India from the Inside - a Tour Through Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh
Bikaner was small but bustling. The hotel we booked had seen better days - scuffed walls, stained tablecloths, dreary furnishings - everything unloved and unwashed since it had opened, but it was close to town and relatively quiet. As expected, there was no wifi except in the cramped lobby. Still, it was cheap and full of guests and the food looked tasty. And it served Kingfisher - the lovely Indian ale I had grown fond of. Perfect refreshment at any time of day, but particularly at the end of a hot, dusty drive. We planned on staying two nights as I wanted to explore the Junagarh Fort and get the flavour of this corner of the desert.
The next morning we started out for the Fort which turned out to be close by, only about a ten minute drive. It's major claim to fame (for out-of-shape tourists everywhere) was the fact it was at street level. No tortuous climb like all the others I had visited in Rajasthan.
From the entry I passed through a series of gates and then up a small ramp to the first of several open courtyards. The far quadrangle had exterior floors of creamy marble, worn in places, (understandable for having surviving since the 16th c) and there was an elegant pool at one end, the edges beautifully carved but empty, except for two workman who lounged on the bottom, presumably working at clearing the drain. The walls were decorated with shields of the rulers - there was always a war going on between rival kingdoms and Bikaner had changed hands several times since it's founding by Rao Bika in 1486.
I had tagged along with a guide who was giving a tour but soon got bored with the circuit and the tourists and set off exploring on my own. The palace rooms were what I wanted to see first of course! I had browsed through photos of the Fort online before my trip and was anticipating the beautiful salons, Diwan-I-Am and the successive Maharaja's chambers.
When I finally found them off the courtyard and stepped through the painted entryways, they didn't disappoint. The Phool Mahal or Flower Palace was completely over the top gorgeous. A gold jhoola stood in one corner, the seat faded and frayed but looking as stunning as when it was first crafted. Decorated with crystal peacocks and intricate embellishments on the long sides I was amazed at the detail of the workmanship. The entire room was highly decorated with flower motifs and painted panels. More rooms and poojas followed, each more beautiful than the next. There wasn't an inch of space without mirror work, stained glass, carved marble, gilded walls or painted frescoes. The ceilings too were painted, gilded and carved in exquisite detail turning each room into a glittering jewel box.
As the palace underwent changes in rulers, each added his own unique style and frequently built temples and annexes to suit his needs. Depending on the era, there are stylistic representations from the Rajputs, Moghuls and from the time of the Raj - British Colonial and European influences. I recognized that some rooms and the courtyard floors had a very distinctive Italinate look in the tile work. Somehow it all worked and the end result is a series of fabulous rooms and halls as good as any palace in Russia or Europe.