On the map, Bikaner sits on the edge of the Great Indian Desert. I’d built an image of a dusty little town with camels roaming the streets. Little to eat and less to do, especially after the sun went down and the cold night set in. This much was true – the temperatures sank to 3C at night. The town was large and sprawling, but the old walled city was crammed with imposing haveli’s that were built between 1880 and 1920. Our first day we spent mostly lost among the haveli’s; part of the fun. We scanned for a restaurant and found one on the street that was cleanish and pure veg. The boys also spoke enough English to take our order and were entertaining to watch. The food was good though a little spicier than usual.
Without knowing it, we’d arrived a day before the annual Camel Festival. Again, I pictured a camel fair with a bunch of smelly flea-bitten camels rounded up for inspection. The next day, we trudged off to where a camel procession was said to begin.
We could hardly believe our eyes. Girls parading, holding coconuts or brass pots on their heads,
sword-wielding men on camels,
stick fighters…all in traditional dress and interspersed with ornately decorated camels. Pictures will do better justice than words.
I’m always trying to capture a picture of a beautiful Indian woman. Here they were in abundance, catching my eye and smiling for me.
The procession ended at a large stadium where a full two-day of activities began – camel decoration judging, beauty pageant, mud wrestling, fire breathing. For us, these held little attraction… our main event was the folk music and dance in the evening. A group from Jaisalmer was featured; their music an interesting blend of ghazal, folk and pop—but not Bollywood.
Traditional dancers, spinning like dervishes, accompanied the band. The mood of the whole day was jubilant.
The second day was a heritage walk. Even though the people of Rajasthan are known for being friendly, we both had a sneaking suspicion the municipal government had told the locals to be especially friendly toward us.
They smiled, threw rose petals over us, handed out food and drink.
One privately owned haveli even opened its doors to us.
It was a great opportunity to be guided through the old town with loads of enthusiastic bystanders wanting their picture taken. There were plenty of tourists but few of them were westerners. Foreign tourism is down 60% according to our guesthouse owner, obviously because of the money exchange problems. The evening program was less compelling than the first; more a Sunday night local variety show.
We were so lucky to catch this Camel Festival. Virtually all other visitors had come specifically for it.
Junagarh Fort was a focal point of the town though not so immediately impressive, in part because it doesn’t sit on a pinnacle like many other forts in Rajasthan.
But its richly decorated interiors are as magnificent as any we’ve seen. Built toward end of 16th C. the Fort has been progressively extended and embellished by later rulers.
The grandest room, Anup Mahal, was adorned with red and gold filigree painting with a red satin throne framed by an arc of glass and mirrors. Inmates of the local jail made its carpet – a tradition that has only recently ceased.
Overall, Bikaner was a pleasant surprise. The town was unusually clean and the railway station was a beehive of spring-cleaning. Boys were hosing down the platform with soapy water, giving iron fences a fresh coat of paint…they were even painting the railway tracks! Something we’d never witnessed before. When we asked our guesthouse owner if some dignitary like PM Modi was visiting, he said no, the railway had just received its annual maintenance budget.
Last but not least, the hotel we landed in turned out to be probably the nicest place we’ve stayed in India. It was built in 1926 for the last prime minister of Bikaner who was the great grandfather of the thirty-something present owner. He lives there with his wife, parents, and grandmother, all serving us in a Raj-like style.