Monsoon time in Delhi is a good time to visit northern Rajasthan, if you can stand the heat. There are few tourists, it is dry (unless very unlucky) and there are great bargains to be had at hotels. Bikaner beckoned. Not the easiest place to get to despite being only 400km from Delhi. No airport so it was an 8 hours train journey from Rewari; a rather non descript sort of place about 2 hours drive south of Delhi the other side of Gurgaon.
The main historical attraction is the superbly preserved Junagarh Fort. First started in 1588, Junagarh Fort comprises a fortified perimeter wall constructed out of red sandstone and surrounded by a now dry moat. Inside are numerous ornate palaces built over 3 centuries by successive rulers of Bikaner. All in excellent condition due in part to the dry desert air, but also because the fort was never breached. Much of the interior comprises rooms beautifully decorated with mirror and glass inlay set off by gold leaf and intricately painted walls. Some rooms are set aside as museums, including one containing a prized DH-9 De Haviland bi-plane, presented to the Maharaja of Bikaner by Britain in thanks for his support during WWI.
About 30km south of Bikaner is the Karni Mata Mandir, better known as the “Rat Temple” because of the rats inside which are revered as reincarnated saints. A sign outside also declares the temple the “Eighth Wonder of the World” – not sure about that bit. This is a Hindu temple, so it was shoes off at the entrance. I was initially lulled into a false sense of security by the ornate marble carvings, the massive silver gates guarding the entrance and the apparently “rat free” outer courtyard. I even felt a slight sense of disappointment – were the rats in bed asleep? That feeling deserted me as soon as I entered the inner sanctum - rats swarming everywhere; scampering across the floor, drinking milk out of large silver bowls, hanging from railings, poking out of walls, and hanging from anything that might be construed as a good spot for a siesta. Rat droppings and no doubt rat urine everywhere. A sight that to me was as fascinating as it was repugnant, conditioned no doubt my western view that rats are harbingers of disease and death; not a view shared in this temple at least.
It is only once I became attuned to spotting rats that I found them everywhere, even in the outer courtyard, which had initially appeared rat free. I was free to venture everywhere inside the temple, apart from the very core, which is closed to non-Hindu’s. The rats had colonised every nook and cranny, every corridor and stairway, even wardrobes had rats hanging from the rails instead of coat hangers. Being a photographer it was my duty to explore the temple in detail, which I did, and to get some portrait shots – fortunately the rats were very obliging. Top tip – take some spare socks to wear inside or change into when you leave.
The Camel Research Centre 5 km south of Bikaner had a feeling of relative normality after the Rat Temple. There is a resident population of “stud males” and yearlings which can be seen at any time, but the best time to visit is around 1700 when the 300 or so breeding stock return from feeding in the desert – quite a sight as they arrive in a cloud of dust, obviously parched, and head straight for the water troughs. They then divide themselves up like obedient sheep and headed for separate pens for pregnant females, non-pregnant females, females with young and males.
Back in Bikaner the old walled city beckoned. It had obviously seen better days, but did nevertheless contain some interesting havelis tucked away down narrow lanes – I got friendly rickshaw driver to show me around, which was well worth it as the old city is quite large and a veritable rabbit warren of narrow streets and alleys. Amazingly he didn’t try and take me shopping or anywhere else I didn’t want to go. Another interesting stop in the old city was the Bhanda Shaha Jain Temple; unusually the interior is painted, rather than bare carved marble, and the whole building was constructed using butter instead of water in the mortar!