The exciting thing about couchsurfing is that you never know what kind of experience you’ll have. It could be relaxing on an organic farm, teaching an English class, or debating philosophy with university students.
In Bikaner, it’s sitting in an illegal gambling den while ten Indian men drink cheap whisky, smoke, play cards and shout incomprehensibly for several hours.
My couchsurfing host, Pintu, maintains a small bedsit away from his family home, for the purpose of hosting his male friends for drinks and cards every evening. India doesn’t have a pub culture, so this sort of socialising is fairly typical. Since it’s Diwali time, it’s especially well attended, as several old friends who have moved away from Bikaner are home for the holiday.
The advantage of staying in an illegal gambling den is that, after the party’s over and everyone’s gone home, you’ve got the place to yourself and the facilities are quite good. For example, it’s the first Western toilet I’ve had access to at a host’s house. And I can’t complain about being treated badly: every now and then someone will ask me if I want some whisky (no), a cigarette (no) or if I’m bored (yes). At this point, one of Pintu’s friends who speaks a little English, Ghanshyam, took pity on me, and took me on a trip out to visit the Sadul Club, where a very gracious and talkative geography professor bought me a drink, chatted to me about India, and invited me back to play tennis the next day.
Back at Pintu’s den, the game was winding up, and the guys’ wives were phoning to tell them to come home. Soon the place was empty, and I got a very comfortable night’s sleep.
The next day, I set out to see the three main sights of interest in and around Bikaner: Junagarh Fort, the Karni Mata Temple (or “Rat Temple”) at Deshnok, and the mazelike streets and havelis of the old city.
This sixteenth century fortified palace of the Maharajas of Bikaner is not as imposing from the outside as other Rajasthani forts, but inside it’s still unbelievably sumptuous, with rooms decorated floor to ceiling in gold leaf, frescos and jewels. The armoury was not quite as impressive as that of the City Palace, Jaipur, although it did contain one item which Jaipur lacked: a de Havilland DH.9 biplane, given to the Maharaja as a gift from the British government in 1920, to thank him for his state’s military contribution in the First World War.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention: I made friends with two other tourists at Junagarh, Sara and Marie-Louise. Travelling is obviously all about meeting the people of your host country and getting to know their culture. But it’s also nice, especially as a solo traveller, to meet people from closer to home, too. Somewhere where they speak fluent English. Denmark, for example.
Like Felipe and Toni in Amritsar, Danish travellers Sara and Marie-Louise were a pleasure to spend time with, an oasis of sanity in a desert of madness. They’d just arrived in Bikaner after a 14 hour drive from Delhi with their driver and tour guide, and I think they felt much the same about me. However, we split up again as they weren’t too keen on visiting my next destination.
KARNI MATA “RAT” TEMPLE, DESHNOK
Deshnok is about 30km out of Bikaner. Pintu advised me to take the bus, and told me where to catch it. When I got on, all the seats were full but the aisle was empty, so I was prepared to stand, until someone directed me to climb through a hole in the cab partition, and sit in a tiny space behind the driver’s chair. Other people were sitting in similar spaces so it seemed like a normal thing, not a prank for foreigners. By the time the bus left the outskirts of Bikaner, I was grateful for my cramped little seat: a lot more people had got on, and the aisle was crammed. I don’t know if bus drivers in India ever decide they’re full and stop taking on passengers. If they do, this driver showed no sign of reaching that point. It didn’t really matter to me though, safe from any crush hazard in my little vestibule.
The Karni Mata Temple is famous to Rajasthan tourists as the “Rat Temple”. The story behind it is that Karni Mata, a deified fourteenth century female sage, made a deal with Yama, the god of death, that members of her caste would henceforth be reincarnated as rats. Rats are therefore venerated as holy. Which doesn’t really make sense, as in Hindu theology, all living things have souls which have been reincarnated. I’m guessing the real story is that some particularly slobbish priests let their temple get utterly filthy, even by Indian standards, and suffered an infestation of rats. Rather than get rid of them, they saw a way to spin it for spiritual and material profit, and declared the rats holy, and the temple an important pilgrimage site.
