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.
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.
The blue city of Jodhpur is technically the little walled hamlet behind the Mehran fort, called Mehrangarh in Mewari. It is said that the fort was built in 1459, so the blue city must be about 550 years old. That’s what you see in the featured photo. The so-called old town of Jaipur, which most tourists see, is a later growth. I could not find out when the town spilt out of the fortification and became what it is today. My best guess is that this must have happened at least a century after the founding of the fort, when the rulers of Jodhpur joined the court of Delhi.
We walked briefly through this oldest part of the Jodhpur. The narrow roads were mostly hemmed in between closed gates of the kind that you see above. The Family and I spent time admiring the little decorations around the doors: inevitably elephants and some auspicious plant. It took us a while to discover what was hidden behind the doors.
We passed through Chandpol, the Silver Gate. This massive door had spikes embedded into it far above our heads. This is usually a defensive measure. The spikes are meant to injure elephants which would otherwise be used to batter the doors down. This door didn’t look like it needed an elephant to break it down.
Just across the door was a little chapel for Shiva. We admired the amateur decorations before moving on. At this place one of the residents asked me where I was from. When I said “Mumbai”, he asked whether I was location hunting for a movie. The fort and the blue city has been used in many films. I must have disappointed him when I said I wasn’t.
We came to this beautiful example of a blue house whose door was open. Inside was one of the old havelis. Traditionally the blue colour could only be used by Brahmins. Rajasthan remains very conservative, and most blue houses probably still belong to this caste. The colour was traditionally due to indigo mixed in with a lime wash. I guess it is still used today in some of the buildings, like this one.
We walked through the open doors into the entrance courtyard and saw a rambling house broken up into multiple living units. Presumably the ancestral property is now used by multiple inheritors. We admired the construction: the lintels, the snaky line of the railings on the passage on the upper floor. The highest floor seemed to be unoccupied.
We walked on and came to other doors. The one you see above had a little cutout door which was probably the everyday entranceway. Inside we could see a large property broken into many different living units, all painted blue. We began to think that every doorway hid a haveli occupied by a large number of families closely related to each other. Did all the houses share a single electric meter? I would have thought that unlikely, but going by what you see in the photo above, maybe I was wrong.
Off the main road we saw a wonderfully decorated door. We loved this painted door. The little gate in front of the door was a feature we had not seen before; nor did we see it again later. There was much more decoration around the door than we had seen elsewhere, although elephants figured prominently.
The other interesting feature of this was that the house was more modern in layout, and not at all like the gated havelis we had seen till then, the painted coffers and pillars notwithstanding. There was no sign to tell us anything about this house. Since it was not blue, in a cluster of other blue houses, I guess this did not belong to a Brahmin family. That probably says something about the different economic status of this family.
Further one we came across more blue houses. This one was interesting because the main means of transport through the blue city are parked outside: a bicycle and a scooter. The roads here are too narrow for cars. Two-wheeled vehicles are the preferred way to get around this city. Interestingly, in Jodhpur, both men and women use scooters.
A shop as bare as this has disappeared from all of urban India. I was shocked to find it here; in the absence of packaged food to sell it looks like an impoverished shop from the 1960s. Perhaps the blue city is impoverished; large industries are conspicuously absent. The owner of the shop does not seem to do much business. Shops in the main city below the citadel look quite different.
It is common for houses to be elevated above the road, but the one you see in the photo above was an extreme. We stood and admired the beautiful windows. The Family asked me about the sign at the bottom of the stairs, “Why does it say Thank You?” I had no answer, not even a plausible guess.
Just opposite was this other blue-coloured pile. The child hanging off the railing on the upper floor did not seem to register our presence even when I made a big show of trying to photograph him. This is another building where the pattern of occupancy is different: the ground floor is completely given over to shops.
The structure you see in the photo above seemed to be part of an old town wall. When I realized this I guessed that the “Thank You” sign was perhaps to thank visitors as they left the walled city. The change in the pattern of buildings made more sense now. The stairs next to the “Thank you” sign led to the top of the fort wall, and we had probably just walked out of the original blue city at this point. The newer style of building was genuinely more recent than the gated havelis, perhaps even less than a hundred years old. It will take a bit of research to figure out the urban history of this part of the town.
