Door after door

Finally, we walked through endless empty corridors in Bikaner’s old fort, Junagarh. We’d seen the royal apartments and audience halls already; they make up the core of the complex. But every king added wings according to the needs of the moment. I suppose bureaucracy always multiplies (until it disappears), so new wings and rooms always come in handy. These empty rooms were beautifully painted over in later developments of the same styles of frescoes that we had seen earlier.

We exited Phool Mahal, and, instead of taking the stairs, took a turn into a narrow corridor overlooking the open courtyard below. That led us into a train of empty, but beautifully decorated, rooms. The frescoes were in good repair here. Probably tourists just take the quickest way out, preferring the outer corridors instead of wandering through the rooms. But we were not disappointed. The sonakin style frescoes in the first few rooms were very similar in style to Phool Mahal: the same golds and greens, for pictures of vases of flowers or bowls of fruit. The doors were painted in the same alternation of dark greens and reds, with gold highlights that we recognized as the Jangali Sunthari style.

But this colour scheme of the Sonakin style changed as we progressed. The golds and green disappeared and reds, yellows and blues took over. The lack of gold perhaps signified that these rooms were given over to officials and courtiers rather than the royal family. The reds and the blues began to look like western influence. The ceiling that you see here was a clear evolution of the Manovat style, looking quite English in its colour scheme.

This adaptation was also visible in the pictures on the walls. The unlabelled portrait is full face, quite unlike the early modern style, in which royal portraits were always in profile. The modelling of the face, the shadows, also shows a western influence. Of course, the appearance of photos mounted on the walls was the best clue to the increasing European influence.

We came to the end of the corridors and had to climb down a flight of stairs. These were more modern than the set we’d taken up from the innermost courtyard: wider and better spaced. Defending the staircase against enemies was not on the mind of the architect. Crossing an inner courtyard, we came to the armoury. I’ve never looked at the evolution of swords, daggers, axes, and various other cutting edge weapon designs from the Mughal era. But this armoury had some fascinating early firearms, mostly unrifled muzzle loaders. There was this fascinating piece, about three meters long. I suppose three men were needed to charge, steady and fire it. Was it ever a decisive piece in battle? But then Bikaner seldom entered battle, preferring to work its diplomatic corps more than its army.

The armoury was part of the Ganga Mahal, completed in 1937 CE by Ganga Singh. This was quite different in style from the remainder of the fort: being built almost entirely from the local red sandtone, and elaborately carved, rather than plastered and painted. The main hall was enormous, and we felt quite dwarfed in there. I walked along it admiring the beautifully reliefs of local fauna, birds as well as deer. This was the beginning of the style of stone-masonry that we saw in the other palaces in Bikaner. We’d reached the end of our walk. It was time for the museums. But that is a story I’ve already told.

Image and science

At the last possible minute I managed to see an exhibition of sculptures by a friend. We were students, more or less at the same time, when he was doing physics. But, according to an interview he gave recently, he had already been very invested in art. I liked the work he’d done earlier, some in pen and ink, others digitally. When Sukant told me over a beer some weeks back that he was going to show his clay sculptures, I made up my mind to see them. The piece that you see in the featured photo seemed like it had a glazed surface. But no, he actually hand-polished the clay using glass beads; he has an interesting point of view about firing clay which he makes in his interview. The piece represents a stage in the evolution of a fractal curve that can be thought of as growing to cover the surface of a sphere while still remaining a line. It would be a terribly convoluted line, but one which, at every stage of its growth, could be drawn with a thin-enough nib never leaving the surface, or crossing itself.

I found the exhibition very interesting. Clay comes in various colours, and he’d worked with several different sorts. One set of pieces was inspired by the development of fetuses, and was just lightly interpretive. Some of the pieces were intricately folded shapes, others had interesting contrasts of texture. There are disadvantages and advantages when you turn up so late for an exhibition. He was a little upset with me, but the years of association meant that he could be very grumpy, but still give me a tour of his sculptures. The delay meant that I was the last person in the exhibition, and had his full attention. When he explained how he obtained the texture of the second piece in the panel above I was amazed by the effort that went into it.

