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Havelis in Old City

Take a tonga ride to see the havelis of Bikaner
They looked at me. Two handsome young men, they looked at me, telling me that they were taking me for a tonga ride in Bikaner. They were waiting for my reaction, but my mind had travelled back four decades, to my childhood. We lived in Old Delhi and cycle rickshaws and tongas were the common mode of transport. We rode in a tonga from Chandni Chowk to Connaught Place. The lanes were equally narrow and the streets probably as dirty as the ones I saw in Bikaner.

I smiled at the young men, telling them that my father used to take me for tonga rides. Maybe it seemed a little strange to them, maybe they thought that I hadn’t experienced a real tonga ride. But they were my hosts for this ride—Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, managing director, MRS Hotels, and Siddharth Yadav, vice president—and the expressions were polite smiles.

Once home to the wealthy merchants, this part of the city is now a tale of red sandstone, chisels and hammers. Densely populated with a confusing network of narrow lanes, the few red magnificent structures live a fragmented life. Modern haphazard concrete vertical structures mar the beauty of artworks chiseled on yesteryear skyscrapers.

Our ride began at a forked entrance. I gazed at probably the most magnificent structure in that area—the façade carved with numerous natural motifs; window shutters drawn. No one lived here; dust had accumulated on the intricately carved doors. The grand haveli rose high in the sky, the narrow lane making it look taller than any skyscraper. The stone inscription said ‘Rampuria, Bikaner, 1933’. This family was among the wealthier ones, as was evident but it didn’t stay here any longer. While this haveli was close to 100 years old, the oldest ones go back to 400 years. In the entire city, there are around 1,000 such heritage structures, clothed in dust, as my research later showed.

As we walked closer, motifs from the natural world and the surroundings became clearer. The craftsmanship of centuries long gone was revealed. Most of the havelis were built between the 17th and 20th centuries. This area has over 400 of these grand homes. They were an amalgam of influences that the city had seen since its formation in 1478 by the rebel prince of Jodhpur—Rao Bika. Before that, this was ‘jungladesh’, a land of thorny shrubs, which can still be seen on the outskirts as you go deeper into the desert.
Though not as popular as other cities in Rajasthan with tourists, Bikaner was once a thriving city, part of the trade route with other Asian countries. Always ruled by warriors, the city’s architecture too was influenced by them. The Mughals had intermingled with the warrior clan of Rajputs here, and then the British had stepped in. Finally, after independence the princely states had merged into unified India. All these were evident in the sculptures and carvings. One haveli even had the bust of King George.

What makes them remarkable is the way they are constructed to combat heat and dust. The narrow windows and doors keep a lot of it at bay. The jaalis or intricate lattice work allowed the women to see the street activity but the outsiders couldn’t see what was happening. It also let the air blow in, not making the stone structures too hot. There were balconies or jharokhas for them to see processions. The culture of those days did not like women moving around in public spaces or be very visible. There was an inner courtyard and the walls of the Sopani haveli (where we had lunch) had coloured murals and in-built shelves. One of those housed a temple.

The main entrance had raised platforms where the animals were tied. The entrance was narrow too. In some exposed parts across the streets, there were thin bricks, which were nanak shahi bricks. These were made by hand during the Mughal era and used mainly for constructing gurudwaras.

The traders living here comprised carpenters, stone masons, jewellers. But families had disappeared with changing times and the over 400 treasured structures were decaying. They were falling apart piece by piece—some doors and windows had been sold off. Some portions of the façades had been sold off too. I saw some crumbled structures and a lone guard outside one.

The rhythmic clip-clop of the hooves kept moving me across eras, from the past to the present, from opulence to decay, from Old Delhi to Bikaner. Back at the hotel, Narendra Bhawan, more research showed me that in 2012, World Monument Watch had stepped in. They associated with the Bikaner Municipal Corporation to hold a watch day, and even a campaign involving the locals was rolled out.

Their website (wmf.org/project/historic-havelis-bikaner) says, “In 2015, Bikaner became part of the Indian Historic Cities Network (IHCN), a collaborative system of heritage experts and stakeholders in India. The first phase of this documentation project was completed in January 2017.”

It’s been a year since the tonga ride, but something about the red structures keeps them alive.
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Bikaner, Rajasthan, India