It’s said to be lucky to spot the rare white rat among the thousands of black ones, and also to have a rat run over your foot. Obviously I don’t believe in the superstitious bit, but it seemed like a fun challenge to see if I could achieve either. To stop the experience from being completely disgusting, the temple’s shoe deposit stand provides spiritually bankrupt but hygiene-conscious tourists with special slippers to wear. Suitably protected, I entered the temple, and almost immediately spotted the white rat: a piece of piss! Which, incidentally, is what the temple smelled like.
One challenge under the belt, the next quest was to get a rat to run over my foot. The guidebook recommends tempting them with food. Unfortunately it’s difficult to find any rats that aren’t already gorging themselves, as the entire place is covered with offerings from previous pilgrims. These are the most spoiled rats in the entire world. Eventually I found a disregarded corner with a few rats and no food, set up my cunning foot-based obstacle course and baited it with dried chickpeas.
It worked so well, I didn’t catch the first rat crossing on camera, and only managed to switch attention from chickpeas to photography to capture it heading back again.
I joined the queue to go into the main shrine and give the rest of my chickpeas to the rats there, but I was told by the priests that I couldn’t enter because it was for “Indians only”, presumably because the presence of a non-Hindu would be polluting. Which is a bit rich, considering that, firstly, they didn’t ask if I was Hindu, they just assumed it on the basis of skin colour, and secondly, it’s a bloody rat temple. I’m polluting? You’re the one who’s made an idol out of squalor and filth, buddy.
I imagined Karni Mata would be heaving with rats, swarming with them so thickly that you have to push your feet through them to get anywhere. It’s not quite like that. There may be 20,000, but I only saw a few hundred, in groups of about a dozen, keeping mostly out of the way in the corners, alcoves and shrines of the complex. It’s still pretty disgusting, but it’s an experience worth doing, and thankfully unique.
THE OLD CITY
In Europe, the phrase “the old city” means a quaint, pristine and usually pedestrianised quarter of cobbled streets, beautiful old buildings and posh boutiques and cafes. Of course, it wouldn’t have been pristine in the Middle Ages when it was built, and still a bustling residential and commercial district. Now the economic situation has changed, people want to live in better buildings out of town, and the area is more profitable smartened up and used to sell expensive chocolates and designer handbags. Economically, India is still stuck in the Middle Ages, so its old cities, though they contain historic and potentially beautiful architecture, are also as densely populated and squalid as ours would have been 500 years ago.
Bikaner’s old city is famous for its idiosyncratic havelis, built mostly in the early 20th century in a style mingling Rajasthani, British and Art Nouveau. The Rough Guide to India describes a walking route which takes you around most of the best ones. It also says the old city is “confusing to navigate, so accept getting lost as part of the experience.” Which sounds a lot like a pre-emptive excuse: “Our directions weren’t clear enough? That was the intention!” I followed the instructions precisely and managed to finish the entire route without getting lost once, which given the RG’s caveat, felt a bit like I’d missed out on something special.
A lot of the havelis are very interesting in their architecture and decoration. A selection of photos follows. However, Bikaner follows the Indian pattern of failing to be beautiful because it’s just so dirty and dishevelled. It’s a real shame, especially where the neglect and attrition is well on its way to destroying what would be recognised in years to come as valuable heritage. One day, perhaps, India will have been gentrified to the same level as Europe today. Or, which is more likely to happen before then, benevolent AIs will administer the world on our behalf, and all human consciousness will have been uploaded into virtual realities. Either way, I hope these havelis survive until then, when they can be restored and form the gorgeous old city which Bikaner is potentially capable of possessing.
THREE SURPRISING THINGS SEEN IN BIKANER
A bicycle painted all over in leopard pattern.
A bull with its penis tied in a knot.
An answer to the question, what’s worse than a pile of poo on your doorstep? A pile of poo hand-shaped into a swastika.