Way back in 1990s, when I first heard about the magnificence of Havelis or traditional Indian mansions of Bikaner I nourished a subtle desire to visit in person and appreciate the impressive architecture of the Havelis. The newspaper feature articles that used to appear in the intervening period until my first visit to Bikaner circa 2000 CE could not satisfy my visual appetite that could be whetted only by a visit. . My first visit to the Havelis in Bikaner town and its agglomerations was facilitated by Tourism Writers Guild whose dynamic associates viz. Shri Updhyan Chandra Kochar, who is no more now and Zia-ul-Hasan Quadri with several others had organized a Heritage Walk in the old sectors of the city covering only a few major Havelis. At that time, it was cloudy and digital cameras had not come in vogue, which could have given considerable advantage to accurately record the beauty of the mansions of yore. I managed a few clicks but returned dissatisfied. However, a couple of years later, the situation came to be realized in an entirely diverse and more advantageous manner as the weather was cool-warm with a bright sunshine. Secondly I was equipped with a Nikon D800 and Kodak Easy Share Z990. During the five day’s stay in the City, I could thrice sneak into the old and narrow alleys to view Havelis as closely as could be managed, which were created by the collective wisdom of reputed native architects known as Suthar, stone carvers (Pashaan Silpi) and painters (Usta and the Chungar/चूनगर) whose names were assiduously listed by Mr Quadri during research.
The splendid Rampurion ki Haveli is the most well-known architectural wonder ever created in Bikaner. In fact, it is a cluster of Havelis, which the Department of Archaeology of the Govt. of Rajasthan has declared as protected under the relevant Act. The fascia of the mansions, situated in narrow lanes bears ornamental carving depicting floral and animate objects up to a height of three storeys. The front portion of all these Havelis was laid in red sand stone, which was quarried in abundance at Dulmera in the erstwhile princely state of Bikaner.
The city is situated amidst sand dunes, interspersed by several lakes full of sweet rainwater that collects as runoff -such as at Gajner and Kolayat (22 and 34 kilometers away on the road to Jaisalmer, respectively), an abundance of thorny vegetation of the arid zone as well as large shady trees such as Neem , which are particularly protected by the locals. Sometimes, it rained in torrents in the Bikaner region but the weather might run dry for several years at a stretch causing scarcity of water. All water holes run dry offering an opportunity to clean the mud from the bottom and strengthen the embankments. However, ground water aquifers are accessed to meet the growing needs of the people for potable water and keeping the population in comfort zone.
In the regions that sustain brackish groundwater, the people have devised innovative ways to store sweet rain water in the Kunds and masonry tanks. The Tankas and Kunds were constructed with stone/bricks set in lime mortar. The materials naturally keepthe stored water cool and acid-free for a long period……sometimesfor three years with minimum micro-organism causing parasitic diseases. Nowadays, many industrial units have been set up in the district, particularly on the Sri Ganganagar road, which hasenhanced the need for water. It will be difficult to be able to meet the demand as well as manage disposal of waste and toxic water released by these newly set up units.
Shri Quadri’s listing of Havelis or old mansion of Bikaner and its agglomerations makes an impressive number -1003, which is amazing in itself and indicates the great effort and time devoted by both -the builders and the designer architects, in addition to the crafts persons that could be involved with the creation of the architectural splendor, which has become not only a window for the world to depict the ingenuity and standards of workmanship of Indians artisans but also as rich source material for study and research to the students of the Schools of Architecture and Design. A close inspection of the fine carving on stone and wood, the methods of cladding and fixing of stones, juxtaposing of the carved pieces and brackets without a visual indication of the glue, creation of frescoes on wall, niches and roof and the layout can leave one stunned for a while.
Every Haveli had one or several internal courtyards, curved, narrow and vestibule type entrance whereas the Nauhras (Office space, parking- cum- godown) or business houses attached with godowns had a wide, arched gate with heavy door sets made of wood. One wonders at the acumen of the architects in the use of geometry and mathematical calculation with native instruments applied to the aesthetic look of havelis. The layout of the Havelis and positioning of windows and doors afforded complete privacy to the occupants who could perform mundane activities without being noticed from outside. Not much wood was used in the Havelis but wherever it was, great wisdom and appropriate methodology was used Window-panes were deliberately kept small-sized, latticed or fixed with Jalis at certain places for the outer windows and, of course, door sets, lintels and the jambs were studded with inlay as well as suspended or shelved motifs. From the year 1860s to 1930s, the wealthy Seths or merchants had commissioned construction of the Havelis and were visionaries in a sense that they loved revival of several art forms and splendor in stone inspired by forms in nature –particularly the wild plants, that was capable of enriching the ambient space of Mohallas . Frescoes depicting contemporary events, episodes from Hindu pantheon and mythology, native life and other decorative motifs within the interiors provide cultural ambiance to life of the people. The architects of the Havelis were fully aware about the fine rules of utilization of space in a creative and aesthetic manner .
It is regrettable that nowadays many Havelis have become victims of air pollution loaded with toxic fumes containing lead particles and oxides of sulphur. Innumerable auto-rickshaws that ply within the narrow lanes throughout the day are the major culprits. These vehicles run on diesel fuel and ooze black smoke from the exhausts causing respiratory distress to residents and visitors. I am not aware if a policy of controlling pollution of the air in the city exists or the district administration is alive to the problem to regulate the type of vehicles or the fuel that can be used within the city. It is high time the district administration thinks of introducing innovative ways of ferrying passengers by mini-vehicles that may run on battery power.
In the area of Taj trapezium at Agra, these types of battery-run vehicles have given some respite from air pollution. The noxious gases that come out from the exhausts of diesel-run vehicles get mixed with small amount of moisture already present in the atmosphere and transforms into sulphuric and nitric acids, and then, comes into contact with red sand stone having fine carvings. It reacts with the stone and causes slow decay of the surface of the stone disintegrating the texture of the stone. Within a few years the cladding of red sand stone on a building becomes disfigured and weak.
Therefore, with great urgency the suspended particulate level in the air as well as the content of noxious gases need to be controlled as an essential measure for preserving the architectural heritage of Bikaner.
Bikaner State has preserved the old Rajput political, cultural and artistic traditions, completely unadulterated, until sixty years ago; and even today very many of them are still alive. It is true that Bikaner is not so well known to tourists and scholars as other Rajput states like Jaipur, Jodhpur or Udaipur, which can boast of a more attractive scenery and of greater economic resources. But the very remoteness of Bikaner has preserved the heritage of the past much better than in the more accessible states. The heritage is great and can well compare with that of her more fortunate neighbours and seldom surpasses it.
–‘The Art and Architecture of Bikaner State’, 1950 by Hermann Goet
However, on page 84 of the book mentioned above Hermann noted: ‘The Banya houses of the last half century imitate unsuccessfully the over elaborate and somewhat petty exuberance of the Jodhpur mansions of the middle 19th century. At present the tradition is rapidly degenerating. For the complete breakdown of artistic taste in India during the Victorian period with all its fondness for the discarded tinsel of the West has now reached the mercantile class of Bikaner, and houses are decorated with copies of pseudo-Gothic scroll work and grotesque ‘portraits’ of Queen Victoria, Edward VII, etc. In the meantime modern architecture is penetrating into the new quarters of the town which are being laid out by the government.
The historical havelis of Bikaner have been selected for inclusion in the 2012 World Monument Watch.
Author – Ranbir Singh Phogat
He can be reached at email@example.com