The pieces that you see in this carousel represent abstract concepts of physics: the interactions of particles in space-time, and quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. Some maths gives rise to definite forms, the precision and clarity of geometric and algebra are definite. But physics is different. It is rooted in the concrete but leads into abstraction that can be pictured differently by each person. I found Sukant’s visualisation very beautiful. The intricate texturing of the first one, built from the inside out, reminded me of a piece of coral that I’d seen. The form of the last one is hypnotizing. You can look at it from different angles and see different things, perhaps a little like the science it represents.

“Is it okay if I take photos?” I asked. “No one can stop it these days,” he said, “I’m sure many people already have. Go ahead.” He looked quizzically at the results and then said, “I like them. Please share them with me.” That gave me the courage to ask, “Can I blog them?” “Go ahead,” he allowed. So thanks to the artist’s generosity, you get to look at scientific abstractions filtered through the mind of someone who works with images.

Afternoon brilliance

Gasps were natural. When the guard unlocked a side door near the queen’s bedchamber, we stepped into a narrow gallery, and a bright jewel-like light hit us. Surely this was the most breathtaking part of Bikaner’s Junagadh, the old fort. The raja’s private apartment was the palace called Phool Mahal, reputedly the oldest part of the complex. It was simpler than I’d expected. But here was the remnant of the opulence that Bikaner’s wealth would have bought. Situated on a branch of the old silk route, this little kingdom had grown wealthy. This wealth had bought, among other things, the beautiful painstaking work that we saw here: both the coloured glass inlay in the jharokha, and the Sonakin style frescoes on the walls and ceilings. These frescoes were much more elaborate than even the ones I’d seen in the private court room downstairs. The narrow corridor ran along the outer perimeter of the queen’s chamber and was absolutely breathtaking. A single door led out to a narrow balcony outside. I suppose the queen would want to see the sky now and then.

After the death of emperor Alamgir in 1707 CE, feudalism had begun to collapse, and Bikaner’s merchants had already begun to rise to the dominating position such families still continue to have in India’s economy. Comparing the cost of the work in front of us to that in the merchants’ havelis made it clear that the raja’s wealth would have been overwhelmingly more if the later British Crown rule had not taken it over. Some part of it made its way into the British crown’s coffers, of course. But British India was notorious for private corruption; it wasn’t only Robert Clive and Warren Hastings who skirted British law. Much of the disappeared wealth found its way into private hands, and thereby into the general economy of the “home islands”. I guess it took two world wars to drain some of that surplus from Britain.

We’d happened on this place at the best time of the day. The afternoon sun slanted through the jharokha, setting the corridor ablaze with colours. This palace is from the early 17th century CE, but the style of frescoes developed about a generation later. If the coloured glass is contemporary with the frescoes then it would also come from the late 17th century, in Alamgir’s lifetime. There’s much writing about Rajasthani mirror technology of this period, so it stands to reason that a lot of experimentation with glass went on at that time. Coloured glass is a much older technology in India, and it would have been easily available.. In the brilliant afternoon light it was obvious that restoration work was badly needed. I wondered what it would cost now.

Phool Mahal

Of the huge Junagarh, the old fort of Bikaner, only three courtyards are open to the public. We’d finished walking through the main public level full of court rooms and temples. It was time for us to move to the upper levels where the private apartments were. This involved a narrow and steep stairs. Did these kings and queens never survive to an old age?

