January 16, 2014
Having been told a day prior that Bikaner, a city about 330 kms away from Jaisalmer, was having a yearly Bikaner Camel Festival, Shu and I decided to drive there as soon as possible. Against Sunil’s pleas to leave at the later hour, we embarked on the trip at 6.30 am and witnessed another beautiful sunrise in Thar desert. Along the way we stopped at the restaurant/gift-shop road-stop so that I could in n-th time be ripped off. My advice – never stop at the road stop even if it is recommended by your driver. I ended up buying a box of cookies that turned out to be half eaten.
We reached Bikaner around noon and went straight to the hotel Sunil recommended – Hotel Harasar Haveli. It might not be the best hotel in the area but it is definitely the most authentic one with an incredible stuff and a very charismatic owner, Mr. Bubbles. I would consider an encounter with Mr. Bubbles to be a blessing of traveling in India, he was very knowledgeable, entertaining, kind, generous and very funny. Mr. Bubbles owns a horse ranch not far from Bikaner that is why most of the walls in the Haveli are decorated with the pictures of beautiful horses. He inherited a haveli from his father who, according to Mr. Bubbles, was very disappointed with his son’s weak school performance and desire to have a fun life. However, Mr. Bubbles had an entrepreneurial gene in him and after restoring an old haveli, he started to rent rooms to tourists until he had enough money to convert the entire haveli into a hotel. Presently, Haveli had two adjacent buildings and from what I learnt from Mr. Bubbles, he was about to open another hotel very soon.
We were shown a few rooms and after settling in one and Shu in another, and running a few bureaucratic formalities related to the criminal charges I filed in Jodhpur, we went to the rooftop restaurant to have breakfast/lunch. The restaurant and the hotel were full of people from all over the world who came to see the Camel Safari. Haveli is located outside the old city, next to the Dr. Karni Singh Stadium and this is where the main events of the day took place, so we just needed to cross the street to be in the center of action. Bilal, Haveli’s manager, was kind enough to provide us with the schedule of the Festival. We added +2-3 hours to the posted times, knowing that nothing starts in India on time, and followed the schedule.
A three day Bikaner Camel Festival usually takes place in January during the full moon but please don’t confuse it with the Pushkar Camel Fair which is a real trade fair of Rajasthan, while Bikaner Camel Festival is an opportunity to present the “ships of the desert” at their best. Besides an incredible camel race, it also hosts multiple competitions e.g. Camel Milking Competition, Camel Fur Cutting Competition, Camel Dance Competition etc. and attracts not only foreigners but a large number of locals from the Bikaner District.
Before mid 15th century, the region that we were now visiting was a barren wilderness called Jangladesh. In 1488 Rao Bika, second son of Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodhpur, established the city of Bikaner. According to James Tod, the place which Bika selected as his capital was the birthright of a Nehra Jat, who agreed to have a city built only under the condition that their name would be linked with it perpetually. By adding Naira, or Nera to his own name, Rao Bika named his new capital, and the region Bikaner. Though it was in the Thar desert, Bikaner was considered an oasis on the trade route between Central Asia and the Gujarat coast as it had plenty of spring water to sustain the entire city. Bika built a fort in 1478, which is now in ruins and a hundred years later, under the successful reign of the sixth Raja Rai Singhji (1571-1611) a new fort was built about 1.5 km from the city center, known as Junagarh Fort.
Under the Mughal Empire, Raj Singh accepted the suzerainty of the Mughals and became a high ranking army general at the court of the Emperor Akbar and his son Jahangir. Rai Singh’s successful military campaigns which includes gaining half of Mewar kingdom for the Empire, won him accolades and rewards from the Mughal kings. He was given the jagirs (lands) of Gujarat and Burhanpur and with large revenues earned from those jagirs, the state’s fortunes flourished and he built a monumental Junagarh fort. However, the decline of Mughals in the 18th century brought the decline of Bikaner as well.
During the 18th century, there was internecine war with another Rathore ruling house, Jodhpur and other thakurs over who had the right to keep the family heirlooms, which was put down by British troops. Bikaner signed a treaty with British Raj in 1818 and after that the area was markedly backward, but managed to benefit from British-Afghan war by hiring out camels to the Brits. Currently, Bikaner is a small vibrant town with very few tourists but some interesting sights to see and Camel Festival is one of them.
Equipped with cameras, scarfs and plenty of sunblock, we crossed the road to the Dr. Karni Singh Stadium. The Festival was in full swing with about 1,000 spectators and many more participants, both local and foreign. When we arrived, the women water pot breaking competition just started. The idea of the competition is to cover the women’s eyes, give them a stick and guide them to run about 50 m straight with their eyes closed to the pot trying to break it with one swing of a stick. After observing a few legs of the competition, I realized that either some of them cheated and could see exactly what they were doing, or each victory was a pure luck. As foreign guests we were able to sit down in the first row and enjoy the action at close distance. After a few preliminary legs, the finalists were named, including one foreign girl, for the final run. When the winner was announced and the Festival went into a short remission, Shu and I went to explore the grounds.