This fair price shop next to the yellow painted door of a little temple was part of a building in a style which is no more than seventy years old. The pattern of air holes above the door was familiar in older buildings when I was a school boy. If I had the right sense of the citadel walls, then this house would have been built outside the old city just after independence, and the accession of Jodhpur to India.
I could see a little walled garden through this door above which is written “Garden of the Ved Sen society”. Two men stood in the garden putting on jackets. I stood and watched as they came out for a stroll. I wonder what this society is, and whether it maintains that serene looking garden inside. Beyond this the town grew more sparse. We hopped on to an auto-rickshaw and left.
Chandni Chowk was the centre of Delhi after Shah Jahan moved his capital to the walled city in 1639, and before Imperial Britain built a new capital a few miles to the west in the early 20th century. This is the area west of the Lahori gate of the red fort and north of the Jama Masjid. A walking tour of Chandni Chowk naturally starts from the Sunehri Masjid: a beautifully proportioned mosque with golden domes in old paintings, now fallen on hard times. If the story of Nadir Shah standing next to the domes on the roof of the mosque to survey the massacre of a panicked Delhi which he had commanded is true, then at one time it would have dominated the area. Now, as I emerged from the exit lane of the Chandi Chowk metro and looked at the mosque this was no longer the case. Mughal architecture blended use with aesthetics; when the mosque was built the space was surely sufficient for the devout. That aesthetics is completely lost in the extensions made to the mosque in order to cater to the increased population.
More striking today is the Sis Ganj gurudwara which stands next to it. It must have been a special day; the gurudwara was decorated with balloons and buntings. I realized that a large part of the crowd in the Metro was headed here when a young mother of two finely dressed children asked me which exit led to the gurudwara. I’d just read the directions, so I was able to tell her to take exit 5, as I did. A gurudwara was first built here in 1783 CE, in memory of the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, who was beheaded here on the orders of Aurangzeb. The present structure was built in 1930. I discovered the news, known to all Delhiwalas, that the gurudwara has become a bit controversial recently by building unauthorised extensions.
Traffic barely moves in this crowded road, there’s such a muddle of bicycles, cars, rickshaws, carts, three-wheelers and pedestrians. Notions of lanes and priority perhaps never arose in the days when this area was less densely populated, and were never internalised later. The chaos and cacophony gave me ample opportunity to do surreptitious people watching. I liked this forbidding old Sikh gentleman in white striding down the road, ignoring the traffic. Even the young rickshaw-wala in the photo seems to be a little wary of him.
Instead of walking on to the Red Fort, I turned right on Dariba Kalan. It is not hard to find: the lane runs between a lovely but crumbling red building with a post-office, and the area’s most famous jalebiwala. I’ve already written about this little eatery. I walked through this narrow lane and turned into the longest bling market in Delhi: the Kinari bazaar. Tourist agencies try to push this as a market destination. In fact, only a movie or wedding set decorator would shop here. It is interesting to walk through this crowded bazaar just looking at people and their lives. I’d chosen a time when the sky was beginning to get dark, and the lights in the shops were coming on. Crowds were at their lowest; it was getting close to the time for an evening snack.
Every few steps there was a little shop selling kachoris and samosas. Judging by the crowds, it doesn’t look like any shop is particularly better than another. Each seems to have a few regular customers and a few walk-ins. The shops don’t seem to innovate either: they concentrate on getting the kachoris just so, for their loyal followers. There are probably neighbourhood rivalries about which shop has better food. As far as I could tell, it would need a lifetime of training your palate to tell the difference between them. This is a world so far removed from that of malls and food courts, that it is a wonder that the two exist in the same city at the same time.
If you are a student of architecture, then there are gems hidden away inside these narrow and smelly lanes. I peered past a gate which led off to a side lane and discovered a beautiful building with a blue door (photo above). Elsewhere a grand building with lovely arched verandas (above) was partitioned into tiny apartments. Stylistic differences which are visible even to an untrained eyes like mine would probably enable a knowledgeable person to peel away the centuries and imagine the area as it evolved over time. If someone offers a walk through this area to show such visions, I will queue up to take it. In its absence I go back every decade, after a little more reading.