The princely state of Rajasthan is seen as the epitome of culture, history and arts. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India and it is an agglomeration of multiple cities, cultures and subcultures. In this state of myriad cultures lies the city of Bikaner, also known as the “City of Thousand Havelis”, Camel Country and the Red City.
Often overlooked amongst other tourist destinations of the state, Bikaner is a hidden gem that retains the medieval grandeur that permeates the city’s lifestyle even today. Known as the "City of Havelis", Bikaner still has around 500 standing havelis which have been occupied by local residents or they’ve been converted into heritage hotels or preserved by UNESCO sites.
Image 1- Lakshmi Niwas Palace (Wikipedia)
The city of Bikaner was a princely state founded in the 15th century. Rao Bika established the city of Bikaner in 1488. He was the son of Rao Jodha of the Rathor Rajput clan, the founder of Jodhpur and conquered the largely arid region in the north of Rajasthan. Despite being near the Thar Desert, Bikaner was considered an oasis on the trade route between Central Asia and the Gujarat coast as it has adequate spring water. Bika’s name was attached to the city he built and to the state of Bikaner i.e., the settlement of Bika, that he established. He died in 1504 and his successors gradually extended their possessions. The state adhered loyally to the Mughal emperors, who ruled in Delhi from 1526 to 1857. Rai Singh, who succeeded as the chieftain of Bikaner in 1571 and ruled until 1612, became one of the emperor Akbar’s most-distinguished generals and was named the first Rajas of Bikaner. After which the state fell under the control of the East India Company and the British Raj respectively.
Image- Junagarh Fort (Source- Wikipedia)
The Beginnings: Rao Bika & the formation of the State
The establishment of Bikaner happened when in 1465 Rao Bika, a Rajput Rathore and elder son of Rao Jodha, king of Marwar was provoked by a stray comment by his father. This prompted him to leave Marwar with a small contingent of Rathore and Rajpurohit warriors and establish his own kingdom. He was joined by his uncle, Rawat Kandhal, his brother Rao Bida and his chief advisor Vikramji Rajpurohit who provided politico-strategic advice.
By 1485, he was able to set up his own territory and build a small fort called Rati Ghati. He was able to achieve this by taking advantage of the internal rivalries of various Jat clans. In 1488, Rao Bika started to build the city itself. The beginning years saw resistance and suspicion by neighbouring Bhati chiefs as they saw his growing power. Karni Mata, who had become the kuladevi of Rao Bika brought the rivalry between the Rathore & Bhatis to an end by inspiring Rao Shekha – the powerful Bhati chief of Pugal, to give the hand of his daughter in marriage to Rao Bika. This consolidated Rao Bika's power in the region and proved to be a milestone in the history of the state.
Rao Bika passed away in 1504. His successors took advantage of Suraj Mal of Marwar's weak authority and the chaos produced by Babur's invasion of India to consolidate and expand their holdings until, by the 17th century, all Jat clans (including the powerful Godara clan) had acknowledged the kings of Bikaner's suzerainty.
The Age of Mughal Dominance
The accession of Humayun to power brought Bikaner back into confrontation with the Mughals due to its involvement with Sher Shah Suri. However, Kalyan Mal was able to beat any approaching Mughal army by taking advantage of the hard desert climate near Bikaner. But this period was marked with the transfer of power to the Mughals with Rao Kalyan Mal acknowledging the suzerainty of Emperor Akbar in Nagaur in November 1570. When Akbar came to power, the Mughal empire used diplomacy rather than force to bring the Rajput nations into the empire.
Image- Raja Karan Singh of Bikaner, Aurangzeb's ally and enemy (Source: Wikipedia)
As a result, Raja Rai Singh, Bikaner's sixth monarch, was one of the first Rajput rulers to form an alliance with the Mughal Empire. Raja Rai Singh accepted the Mughals' suzerainty and rose to the status of army general at the court of Emperor Akbar and his son, Emperor Jahangir, during the Mughal Empire's dominance in the country. Rai Singh received praise and awards from the Mughal emperors for his outstanding military feats, which included capturing half of the Mewar kingdom for the Empire. He built the Chintamani Durg i.e., Junagarh Fort. Later monarchs embellished the Mahal with additional levels and ornamentation such as the Karan Mahal, Anup Mahal and Chandra Mahal.
There was an internal battle between the kings of Bikaner and Jodhpur, as well as other thakurs, in the 18th century, which was put down by British soldiers in the 19th century.
Internal Strife and the Rise of British Raj
Under a treaty of paramountcy signed in 1818, during Maharaja Surat Singh's reign, Bikaner came under the suzerainty of the British, after which the Maharajas of Bikaner invested heavily in refurbishing Junagarh fort.
By the mid 19th century, years of internal conflicts along with financial and military strain put on Bikaner by the British Raj put the kingdom in major debt. A turnaround in the kingdom’s finances was noticed when in 1842, Maharaja Ratan Singh took advantage of a shortage of pack animals to supply Bikaner’s famous camels at considerable profit to the British for their Afghan expedition. The turnaround was such that by 1844, he was able to reduce the dues on goods passing through Bikaner.
1887-1943 was the period which was ruled by one of Rajasthan's best known princes, General Maharaja Ganga Singh, who was a favourite of the British Viceroys' of India. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India, served as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet, represented India at the Imperial Conferences during First World War and British Empire at the Versailles Peace Conference. He contributed immensely to adding various halls and rooms to the Junagarh Fort. He also built the Ganga Niwas Palace, which has towers at the entrance patio. Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob designed this palace, which is the third of Bikaner's new palaces. In 1902, he renamed the structure Lalgarh Palace in honour of his father and relocated his main residence from Junagarh Fort. The hall where he celebrated his Golden Jubilee as Bikaner's monarch (in 1938) has been turned into a museum.
Image- Maharaja Ganga Singh (Source: Wikipedia)
Independence and Formation of Rajasthan
Lieutenant-General Sir Sadul Singh, the Yuvaraja of Bikaner, succeeded his father as Maharaja in 1943. The subsidiary alliance of 1818 came to an end with the British departure in 1947, leaving Bikaner as an independent kingdom, with Maharaja Sadul Singh having the option of joining one of the two dominions, India or Pakistan. Sadul Singh was one of the first rulers of a princely state to sign an Instrument of Accession, choosing India on August 7, 1947. Bikaner was incorporated into the Rajputana state, which was eventually renamed Rajasthan.
The last ruler of Bikaner was Rao Karni Singh (1950-1971) who was also a member of Parliament (Lok Sabha). On 28 December, India amended its Constitution to remove the position of the rulers of princely states and their right to receive privy-purse payments, thus making him the last ruler of Bikaner.
Image- Contemporary portrait of Maharaja Karni Singh (Source: Wikpedia)
The Royal Family still lives in a suite in Lalgarh Palace, which they have converted into a heritage hotel.