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SHEKHAWATI REGION - NORTHERN RAJASTHAN

The semi-desert Shekhawati region lies in the triangular area between Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner.  Starting around the 14th century, a number of Muslim clans moved into the area and the towns, which developed became important trading posts on the caravan routes emanating from the ports of Gujarat.  The name of the region and its inhabitants can be traced to a 15th century Rajput Kachhwaha chieftain by the name of Rao Shekha.

Although the towns have long since lost whatever importance they once had, they have not lost the amazing painted havelis built by the merchants of the region.  Most of the buildings date from the 18th century to early this century, and such is their splendour that some as the ‘open air gallery of Rajasthan’ has dubbed the area.  There are also the obligatory (for Rajasthan) forts, a baoris (stepwells), chhatris (cenotaphs) and a handful of mosques.

The major towns of interest in the region are Nawalgarh, Fatehpur, Mandawa, Ramgarh, Mukundgarh, Jhunjhunu, although at least a few havelis survive in virtually every town.
 
        
         

Bikaner

Bikaner lies in the northwestern part of Rajasthan state of India. This desert city has a stark beauty, which is totally unique. The wide-spread sand dunes, the moonlit glittering beauty and desert agility, the worth-seeing natural sites, the marvellous palaces and temples, wild life sanctuaries and archaeological treasures all combine to make this city a place of lasting charm and permanent attraction.

Area: 27,000 sq. kms
Altitude: 237 meters
Climate: Max ║C Min. ║C; summer: 48/28 - winter: 22/4
Rainfall: 26-46 cm.

Junagarh Fort 

Raja Rai Singh constructed the Junagarh Fort between 1588 and 1593, a general in the army of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, with embellishments in the form of palaces and luxurious suites added by subsequent maharajas.  It has a 986m long wall with 37 bastions, a moat and two entrances.  The Suraj-pol, or Sun Gate, is the main entrance.  The palaces within the fort are on the southern side and make a picturesque ensemble of courtyards, balconies, kiosks, towers and windows.  A major feature of the fort and palaces is the superb quality of the stone carving.  Despite the fact that Junagarh doesn’t command a hilltop position, as do some of Rajasthan’s other grand fortresses, it is no less imposing and – a credit to its planners and architects – has never been conquered.
 

Lalgarh Palace

Three km north of the city centre, Maharaja Ganga Singh built this red sandstone palace in memory of his father, Maharaja Lal Singh.  Although it’s an imposing building with overhanging balconies and delicate latticework, it’s not the most beautiful of Rajasthani royal residences.

 

Bhand Sagar Temple

This temple is dedicated to the fifth tirthankar, Sumtinath, and a wealthy Jain merchant, Bhandasa Oswal, commissioned the building in 1468.  It was not completed until after his death in 1514.  The interior of the temple is stunning, with, unusually for a Jain temple, a series of vibrant paintings.  The pillars bear floral arabesques and stories, which depict the lives of the 24 Jain tirthankars.  It is said that 40,000 kg of ghee was used instead of water in the mortar, which locals insist seeps through the walls on hot days.  On the first floor of the three-storey temple are beautifully executed miniatures of the sentries of the gods.  There are fine views out over the city from the 3rd floor.
 
     

Camel Breeding Farm

This government-managed camel breeding station, 8 km from Bikaner, is probably unique in Asia.  There are hundreds of camels here and it’s a great sight in the late afternoon as the camels come back from grazing.  The British army had a camel corps drawn from Bikaner during WW1.
 
     

Devi Kund

8 Kms east of Bikaner, this is the site of the royal chhatris of many of the Bika dynasty rulers.  The white marble chhatri of Maharaja Surat Singh is among the most imposing.

Gajner Wildlife Sanctuary

Wildfowl and a number of deer and antelope including blackbucks and bluebull inhabit the lake and forested hills of this reserve, 32 kms from Bikaner on the Jaisalmer road.  There are also desert foxes.  Imperial sand grouse migrate here in the winter.

Deshnok's Karniji Temple or Rat Temple

A visit to the fascinating temple of Karni Mata, an incarnation of Durga, at this village 30 kms south of Bikaner along the Jodhpur road, is not for the squeamish.  Here rats are considered to be incarnations of storytellers, and the holy rodents run riot all over the temple complex.  Karni Mata, who lived in the 14th century, asked the god of death, Yama, to restore to life the son of a grieving storyteller.  When Yama refused, Karni Mata reincarnated all dead storytellers as rats in order to deprive Yama of human souls, which were later incarnated as human beings.  The temple is an important place of pilgrimage, with pilgrims being disgorged every few minutes from buses.  Once at the village, they buy prasaad in the form of sugar balls to feed to the rats.  The pilgrims are anointed with tikka in the form of ash from a holy fire in the inner sanctum, while the objects of their devotion run over their toes.  Before the temple is a beautiful marble fašade with solid silver doors donated by Maharaja Ganga Singh.  Across the doorway to the inner sanctum are repousse silver doors – one panel shows the goddess with her holy charges at her feet.  An image of the goddess is enshrined in the inner sanctum.  There are special holes around the side of the temple courtyard to facilitate the rats’ movements, and a wire grille has been placed over the courtyard to prevent birds of prey and other predators consuming the holy rodents.  The rats are known as kabas, and it is considered highly auspicious to have one run across your feet.  White kabas are quite rare.