Any Indian desert exploration should begin in the city of Bikaner. From ancient forts dating back from the 15th-century to Jain and Hindu temples, including that of the most peculiar ‘rat temple,’ no trip to India should go without.
Inbound U.S. and Canadian travelers will find it easiest to begin in New Delhi (279 miles from Bikaner). It can be accessed by road; however, to truly experience India, one must board a train and casually roll across India’s vast country side alongside locals. Presently there are no commercial flights to the city.
Settled in the 15th-century, Bikaner is home to the 16th-century, moat-encircled Junagarh Fort and the mosaic palaces within. Lose yourself in elaborate quarters, each of which are the result of centuries of rulers, each carved out to be more stunning than the previous predecessors, making the palaces more marvelous to us visitors today.
Unlike most forts, surprisingly this fort was not built on a high perch, however, on the low lying desert plain. Despite its ground-level location it was never successfully invaded.
Marvel at its red sandstone exterior and walk within the exterior to appreciate the stunning marble courtyards, balconies, kiosks and passageways. Visitors are never disappointed, even when time is limited; direct your-self to the superbly painted walls good omens meaning, white-marble pools, and the red-and-gold motifs covering the Lal Niwas complex (the oldest portion of the fort).
Other Bikaner “must see” sights include the Bhanda Shaha Jain temple, the city’s oldest Jain temple, built in 1468. It is said that 88,000 lbs of ghee or butter were used to mix the cement, replacing the traditional ingredient water. It was thought to add strength to the structure, and after nearly five-and-a-half centuries of holding strong, ancient wisdom may have been right.
Save time to casually weave your way through Bikaner’s downtown streets, where multi-story, extraordinary carved, 18th-century red sandstone mansions (havelis) still stand. Many of these buildings are still occupied, some by descendants of the original merchant-owners, so interior viewings aren’t likely to happen to the common traveler.
Save time to visit the area’s camel-breeding farm, home to hundreds of the animals so critical to desert life and trade. The site houses and leases out the camels to farmers who cannot afford their own. The farm is also the site of extensive research into camel nutrition, toxicology and reproduction.
And the must see, much revered, Hindu site is the Karni Mata temple shrine or “rat temple” at Deshnok. The name in itself is the sole reason why many travelers are so curious. According to one legend, Karin Mata, a devout mystic whose youngest son had drown, begged and pleaded with the higher deities to bring him back to life. But since the son had already undergone reincarnation, the deities were unable to do such a miracle. However, what the deities were able to do was bring the grieving woman’s son back to life in the form of a rat. Since, this temple, built to honor these events, has been home to hundreds, if not thousands of scurrying rodents-all symbolizing the miraculous transformation.
Join the steady stream of pilgrims coming to pray at the “rat temple,” and don’t forget to bring along food and milk to give to the resident rodents! While most of the rats tend to hug the sidelines, peeking through holes, and balancing across ledges and beams, occasionally a few will venture out among the visitors and even scurry across your bare feet or across one’s thighs while knelt in prayer.
For those whose toes were trodden on, consider yourself lucky. Legend has it that this will prove to be an omen of good fortune. The temple can be admired from the outside, but for those looking to explore the inside it is highly recommended to wear socks, as it is customary for you to remove your shoes when entering Hindu temples.