Around the main stage, there were multiple stands with beautifully decorated camels and very chatty camel-owners. Not only did camels have specially designed seats and bling-bling adornments, but also they were tattooed with some beautiful ornaments around their necks and bodies. Camel-owners happily allowed us to take pictures of their animals and in return, asked for the pictures with us.
By the time we checked out 10-12 camels, a huge crowd gathered around Shu and I and it was getting very uncomfortable and dangerous. By crowd, of course, I mean young men and all of them tried to take pictures, grope or brash their hands or bodies against me. We have told them to disperse and remembering my experience in Jodhpur a few days earlier, I was getting claustrophobic and scared surrounded by a herd of 40-50 men. We were saved by Rounak, a reporter and photographer from local network who told us that the Festival would commence in the evening, at 7 or 8 pm and we were free to leave and explore some other parts of the town, and so we did.
Sunil was waiting for us at the Stadium’s parking lot, so we asked him to drive us to the Junagarh and perhaps meet us someplace in the city later. We reached the Karan Prol Gate just before its closing time but managed to get the tickets (Rs.200 + Rs.100 for camera + Rs.100 entry to the Prachina Bikaner Cultural Centre & Museum). The admission includes a group tour in Hindi/English or an audio guide. I wish we have optioned to take an audio guide instead because the Hindi/English group didn’t have any English speakers and no other tourists but us, so everyone regarded us as a spectacle on its own and paid attention to us more than to the fort and its history. Also, we were incredibly rushed from one room to another, from one floor to another. I guess if we came earlier, we would have plenty of time to see everything in a leisurely manner, but we just had to go with the group.
Foundation of Junagarh was laid on 30th January 1589 by Raja Rai Singhji, the sixth ruler of Rathore dynasty of Bikaner. Its construction was completed in 1593 and it remained the strong hold of Rathore rulers until the state merged into the Union with India in 1949. Karan Singh, who ruled from 1631 to 1639, under the suzerainty of Mughals, built the Karan Mahal palace. Later rulers added more floors and decorations. Anup Singh (1669-1698) made substantial additions to the fort complex, with new palaces and the Zenana quarter, a royal dwelling for women and children. He refurbished the Karan Mahal with a Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) and built the Anup Mahal – Hall of Private Audience with walls lacquered in red and gold. Gaj Singh (1745-1787) refurbished the original Chandra Mahal (Moon Palace) and built Gaj Mandir – gold painted and decorated with colorful murals, sandalwood, ivory, mirrors, niches and stained glass suite for him and his two favorite wives. Following Gaj Singh, Surat Singh (1787-1828) lavishly decorated the audience hall with glass and lively paintwork and after the kingdom became a suzerain of British Raj in 1818, the Maharajas of Bikaner invested heavily in rebuilding and redecorating the old Junagarh fort. Dungar Singh (1872-1887) built the Badal Mahal (Weather palace) named after the painting of clouds and falling rain, a rare event in Bikaner, decorating the palace. General Muharaja Ganga Singh (1887-1943) was the best known of the Rajasthan princes and was a favorite of the British Viceroy of India. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India, served as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet, represented India at the Imperial Conferences during the WWI and the British Empire at the Versailles Peace Conference. His contribution to the building activity in Junagarh involved separate halls of public and private audiences in the Ganga Mahal and a Durbar Hall of 1896 with its pink stone walls covered in beautiful and intricate relief carvings which served as a hall for formal functions. Junagarh also hosts Maharaja Ganga Singh’s office and the Vikram Vilas Durbar Hall, a hangar with an incredible exhibit of carriages, howdahs and a WWI De Havilland DH-9 biplane bomber.
After visiting a small but interesting museum located in the back of the Junagarh and a photo exhibition, we were asked to leave the fort because it was already closing for the day. Shu and I figured that before going back to the Stadium for the evening festivities, we should take advantage of a few free hours and explore the old city. For Rs.300 we hired a tuk-tuk (which came with a very annoying “guide” who wouldn’t shut up about his Barcelona girlfriend who spends all her money on him) to take us to Bikaner old town and show us 300 years old havelis (Rampuria Haveli, Poonam Chand Kothari Haveli) as well as Jain and Hindu temples. However, by the time we reached the town, it was already too dark to see anything in details yet to ask for a tour. Instead, we spent an evening browsing the Bada Bazar with its fruit and spice stalls, silver and copper shops.
The tuk-tuk driver and his friend took us back to the Stadium and by the time we arrived, it was already the closing part of the today’s festivities – performances and a famous Fire Dance. There were many more people, including children and women, so it indeed felt as a festival. Shu and I were interviewed by the local TV station, our pictures were taken by at least half of dozen newspaper reporters and a thousand of onlookers. A young girl came by to introduce herself and invite me and Shu to have dinner at their house the next day but we politely declined. When the Fire dance started, everybody ran towards the stage and indeed, it looked very impressive. The shaman-looking people ignited the big bonfire and then spread the burning coal all over the platform before starting to dance on it and throw/eat/play with it. It looked very painful, but they seemed to enjoy themselves and I hope they did.
