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Tryst with the Thar


A dream in red sandstone with an enviable location by the Gajner lake ... . Experience some of the delights of a desert town in Rajasthan.

"Sitting in the shade of the banyan trees ... it is possible to forget the world outside exists."


DISTINCT WINGS: The Gajner Palace has a flavour of both Rajput and Mughal architecture, with every area having a distinct feel of the Raj.

LOTS of folk think Jaisalmer when they want communion with the desert. Say Thar and the first image that comes to mind is the sun setting over the Sam Dunes near Jaisalmer, preferably with self seated on camel looking like Lawrence of Arabia. But what the mind airbrushes out of this pretty picture is that thousands of people have had the identical brainwave at the identical time.

In the second week of October — that's just the beginning of the Rajasthan season — it was so crowded, there wasn't standing room on the dunes. The noise from the combined vocal chords of countless sunset viewers even drove the sun into hiding behind the clouds and made me wish we had stayed on instead on the edges of the Thar, in Gajner Palace, 30 km from Bikaner, where we saw the most spectacular sunset while driving through its 6,000-acre private part desert-part scrub wildlife sanctuary

Ok, there were no camel rides in Gajner, and the dunes — with their photogenic ripples and all — are further out. But in the sanctuary, we saw a herd of chinkara, and two blackbuck among them. I have nothing against camels, they are quite nice when they are not covered with sandflies. But when you see a black buck in flight — these two were giving us quite a performance of perfectly executed leaps — you only want a photo of that, not of yourself perched silly on a camel.

The chinkara scattered into the scrub as we approached but the blackbuck kept appearing and reappearing, leaping across our path as we drove through the desert. Both animals are in the endangered list. We also spotted the nilgai, the sambur, the wild boar and even a hare. The sanctuary is also famous for its Imperial Sandgrouse. Later, we drove up to the grassy edge of Gajner Lake to watch the setting sun throw its light on the palace, which is on the other side of the water. The lake sustains a variety of bird life besides being a water source for the animals. Keeping us company were a demoiselle crane on the shore and a flock of waders in the water. We returned to the palace just as it got dark and from its waterfront terrace, heard jackals howling by turn across the lake.

Heritage hotel

The red sandstone palace, a heritage hotel since 1976 now run by the HRH chain, was built between 1910 and 1913 as a retreat for Maharana Ganga Singh, one of the most prominent and remembered rulers of Bikaner royalty. This was where he threw lavish shikar parties for his guests, mainly other royalty and British dignitaries. One story has it that for two or three days before a shoot, villagers would scare the birds away from the lake. On the day, the thirsty birds would flock to the lake in greater numbers. They would be allowed to land, and as they did, the waiting shikaris would pick them out.

The architect, Samuel Swinton Jacob, who built the Maharana's Lallgarh Palace in Bikaner, drew inspiration from both Rajasthani and Mughal styles, evident in the jharokas — balconies whose elaborate lattice screens were the only window to the world for generations of veiled women — its carved pillars and scalloped arches. But when it came to the rooms, he went completely English, even throwing in fireplaces.

Spacious courtyards divide the palace into three sections, each leading into its own set of rooms. Sitting in the shade of the banyan trees that dot these courtyards, it is possible to forget the world outside exists. The central courtyard leads into Dungar Niwas with its royal suites and their spectacular lake views. This was where the visiting dignitaries stayed. We were in Mandir Niwas, which in the days of the royal shoots was the reception area for the visiting dignitaries because it was closest to the station. In case you are wondering how close, the train chugged right into Gajner Palace, the last stop on the line, and the friendly hotel staff will show you the remnants of the old tracks and platform.

The canopy of green around the hotel and the lake provides an interesting contrast with the rugged beauty of the sand and scrub beyond. From here, the bustle of Bikaner is at a comfortable distance — not too close to your face, not too far away to be inaccessible. Junagadh Fort in the heart of Bikaner is worth a visit for the way in which successive rulers added bits and pieces of their own imagination to the original. Some contributions are plain eccentric, such as the jharoka made of white and blue Dutch ceramic tiles in the middle of red sandstone, or the blue spartek-tiled room on the terrace, where royalty retired to enjoy the rain, whenever it did over the desert city. But nor did royalty leave everything to nature. One room, called Badal Ghar — House of Clouds — was fitted with a mechanism that simulated rain.

Preserving the past

Some features are simply beautiful, like the lac ceilings, which the trustees of the fort are taking care to preserve. But we could have certainly done without the handprints on the walls at the Fort's entrance. Our guide told us they belonged to women who once lived in the fort, and left their hand prints on their way to sati. Although it is against the law to glorify sati, fresh flowers were strewn under them.

Aside from a museum in the Fort displaying Gopal Singh memorabilia, including a plane from the First World War that the British presented him and that is now parked in one of the durbar halls, another interesting museum in the premises showcases the clothes of Bikaner's royal women, family crockery, cutlery, and other bric-a-brac.

From Bikaner, we drove on to Jaisalmer for that tryst with the desert. On second thoughts, we should have turned off towards Gajner and its grand solitude.

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