At the top of the stairs was a stunning silver door, intricately worked into a repeating pattern. It stood behind a perspex sheet which made a good photo difficult to take. We were about to enter Phool Mahal, the palace of flowers, said to be the oldest part of the fort. This nucleus of the structure we now saw was built by the sixth Raja of Bikaner, Rai Singh ji. This would make it either late 16th century or early 17th century architecture. However, under the layers of later embellishment, it was hard to make out what the original style or building material was. The outer walls had been plastered, and the inner walls and ceilings were decorated in the sonakin style that we’d already seen in Karan Mahal, built about a century later. The painted doors around us were in the Jangali Sunthari style of all doors and windows that we saw. The doors were all post-and-lintel; there were no functional arches in this place.

The bedchamber of the queen was different: the walls were paneled with mirrors worked in silver. An anteroom for the queen had paitinngs of food on the walls. It was so small that I’d taken it for a dressing niche, but maybe the royals ate here. The furniture was simple, and could have been put together by a skilled but unthinking carpenter. The king’s bedchamber was more of the same intricate work that I was now getting used to. The special thing about this were strategically placed mirrors so that the king could keep an eye on all entrances right from his bed. Security and the threat of assassins was visible in this design. For all the wealth and opulence, the women remained property, and the men remained fearful of violent death. Architectural techniques lagged behind those of the larger neighbouring kingdoms. Although Bikaner was wealthy, in the 17th century it seemed to be a precarious state, at least when judged by the private chambers of the royalty.

Side galleries

Until now we’d taken a straight route through the linked courtyards of the main level of Junagadh Fort in Bikaner. I’ve written about the first courtyard, then the one with the fountain and the Diwan-i-Aam, and finally the one with the private court, Karan Mahal. After this we moved to the side galleries. I’ll talk about them in the reverse order of our visit, because they would then come in the same order as the quads.

In the second courtyard, in the galleries opposite to the Diwan-i-Aam is the private royal temple. Niches on the wall contained paintings from the Ramayana. The flat style without any element of naturalistic perspective perhaps indicated that the originals were rather old, perhaps among the oldest that we saw. One alcove held a small but beautiful statue of Vishnu with Lakshmi, another was a statue in the aspect of a warrior, which I could not identify.

In the section with the Ramayana and the statue of Vishnu, the walls and ceilings were painted with rainclouds, corkscrew bolts of red and yellow lightning coursing between them. In the other shrine, the ceiling and walls was painted in the Sonakin style, gold and other colours on a ground of white stucco. All the doors were painted in the Jangali Sunthari style. I think the door that you see above has panels with paintings of scenes from the Ramayana. I can see the celestial elephant, Airavat, in one.

The galleries next to the Diwan-i-Khaas in Karan Mahal have been turned into a small museum, filled with little things from what once may have been a royal treasury. I saw ivory sandals and jeweled buttons. A walking stick had a handle of gold and jade. A little bracket in the wall, quite unremarked, was a wonderful wooden sculpture of a bird eating berries from a tree. Once these barren rooms would have been filled with a hodge-podge of courtly life. We moved on.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Karan Mahal, Bikaner

After the second quadrangle, with its marble fountain and the throne room, we entered the third quadrangle of Junagarh fort in Bikaner. This was even more exquisite, but beyond lay a second throne room, the Karan Mahal, which was so fabulous that I have to talk about it first. The featured photo shows the gallery with a niche where the throne sits. This is an altogether more intimate setting than the first previous throne room that we had seen, and much richer in work. It is a showcase of the different styles of fresco that developed in the court of Bikaner.

The two photos above illustrate the three main techniques. The pillar on the right is in the Sonakin style. A pillar is covered with white plaster and delicate patterns in gold are painted on it. You can see that the gold has been worn off in the front part of the pillar, by the thousands who run their hands over it daily. The walls are painted in the Manovat style. Plaster covered clay is covered completely in gold paint with other coloured highlights to give the impression that it is wall of gold. The doors are painted in the Jangali Sunthari style. Over a green background gold outlines a tree and its flowers and fruits. The painting is completed with other colours, and is said to resemble emeralds laid into golden jewelry. The style is attributed to the artist Ali Raza, who met Raja Karan Singh during his campaign in Golconda, and was brought to this kingdom.

