Oh, Rajasthan! Truly a jewel in the crown of India. This state is by far the most touristic and has been attracting backpackers and travellers for decades. With famous places such as Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, one would think it difficult to get away from the crowds and off the beaten track but, it isn’t. In the state there are lesser known places with just as much allure and excitement as their better known cousins but without the mass tourism hustle and bustle.
Here is all you need to know about two of them, Bikaner and Shekhawati region.
A place with plenty of character and a dusty outpost feel, Bikaner is a vibrant city with lots to see and is a great place if you’re looking to escape the crowds of Rajasthan’s other, more popular destinations.
The main attraction in Bikaner is Junagarh Fort, built between 1589 and 1593 by Raja Rai Singh. It is a stunning complex in excellent condition; enter on the east side through the Karan Prole Gate.
An audio guide is available, as well as guides, who offer their services for a fee. It is, however, perfectly possible to explore without any guidance and enjoy the splendid redbrick and highly decorative marble interior.
Karni Mata Temple
Paying a visit to Karni Mata Temple (aka: the Rat Temple) is quite an experience. A small Hindu temple, it is, as the name suggests, full of rats! They scurry around freely and are in every nook and cranny you can find. Visiting at dusk when they are most active is advised or discouraged (depending on how many of them you want to see!)
The legend goes that after her son died, Karni Mata, an incarnation of Durga, brought him back to life, decreeing that her family members would no longer die but would be reincarnated as kabas (rats).
The temple is located in the village of Deshnok, 30km south of Bikaner, and can easily be reached by bus. Many families here claim to be descendants of Karni Mata and believe that they too will be reincarnated as rats.
Bikaner Old City
Exploring the old city on foot and discovering all the little wonders within is something that you must do in Bikaner. It is a busy place, full of markets and street vendors, which capture the essence of local life.
The traditional architecture of the buildings and the famous havelis hidden in the narrow lanes encapsulate the rich and vibrant history of this region. The old city is surrounded by a 7km wall with five entrance gates; the main entrance is the triple arched Kothe Gate.
Two notable temples are Bhandasar Jain Temple, with yellow-stone carving and beautiful vibrant paintings, and the often busy Hindu Lakshminath Temple directly behind the former, which plays host to many festivals. Unfortunately, photography is strictly prohibited inside the latter (or risk the wagging finger of the young boys within the complex!)
National Camel Research Centre
8km southeast of central Bikaner lies the National Camel Research Centre. Taking care of over 400 camels of three different breeds, it’s a good place to get more information about these hard working creatures that have been domesticated for thousands of years. If you’re lucky, spotting baby camels is also possible.
Camel rides are available, as well as ice-cream and lassie made from camel milk! The best time to visit is from 3pm to 6pm when the animals are grazing; coming by autorickshaw is recommended.
Bikaner Camel Safari
When you are in Bikaner, a must on the to-do list is a camel safari into the desert. Many companies offer this service, varying in quality and price. We opted for a one-day excursion through Vinayak Guest House, owned by a very knowledgeable and friendly family who have lived in the region for generations.
Riding atop a camel and plodding along through the peaceful yet barren landscape of the desert is quite an experience. We stopped for a delicious lunch, cooked over an open fire, in the shade of one of the few larger patches of vegetation. Returning in the evening as the sun was setting ended a relaxing day, which had given us a real insight into the outer lying area and villages.
Longer overnight excursions are also possible, which offer the chance to go deeper into the desert and sleep under the stars. We would highly recommend staying at Vinayak Guest House; the family offer a free pick-up service, delicious home cooked meals and clean comfortable rooms. Just 500m north of the fort, it’s in a great location and wildlife trips into the desert with the owner’s zoologist son are also available.
From Bikaner we made our way to the Shekhawati Region, which is less of a tourist hotspot. It is famous for its havelis (traditional ornately decorated homes that typically enclose a central courtyard). The intricate design of the murals is absolutely wonderful!
Made up of several small towns and settlements, we selected what we thought would be the best ones to visit in the area. We based ourselves in Mandawa, considered the best set up for tourism, with plenty of accommodation and eating options.
Easy to navigate with just one main drag and several narrow lanes shooting off it, the thing to do in Mandawa is simply wander around and admire the stunning architecture typical of Shekhawati. Notable havelis are Saraf Haveli, Binsidhar Newatia Haveli and Murmuria Haveli, each with its own individuality thanks to the intricately painted murals.
We stayed in one of the most colourful places we’ve ever had the pleasure to stay in: Hotel Shekhawati, the only real budget choice in town with murals covering the whole building inside and out! It also offers a peaceful rooftop, where decent meals are served.
We used Mandawa as a base; on our first day we enjoyed the local feel of the small town and visited the notable havelis. Being one of only a few tourists around made the experience all the better.
The following day we made for Nawalgarh, around 45 minutes from Mandawa. This non-touristic, dusty town is almost at the centre of the Shekhawati Region. Wandering around the old town, you might get the odd stare now and again due to the low numbers of tourists that make it here.
The old town, with its traditional shops and markets, evokes the feeling of having gone back in time! It can be a bit confusing, finding your way around the warren of labyrinthine streets, but friendly locals are always willing to help.
Not to be missed here is the Dr. Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum, constructed in 1902. Known locally as Podar Haveli, it is one of the few buildings in the region to have been fully restored. Also in town is another museum: Morarka Haveli with fine paintings on its inner walls, including a slightly incongruous image of Jesus on the top storey.
Bhagton Ki Choti Haveli, meanwhile, is a historical building famous for its murals that include a locomotive, a steamship and a European man with a cane and pipe and a dog on his shoulder!
Regular local buses are a cheap form of transport between towns in the region. It is perfectly possible, given that places aren’t large, to visit more than one town in a day if you start early.
Fatehpur isn’t far from Nawalgarh, so stopping by is easy and well worth it. This small town has one famous draw card – the Haveli Nadine Le Prince, built in 1802 and well known among locals. It was lovingly restored by a French artist, whom the haveli is named after and is, by far, one of the most exquisite in the whole of Shekhawati Region; guided tours are available.
Other notable havelis in Fatehpur are Jagannath Singhania, Mahavir Prasad Goenka, Geori Shankar and Harikrishnan Das Saraogi, each with its own individual beauty.
The district capital and most important commercial centre of the region is Jhunjhunu, which has a busier feel than the surrounding smaller towns but also its own treasures.
Rani Sati Temple, a very large Hindu complex, offers lodging to pilgrims. The main hall boasts white marble with elaborate silver work and there is tile-and-mirror mosaic on the ceiling before the inner sanctum; the temple has the bustling energy of most Hindu places of worship.
Additionally, the Modi Havelis house some of the towns best murals and woodcarvings. Looking carefully, notice the many intricately painted murals of people playing instruments and sporting detailed facial expressions!
Like any commercial centre in the state, Jhunjhunu has a bustling and lively bazaar, where purchasing anything from food to clothes and ornaments is possible. It’s worth taking a look around to experience the explosion of colours and smells that fill the air.
Travelling around Shekhawati Region
The towns of Shekhawati are well connected by public bus, taking no more than an hour to travel between each one. Expect to pay around 25-50 Indian rupees per person, per trip. Given the minimal tourism, overcharging foreigners isn’t rampant but it is advised to check with a local before paying any money, if you can, to be on the safe side!
Shekhawati Region is an unlikely gem in Rajasthan. Steeped in history with beautiful architecture and away from the usual tourist hassles, spending a few days here is most certainly worthwhile when visiting the desert state.
For more on Rajasthan, check out our PUSHKAR post!