I was always curious as to why Bhujia and Namkeen makers prided themselves in being associated to Bikaner. The quest to find an answer for the same landed me in the desert city of Bikaner.
Bikaner is a city that is built on the scorching sands of the Thar Desert. Located roughly 425 kilometers from Delhi in the northern part of Rajasthan, the city is famous for a whole lot of things. Right from the massive Havelis to being the birthplace of tunes like “Kesariya Balam” and so on. The city of Bikaner is, in essence, an oasis. The city was established in the 1470s by Rao Bika, the second son of the king of Jodhpur. The reason why he established his kingdom was that his father would not allow him to be the ruler of Jodhpur. It’s a very elegant way to solve inheritance issues.
Roughly 2 centuries after the establishment of Bikaner, the Chintamani fort was built which is now known as Junagarh fort.
The Junagarh Fort, like any other Rajasthani fort, was built to house the king’s residence, to establish dominance and most importantly be unconquerable. The first stop of my visit was the fort. The fort originally was named Chintamani but is now known as Junagarh which means “Old Fort”. The name stuck ever since the royal family moved into a newer and more lavish Lalgarh palace on the city outskirts. The fort today is the amalgamation of an art gallery and a museum. The structure is beautifully built and is treat for architecture and culture lovers. Do keep water bottles as it is a long walk through the history of the desert kingdom. The artifacts here range right from robes to arms and from paintings to an actual fighter plane. The architecture comprises of jharokhas and arches and carvings on materials like marble and wood and sandstone. The sheer luxury and grandeur of the king’s palace are sure to leave one in awe. After spending a couple of hours at the fort, I headed back to the main market to find what I was looking for.
A 30 min walk from the fort led me straight to the famous Rampuria Havelis. Bikaner is home to roughly 400 Havelis. A haveli is nothing but a palatial mansion that was built by the wealthy or the powerful. The ones in Bikaner are a result of the numerous merchant families living here that have made their from fortune trading on the silk route. Of all the Havelis, the most renowned are those of the Rampuria family. Roughly 400 years old, they are the pride of Bikaner and a must-visit for all those coming to Bikaner.
The secret of their beauty is the perfect blend of Rajputana, Mughal, and Victorian architecture which shows in the form of jharokhas, arches, and the use of sandstone carvings on the outer walls. The best part, it isn’t just one haveli, nut a group of 7 Havelis all owned by the Rampurias. These Havelis are amongst the many others situated just around the area of Mohataon ka Chowk and Bhujia Bazaar and Old Bikaner. After spending a while trying to capture the splendor of the Haveli, I decided to move towards the place that had brought me to Bikaner – Bhujia Bazaar.
Being unable to get a network strong enough for my Google Maps to work, I decided to ask directions from locals. A subtle misunderstanding had me walking in the opposite direction. After about 20 minutes, I landed at Katla Rd which is the old market street of Bikaner. It houses jewelers, spice traders, cloth sellers, shoemakers, and whatnot. It is here that I had a late lunch at Bhikaram Chandmal before stumbling upon the best paan I’ve had in Rajasthan. Moolsa Phoolsa ka Paan Bhandar is the place. The man himself sits there making amazing paan at insane speeds. it was after a conversation with him that I realized the direction I had taken earlier was wrong and the bhujia bazaar lay on the other side of the Rampuria.
After taking a fresh set of directions, I headed towards Rampuria again. Another long walk and I found myself at the gates of the Havelis. Continuing further I made the wrong turn that I realized only after ending up at Mohaton ka chowk. Mohaton ka chowk translates to chowk of the Mohta family. The place was bustling with people as it was also an active auto stand. I felt a sudden hunger the moment I could smell amazing samosa and rabri being prepared nearby. Driven by the aroma, I reached the stall making these delicacies. As my samosa was being prepared, I engaged in a conversation with Mr. Robila, the owner of the shop. He told me how this shop had been in his family for 3 generations now and also introduced me to his younger brother, Sushil Kumar. Sushil had been Mr. Bikana for 3 years in a row and loved his mustache. He said that in this region of Rajasthan, a man’s mustache is his pride and what all goes into maintaining the perfect facial hair. The conversation continued even as the samosas came and he brought me up to date with the history of Bikaner and advised me to visit the Pabuji mandir and Lalgarh palace before I left. By the time I left, it was slate and I decided to return and continue my lookout for the origins of bhujia on the following day.
The next day began early as I left for the Karni Mata Mandir in Deshnok. The much-revered temple is a 40minute drive from the Junagarh fort. Karni Mata temple is also known as the temple of rats. The reason – it is inhabited by thousands of rats who are loved and cared for and also considered to be auspicious. the temple is devoted to the local deity of Karni Mata. At first, it may seem a bit weird seeing people eating in the same plates as rats and also praying to them, but once you experience it with your own eyes, it becomes natural. It is considered extremely lucky if u manage to catch a glimpse of a white rat. I’ll be honest here, the rats are friendly and make good companions if u need someone to talk to. After spending a while there and giving some milk to the rats, I set off for Bikaner city again.
My next stop was the Lalgarh Palace. It is the current residence of the royal family. The palace has a relatively modern collection of stuff that they display in comparison to the Junagarh fort. These include some amazing photographs and even a railway coach. Near the palace is the temple of Pabuji. Pabuji is a deity that is worshipped mainly by the nomadic tribes of the MaruSthal – the Thar. The temple compound’s atmosphere was filled with the hymns being sung by the Bhopa priests that are one of a kind and truly mesmerizing. One thing that stood out the most is a relic known as the “Phad”. it is a large piece of cloth that depicts and narrate the entire life and chronicles of Pabuji. It is an amazing piece of art owing to the details and colors used. After this dose for spiritualism, I once again trod back to the old city as the evening set in.
This time I took the right route and within 15 minutes I was standing just opposite the store of the oldest store of Bhikaram Chandmal. The moment I saw a fresh set of bhujia being prepared, I knew that I was in the right place. The bright golden color as they were pulled out of boiling oil, the fragrance of a combination of spices including cardamom, chili, and so on just had my mouth water like never before. All this just told me – “This is the birthplace of Bhujiya”. Just nearby is the store of Bishan Lal Babu Lal and Haldiram, this one dating back to 1937. It is quite clear as to why the place is called the bhujia market. The best part about getting your snack from here is the ability to have bespoke bhujia batches. You can customize the punch, the smell, the flavor, the spice combination, and what not to get the taste that pleases you.
The first bite of my batch left me awestruck. Calling it perfect would be an understatement. The bhujia is known for its crispiness and ability to be had anywhere and with anything. And having bhujia in Bikaner, made right for you, is nothing short of Nirvana for any food lover. The bhujia market has much more to offer. If you were thinking of Finni and other such Rajasthani sweets, you are right. The melt in mouth finni with a dash of saffron is just what you need after the kachoris and bhujia that Bikaner offers to you.
In all, Bikaner presents all its visitors with some of Rajasthan’s finest food, architecture, music, and culture. It is a must-visit for those looking to dive deeper into the Northwest of India and experience first-hand, that there is more to Rajasthan than just camels and Chokhi Dhani. Every aspect of this desert city truly resonates – “Kesariya Baalam, Aao ni padhaaro mhare des.”
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