These photos show the details of the carved wooden ceiling gilded in the Manovat style, the Jangali Sunthari style of paintings on various doors, the exquisite tiles showing the locally rare phenomenon of massed cumulonimbus clouds and lightning, and the Sonakin style of paintings on the walls and ceilings. These styles were elaborated further in works that we saw later in the palace museum.

We stepped back into the tiled courtyard outside and looked at the elaborate stone work of the exterior walls. Raja Karan Singh was engaged in a war against Emperor Alamgir until he was deposed and exiled to the Deccan by the emperor. The fact that art could flourish in his court speaks of the enormous wealth of Bikaner, situated as it was on one of the major branches of the Silk Route.

It was time to visit the museums in the side galleries. That is really a story for another day, but one exhibit belongs here. Just off the throne room was a massive portrait of a king seated in a darbar in Karan Mahal. There was no identifying plaque, so, until I’m proved wrong, I like to believe that this shows Raja Karan Singh, soldier and patron of the arts.

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Diwan-i-aam Bikaner

Karan Singh’s darbar was reputedly held in this hall. Once the darbar hall would have opened into the courtyard in front of it through enormous arches. But now perspex sheets cut off the courtyard from the covered throne hall. We walked in from a side entrance to view the place where the emperor and his courtiers gave public audience, the Diwan-i-Aam.

Above the throne was an immense carved wooden ceiling. A hand drawn fan of red velvet hung over it just behind the throne. Red seemed to be a recurrent theme: the wooden throne had red velvet cushions, and the carpet around the it was a deeper shade of red. I didn’t think the naked LED bulbs were part of the original decor. Someone should find lampshades which were used here. But the doors behind, which led to private gardens, were beautifully decorated.

More than the doors, the eye was drawn to the painted ceilings and walls. I would see more examples all through the palace, but these were special. You can see them in the photos above, and also in the featured photo. Karan Singh reigned in the middle of the first half of the 17th century, but the redecoration of this Diwan-i-Aam continued till the end of the 19th century. I believe that most of the decorations we see now come from this later period.

Inside a haveli

We’d spent a fair bit of the morning walking around a single block in the middle of the old town of Bikaner. We had to gawk at every haveli. But every door was closed; we could not look inside. The Family asked “Where’s the hotel?” One of these havelis has been converted into a hotel. We walked about till we found Bhanwar Niwas. The entrance door was beautiful, but the cramped space outside was taken up by a car. I couldn’t take a photo of the door without the car taking up most of the composition. No matter, the arch above it was decorative enough. That’s the featured photo.

We walked past it, crossed a deserted lobby, climbed a short flight of stairs, and pushed open the door to the cramped reception desk. Sorry, they couldn’t let us in. The hotel was fully booked for a fashion shoot, and they were at work. A little discussion, and very reluctantly the receptionist peeked through the door to make sure that the ground floor was not in use. We walked into an opulent corridor. The murals on the ceiling were in the Bikaneri style. But the pastel colour scheme of the pastel walls, and the gold and white furnishings (seriously! Louis XV reproductions indeed!) was more corporate imagination than authentic. Disappointing, I thought. But then the family which owns this wouldn’t give their favourite art works to the hotel.

Stepping into the central courtyard through one of the archways was more satisfying. The decorative stonework of the balconies was more recognizable. The name of the merchant who raised this haveli was worked into the decorations. That seemed in character, but why in English? Was that a late addition? Some of the stone facing was worked in the plain colonial style. Perhaps the haveli was not that old. The receptionist was a recent hire. He didn’t know. It is hard to trace the history of each building. One really needs a historian to write a book about the havelis of Bikaner.


When an auto drops you off at the mouth of the mohalla of the Rampuria havelis of Bikaner, which of the many gems catches your eye first? Location is what matters. Right at the mouth of the lanes, on a slight rise is the haveli which faces you. That’s the one you notice first. It’s not a bad choice. A couple in motorbiking gear and a tripod and camera had set themselves up bang in front of it. I took the featured photo, carefully leaving them out of the frame.

