Bikaner: "The Red City"
February 25, 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
"The Lalgarh Palace is a sprawling extravaganza of carved friezes, jalis, pillars and arches in the distinctive reddish-pink sandstone. (Bikaner is known as The Red City.) Constructed between 1902 and 1926, the palace combines traditional Rajput and Renaissance European features with Art Nouveau decor inside." [*]
We are all now familiar with the traditional Rajput design: detailed, life-like carvings on the walls; exquisite and inventive stone jalis that climbs three stories on the facades and windows; ornate rooftop cupolas.
The museum and the gardens are open to the public. The residential part of the palace is off limits. Two guards are quite clear about that. Yes, royalty still lives here. Part of the palace is now a hotel.
I circle the gardens. Then with perfect posture and a familiar, yet firm smile, like one of their wealthy guests, I stride right past the guards to explore the courtyards and interior of the hotel. On one end of the sunny courtyard is an outdoor restaurant with chairs covered with white fabric. The passageways are decorated with paintings and carvings and carriages that belong to the Maharaja. The guestrooms are luxurious.
At the gift shop I bought a small poster of the Maharaja.
In a posture-perfect pose, the Maharaja stands more than two meters tall, with his right hand on his diamond belt buckle and his left hand on the hilt of his diamond studded gold sword. He wears a full length embroidered sherwani, a long coat-shirt covered with medals. He wears a multi-colored turban with a medal. A white cape with long white drawstrings and embroidered tassels covers his shoulders and drapes regally to the floor behind him. He sports a majestic white mustache. The Maharaja is elegant and serious yet remarkably engaging.
The proper name of the Maharaja is this: "General His Highness Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajeshwar Nerendra Shiromani Maharaja Sri Ganga Singh ji Bahadur, G.C.S.I., G.C.I.E., G.C.V.O., G.B.E., K.C.B., A.D.C., LL.D., Maharaja of Bikaner." If he invites me to tea, I know I would like him.
At the next stop, the guards at the Junagarth Fort insist I wait for my "group" to form up - so I wait, impatiently. Groups are not for me. [**] Finally, we proceed up the entranceway to the first courtyard. As soon as my group moves on to the inner rooms, I slip away. As does another couple, British it turns out and well-traveled and also independent. But quickly they are surrounded by Indian tourists, especially women, who are drawn to the English lady's shocking white hair, light complexion, and broad smile. Apparently she and her husband are quite accustomed to being asked to pose with admiring and curious Asian tourists. That also happens to me sometimes, but today, the British couple is more exotic.
"The Junagarth Fort constructed between 1587 and 1593 is protected by a 986m (3235 ft) long sandstone wall with 37 bastions, a moat and, most effectively of all, the forbidding expanse of the Thar Desert. Not surprisingly, the fort has never been conquered, a fact which explains its excellent state of preservation."
"Within the fort's austere stone walls are many profusely decorated palaces, temples and pavilions, built by its successive rulers over the centuries." [***]
I wander from palace to palace, from room to room, from bastion to bastion. The decoration, carvings, and furnishings are elaborate and lavish of course, but all in good taste -- everything fit for a king: red and gold ornamental lacquer work, gold leaf, carved marble panels, stone carvings and jalis work, paintings, mirrors, blue delft, red and gold floral motifs and more.
Although the Palace and the Fort were built centuries apart, they seem like cousins. The old fort is still fresh and appealing. The new palace is, well, a palace. But no more from me. The Lalgarh Palace and The Junagarh Fort cry out for the Editors-in-Chief of Architectural Digest, Town and Country and House and Garden.
At the end of my visit I work my way up to the highest spot of the fort: the view is down to the large garden with more than a dozen rectangular swaths of green lawn connected by shrub archways; the view is of the courtyards and white and red sandstone bastions set against the brilliant desert sky; the view is west, to the very desert that I will cross on my way to Jaisalmer.
On this everyone agrees, "Don't miss Jaisalmer."
(The retired Editor-in-Chief of The Plaza and The Sheraton Corporation Training Manuals.)
[*] India. Eyewitness Travel Guide. Dorling Kindersley, Ltd. London. 2005.
[**] No groups please. It's a tradeoff. I certainly miss out on some interesting fact or factoid or apocryphal tale or myth told by a well-meaning guide who at times has an unintelligible accent. And I know that what is "interesting" at one moment simply goes "in one ear and out the other" another moment later. So I visit at my own pace, take photos as I please, and find some other independent (stubborn?) soul to chat with, for a moment, about how we just like to be alone. But hey, that's me.
[***] India Ibid. Who's the editor!? Sometimes I am so embarrassed by the timeworn cliché quotations in the guidebooks. "Forbidding expanse!" "Austere stone walls!!" "Profusely decorated palace!!!" Puh-leeze!!! I think I can do better than that. Yes, I am critical. And also lazy. But hey, that's me.