After the dance was over, we tried to get out as quickly as possible but to no avail; once again we were surrounded by mad crowd of crazy and horny men. By then, I ran out of patience and snapped at every one who groped or touched me. We literally took off and ran to the police stand at the front gate where we asked for the security guard assistance. Once everything calmed down, we hurried back to the hotel.
January 17, 2014
After breakfast, Sunil drove us to Ladera Sand Dunes near Ladera Village (45 kms) to see the most interesting part of Camel Festival – Camel race. We got lost on the way so by the time we got there, the festivities were going in full throttle. The moment we got off at the “parking lot”, I realized what a wonderful idea it was to take Shu with me. There were over 20,000 men in the Dunes, not kind and generous men but scary men. People you would prefer to stay away from. Of course, a tall Asian man with a blonde European women were their first point of interest. From the car to the actual place of competition and festival, we had to walk about 1 km and while we walked, we had about 100 followers stalking us and shouting obscenities from time to time.
We were lucky to reach the main location before the Villagers Wrestling Competition started; everybody started to run towards the sparing area and security pulled us inside the wrestling circle to avoid being hurt by the mob. As much as I hoped to believe that Indian men were good natured and friendly, this was all non-sense, they were perverted, freaky and dangerous, especially in masses.
Wrestling was an interesting competition, following the main rules of free-style wrestling and weight categories, but performed in the dunes with sand and dust getting into your ears, nose, eyes and mouth. I guess, if you survive and win the fight in the Ladera Sand Dunes, you might as well qualify for the Olympic Games. I was really impressed by the performance and competitive spirit of the participants except for a few who intentionally pulled out a comedy act to entertained the viewers.
At some point, almost entire crowd got up and started to run up the dune away from the wrestling field. Indian men follow the rule of an animal herd – one runs all run. Apparently, a previously featured but currently banned Bike Dunes race started in the nearby Dunes so all the spectators took off and ran to see what was going on. Obviously, it was immediately stopped by the police and army forces so 15 minutes later, they all returned to the wrestling circle.
After the wrestling was over, everybody went to the racing track to see the main competition of the Bikaner Camel Festival – the camel racing. It was by far the most interesting part of the entire Festival. Shu and I were standing in the first row near the finish line and had unobstructed views of the race. The best part was to feel adrenaline and hear everybody cheering for his favorite camel or camel rider and actually witness the race, but the worst part was to realize that there was no barrier, except for human, to separate the crowd from the camel thus on a few occasions racing beasts ran straight into the dense layer of people hitting and injuring many of them. Otherwise, it was definitely an exciting experience I wish to repeat.
After the camel race, we got introduced to the Mr. Bikaner 2014 and some other local celebrities, took a few pictures with them and for them and headed to the main stage to see the evening performance which promised to be interesting. Foreigners were given a special VIP sitting right in front of the stage and no locals were allowed to enter to our section. I could finally relax and enjoy a company of other follow-travelers. A commotion just outside of the VIP area attracted everybody’s attention however, it was hart to see what was happening. The concert hasn’t started yet but we saw a huge group of police/military people ran and brought to the stage a blood covered body of a man. As I later found out, the man was one of the unsuccessful bikers who got under the hot hand of the police and got severely beat up. Instead of taking him to the hospital, trying to avoid the mob rage, the police brought and placed him in the middle of the stage. I can’t tell whose stupid idea it was because the moment it happened, the mob started to run towards the stage in hope to “liberate” their comrade while sweeping everything and everybody on their way, including us, as we were sitting the closest to the stage. Luckily, the police figured their mistake and rushed to calm the crowd, and by “calming” I mean “beating the hell out of them”. Up until this point, I was nothing but alert, but after, I became completely paranoid because I knew that if something happens, help wouldn’t come from neither side.
Nevertheless, the concert started and it was a combination of poor, good and interesting performances. The 2 hour long show ended with the grand finale of Fire Dance, this time on a much larger scale than the day before. I happened to be right by the stage when they started to prepare for the dance and managed to record it at a close range. I also figured out their secret of dancing on the fire when one of the dancers threw a bunch of burning coals into me and my camera (I didn’t expect anything less). Apparently, the coals were cold! COLD! It was the moment when I should have run through the crowd shouting “Le Roi est nu” and their Fire Dance was all nothing but the big fat farce.
Video of the Fire Dance.
The moment the dance was over, Shu and I ran towards our car. It was already dark and with no lights in the desert, but random tracks and camel carriages, we were a direct target for the mob. Luckily, we got to the lot before anybody could harm us. After another 2 hours on the road we finally got back to the Haveli. Mr. Bubbles was in the best state of mood, treating everyone with free drinks, inviting all the guests to join the music performance and a complementary dinner at the restaurant. It was one of the best evenings I spent in Rajasthan. Thank you, Mr. Bubbles.