New Delhi, May 6: The rugged district of Bikaner, synonymous with munchies known by their brand name ‘Bikaneri bhujjia’, has a rich history that makes it one of the most popular destinations for tourists in Rajasthan after Jaipur.
The appeal of Bikaner lies in the fact that it is one of the oldest Rajput fiefdoms that has transformed itself without compromising on its old world sensitivities and values, says former princess Rajyashree Kumari Bikaner who has updated the history of the place in her new book, ‘The Maharajas of Bikaner’ (Amaryllis).
After its acceding to the Indian union, the state has become a prosperous business centre while the erstwhile royal family opened its well-kept archives to scholars and its palaces for guests and filmmakers from Mumbai who find its period premises a perfect setting for grand screen dramas, the former princess said.
The archives are said to house one of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts retrieved from the Deccan.
The Lalgarh Palace of Bikaner sustains as a hospitality resort and a network of trusts and foundations keeps the resource channel alive.
‘It requires a lot more effort to preserve heritage when you look at the European countries and Russian palaces. The havelis of Bikaner are in desperate need of protection and renovation,’ the former princess told IANS.
Outlining the process of change, the writer said former ruler Sadul Singh was the first royal to merge with the Indian state after independence, inspiring other princely states to follow suit.
‘I remember growing up in the palace in the mid-1950s when we still had the palace to ourselves. The biggest setback came with abolition of privy purses. In the case of Bikaner, privy purses went into the upkeep of the palace staff. We had many. The move forced my father and grandfather to re-assess their roles,’ Rajyashree Kumari said.
It drove the erstwhile royals to ‘politics in the contemporary context’. Former king Karni Singh, an ace shooter, made his mark in parliament, where he campaigned for the promotion of sports.
Founded in 1465 AD by a Rathod Rajput prince, Rao Bikaji, the state was blessed by Karni Mata – a local Charan woman in the village of Deshnoke in the region who was elevated to a deity.
‘In an age when women played hardly any role in the state affairs, it is ironic that a young Charan woman, Karniji, proved to be a crucial influence on Rao Bika. The villagers informed Bika that Karniji possessed supernatural powers to foretell the future. Karniji prophesied that Bika had a great future ahead of him and would surpass his father Rao Jodha, the ruler of Jodhpur,’ she said.
The kingdom achieved a unique distinction of maintaining a policy of peaceful co-existence with the Mughals and the British imperialists.
The former princess said the idea to write a book about her ‘former kingdom’ turned into a compulsion a few years ago when she was moving home.
‘I had interviewed some of the old staff of one of my ancestors, Ganga Singh, nearly 20 years ago and forgot about the diaries. I came across the notes when I was moving house and decided to write an account of the family. The history of our family needed to be updated,’ Rajyashree Kumari said.
She said she had to research afresh because ‘the account had to be fleshed out of the biography of her great-grandfather, grandfather and father and the administration files stored in the archives’.
The lucid book, full of engaging anecdotes about war, politics, instances of Rajput valour and everyday life in the court in an easy-to-relate style, lists the life of every ruler ‘over 23 generations’ in 12 chapters with analysis of events – strictly from the writer’s perspective.
The text is complemented by rare archival images.
It begins with Rao Bika’s conquest of the desert villages in 1465 and goes up to the writer’s brother, scion Narendra Singh.
‘I don’t want Bikaner to lose its character and become another metro city. One of its strengths is its harsh terrain – only the hardiest could reach it and it has kept Bikaner out of the way of unchecked urbanisation.
‘To my mind, Jaipur has grown to such an extent that it risks losing its identity. Let’s not lose the identity – the very characteristics which made the royal region of Rajputana,’ she said.
The ‘bhujjias’, of course, is another story. It is the successful commercial face of working class Bikaner, she said.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)