Bikaner’s story began with a runaway prince. Rao Bika, the eldest son of maharaja Rao Jodha from the neighbouring kingdom of Jodhpur, left his father—and crown—in a huff in the late 15th century to seek his own fortunes and set up a kingdom with his own name. What he found was the arid wilderness of the region then known as Jangladesh, from which he carved out the prosperous kingdom of Bikaner.

In that stunning metamorphosis, the rulers were helped by the fact that the town was on the flourishing Silk Route between China and Mediterranean Europe. And more than the kings, it was the astute merchants of Bikaner who really built it up as a trading town. Today, the only relics of that age are the havelis of the merchants, which lie forgotten, dilapidated, in the narrow lanes of the old city.

I was staying at Narendra Bhawan, the residence of the last king of Bikaner, an erstwhile palace repurposed into a plush heritage hotel. Narendra Bhawan itself offered a glorious peek into the life of the late king Shri Narendra Singhji—from the fiery red grand piano in the lobby to vintage editions of Playboy magazine in the den, and rare china and crystal collections on display in various nooks and corners.

But I was more interested in exploring the havelis. So, after breakfast one morning, we set off on the Merchant Trail, curated by the hotel. It took us on a tour of these red sandstone havelis, built between the 17th and early 20th centuries, in the heart of Bikaner—once a symbol of status and affluence.

At the peak of Bikaner’s glory, there are believed to have been over 1,000 such havelis, although only a few dozen now survive, most of them in a state of ruin. They were abandoned when their owners migrated to cities like Kolkata and Mumbai in the mid-20th century.

Our destination for the morning was the Rampuria havelis, a collection of mansions that once belonged to one of the most influential families in town. Walking into the tiny lane, I was sceptical— till I emerged right in front of a magnificent haveli. And as we zigzagged through the warren of lanes, it got more wondrous and incongruous, the streets seeming to have no connection to the mansions they hid in plain sight.

Most of the Bikaneri havelis display a range of architectural influences, from Rajput to Mughal, with the odd Victorian flourish thrown in: Think intricate carving on stone jaalis (lattices) and projecting jharonkas and chhajjas (balconies and overhangs). Occasionally, cheeky little children waved to us from a latticed window, posing cheerfully for photographs, completely oblivious to the history that surrounded them.

I followed this up with a visit to the Bhanda Shaha (also known locally as the Bhandasar) temple. And I was glad I did, for this 15th century temple built by a Jain merchant had some of the most stunning wall and ceiling murals I had seen, even in neighbouring Shekhawati.

Later in the evening, we took a leisurely stroll through the crowded markets around the Kote Gate area, where locals congregated for their daily dose of gossip along with chai and kachori. Shops selling heady Marwari spices sat cheek by jowl with others peddling colourful Leheriya saris and ghagras, each crowded with groups of women bargaining for the best deals.

On my first trip to this sleepy town, I realized that like most places in the Indian desert, Bikaner’s primary colour palette was sepia. Over that weekend, though, I was fortunate enough to see multiple splashes of red, green and yellow peeking through.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @charukesi.

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