The couple was as fussy as the crew in a fashion shoot. I gave them a wide berth as I walked around the building. The north-west facade had the most even light at this time, catching the reflection off the next building. This wasn’t one of the older, more intricately carved, buildings. I thought the design looked like late nineteenth century CE. The woodwork is more modern, the metal fixtures in them are perhaps still available in some shops, the simple flat faces of the stonework imitates British colonial work, the brackets are simpler, and the white and green ceramic tiles under the brackets became widely available after the China trade brought artisans from Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

The couple was still fussing with the camera. I took a closer look at the paintings on the facade. They had the usual mythological themes in a kitschy modern style adopted by Raja Ravi Varma and his ilk. This remains popular even today, as you can tell by the declaration in his Wikipedia entry that he is the greatest Indian painter ever. The style, iconography, and modeling may be imitations of western art, but they are executed well. The saffron dhoti of Krishna is not the industrial orange that it is today, so the paintings predate Amar Chitra Katha comics. The paintings alone date the building to the late 19th or early 20th century CE.

The couple had given up on the tripod. The man approached me and asked me to take the shots. The two of them posed on the motorbike in helmets and goggles and directed the shots. Satisfied, they left. I was finally free to take a photo of the front door. Not terribly imposing, but interestingly different from the rest of the buildings. Every other haveli had a statue of Ganesha above the main entrance. This one had Krishna. I think I’d nailed it. This was a late addition to the havelis of Bikaner.

A Bikaneri Haveli

After a leisurely breakfast on Sunday morning we walked through narrow lanes with high red sandstone buildings around them. This was the mohalla of Bikaner’s havelis. Bikaner was founded around an oasis on the part of the silk route which veered south of the Taklamakan desert and joined the ancient sea routes of the Indian Ocean. As a result of the immense trade passing through it, the kingdom was rich. The kings made peace with the Mughals. The lasting prosperity and peace made the city a center of the arts. With the decay of the Mughal empire and a gradual collapse of the old feudal system, a rich class of merchants rose to prominence along the trade routes in the desert of Bikaner, Marwar, Mewar and Kutch.

The facades were tremendously ornate. When I paused to look at the jalis around windows, I found the style similar to those I’d seen in the early modern palaces across the Thar desert. The execution was better though. Could it be that the fall of the Mughal empire caused a recession, lowered incomes, and allowed the relatively smaller wealth of these merchants to buy more? Most of the houses are shuttered; the families now live in Mumbai and Kolkata and have left these ancestral properties under the care of hired helpers. If the Dutch and English had not developed into resource-hungry capitalists a century before these people, would Bikaneri traders have left for those British-era port cities? Every turn in history shuts some doors, opens others.

I was curious about the layout of the houses. Would they be in the traditional style, laid out around internal courtyards like the palaces of Bikaner? I would have my answer later. For now I looked through the few open windows at the frescoes on the ceilings and walls, and at the doors to locked up havelis. These entrances were interesting. The street level was not used for living. The short doors at this level indicated that it had been given over to utilities and storage. You ascended a short flight of stairs, about two meters high, to get to the main level. There was a gate at street level, and then the decorative main door at the level of the living quarters. The wooden doors and windows were as intricately worked as the sandstone of the facades.

This house I was looking at had three floors, like most of the others around it. The upper floors had a little overhang which was supported by sandstone brackets. Sandstone is brittle and prone to fracture, so the brackets had to be packed close together. The architects had discovered the principles that make today’s I-beams strong. But unlike the minimalist aesthetic that pervades today’s industrial materials, these chhajjas were intricately carved with floral motifs that match the jalis. You can spend a long time gazing at the beauty of these buildings: a different aesthetic which unites the engineering and artistic aspects of these buildings.

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