cuisine with some local Rajasthani food as well. Trust me on this, it will make you feel like a Bikaneri Royal with a panache for international flavors.
P&C is ideal for banqueting guests to an exquisite royal experience. With a selection of some of the best wines, table-side preparation and tiffin lunches, P&C will leave anyone impressed!
Diwali Chowk is the central courtyard and is in many ways the heart of the property. It's ideal for morning and evening chai or coffee, alone or in company of friends, as well as for trying out the Marwari cuisine.
Located on the top floor, the pool will cool you down during the day, and also makes for a great companion for dinner at the night. In fact we had our most memorable last supper here and I remember well the chill of air adding another layer to varied tastes of the foods served. Great company, great wine and fabulous views made the meal even more memorable.
Bikaner is not all about Narendra Bhawan, and if you plan a visit there, I would strongly recommend spending a lot of time in the city as well. There are two ways of doing it and this is exactly how I would recommend to you as well.
Narendra Bhawan has curated two phenomenal explorations, Merchant Exploration and Royal Exploration - a legacy of kings, for it's guests and none of these are to be missed. These explorations are perhaps the best introduction to the city and it's legacy.
After you are done with the explorations do what I did - explore the places on your own. Spend time walking alone early in the morning in the streets of Bikaner, talk to the locals, and eat some local food in the small street shops. If I digress a little bit, you mist try out the epic Kachoris of Bikaner and one of the best places to do this would be at the shops neat BK School in old city.
While Bikaner is an enchantress and you can spend days here, especially if you are even remotely like me, I would also recommend some experiences outside the city as well. Here are the ones that I tried explored :)
This temple is unlike any other that you might have been to so far! It's the rat temple which means there are thousands of rats in the temple and a visit to the temple makes for an interesting visit.
I heard about the Pugal fort in one ot long chats with Karan and was immediately drawn to it. So one early morning I took off to see the sunset there. Unfortunately the fort is in shambles, but my visit was nevertheless memorable.
Built on the edge of a lake, this palace is now a heritage hotel but you are welcome to visit and enjoy your meals by the lake. You can also take a boat-ride later on.
The dunes in this part of Rajasthan are different from the ones near Jaisalmer and I was lucky to climb a few and catch sunrise from there. These are often huge, have some vegetation and don't shift.
If you want to watch the sun go down in the desert with a glass of wine in hand, this is an experience made just for you. The best part is that the hotel organizes this for you, so all you need to do in lie down and enjoy :)
On my first morning itself, we took off on a foggy road to explore this pond which was a favorite hunting ground for the royals. Now it's a great place for birding and shooting some wildlife.
Just like everywhere else in Rajasthan, winter months are the best time for a visit here. Anytime October and March are great, though December and January are perhaps the best months of the year here.
There are two airports nearby, Jodhpur and Jaipur, and a cab ride will take 4-6 hours to reach Bikaner.
Bikaner is well connected to major cities like Delhi, Jaipur, Allahabad by train, and surprisingly enough it's not very difficult to find tickets. It's both affordable as well as comfortable.
A visit to Bikaner makes for a great road-trip, especially if you are coming from Delhi. The city is also well-connected by buses to all major cities in Rajasthan and Delhi.