“Five hundred years is a short span in the history of mankind, short too for a city in a country which ranks habitations as those of Varanasi amongst the oldest in the world. At the same instance, five hundred years is a long time for the city which was once a thought and a pursuance, now established beyond all realm of doubt, with a past so powerful, it echoes in distant parts of the country. In its five hundred years Bikaner has played its individual role, kept its tryst with destiny.”
- Kunwar Kishore Singh
Once upon a time, over five centuries ago, a young prince from Jodhpur embarked on a northward journey into the parched desert lands in a quest to establish a kingdom of his own. Astride a white steed and flanked by a loyal army of kinsmen, the prince circuited his neighbouring territory before arriving at the doors of a warrior priestess- Karni mata, to seek her blessings. “Your destiny is higher than your father’s”, she told him. Blessed by her divine prophecy, the young prince found a vision blossoming in the imaginative confines of his mind. That not far from where he stood, there would be a thriving province, studded with illustrious forts and palaces, with fertile arable lands, a prosperous economy that his fortunate people would lay claim to as their home. And thus, the idea of what currently stands as a five hundred year old legacy called Bikaner was born, and its founder was none other than the young prince, Rao Bika himself. The unrelenting faith and fortitude of Rao Bika proved that it was but a matter of time before those arid lands of North Western Rajasthan were alchemised into an illustrious kingdom that would produce a fabled dynasty of rulers; and dominate the successive pages of history as a formidable state of Rajputana and later, of the Indian union.
Timeless tales of conquest have repeatedly confessed that the greatest of kingdoms are premised upon stories of royal intrigue, bravery, combat, sacrifice and often, thematic elements that are evasive of modern memory. To our lesser peril, our existing civilisation lies as a choice-less benefactor of limited historical records that we make the most of. However, we are always contended with the choice of making a departure via our historical imaginations. In similar reference, it is often said that while egoists are unable to draw conclusions, the wiser ones are unwilling to do so. As the editor of this piece, I find it prudent to primarily acknowledge the unending possibilities of the manners in which subjective history unfolds. Admittedly so, I am at best a novice in my exploratory tribute to Bikaner, and am aware that my intention to deliver a brief yet lasting glimpse of its majestic history is but a tiny speck in its larger than life glory.
Prior to any accordance of its praise, I can state with all certainty that the true worth of Bikaner invariably surpasses any amount of praise of recognition that I can expressively afford. Furthermore, I would like to state my indebtedness to the literary contributions of late H.H. Maharaja Karni Singhji of Bikaner, Kunwar Kishore Singhji, Professor L.S. Rathore, Ms. Rima Hooja; as well as the references of Baijilal Siddhi Kumari of Bikaner and Ms. Divya Kamboj. All of these have symbiotically formed a collective archival entity into which I immersed myself in order to emerge with this feature. As my concluding introductory remark, I would like to reiterate that it is impossible to pen down the glories that saturated five hundred years of history into a paltry ten pages. Hence, I make a sincere urge to all my readers to treat this piece as but a humble and uninvested tribute to the lofty edifices of Bikaner and the regal exemplars succeeding Rao Bika, who breathed life into their forefather’s dream.
THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING
It is known to many that despite their centrifugal placement in Marwar’s erstwhile kingdom of Jodhpur, the Rathores originated from the Garhwar dynasty of Kannauj, where they held the throne until its fall towards the end of the twelfth century. Thereafter, they moved to the Marwar region where Rao Jodha, one of their forthcoming rulers, established the city of Jodhpur. Rao Jodha’s empire grew exponentially in strength as a supreme proponent of its region. However, the inevitable fate of a populated lineage heralded succession battles amongst his fourteen sons and several brothers.
Legend has it that one day, as his second son Rao Bika contended with his delayed arrival to his court with a hasty seating besides his uncle Kandal, Rao Jodha uneasily questioned their concealed whispers as a deliberate act of scheming for their personal conquests of hereditary land. Undertaking his father’s accusation as a challenge, Rao Bika spontaneously decided to set out in order to seek his own destiny. Many credit the beginning of Bikaner’s story to be one that arose of out this petty misunderstanding between a well-intentioned father and his righteous son. Others interpret Rao Bika’s resolve to bear roots in his deeper insight, which dissuaded him from indulging in a war of succession that would weaken his ancestry’s stronghold over the territory. Either which ways, he merited the idea of annexing fresh lands, therein expanding Rathore influence over the region. Rao Bika thus crusaded into the Thar desert until one day, he situated his vision of a solitaire in the midst of that desert that would one day be known to all as Bikaner.
In Came the British
The period following Maharaja Gaj Singhji’s reign was rife with personal intrigues born out of thirst for the regal crown of Bikaner. His fifth son Surat Singh ascended to the throne and secured himself by a complete silencing of all opposition and the cumulative strengthening of bonds with the houses of Jodhpur and Jaipur as peaceful allies. Not long after, Maharaja Surat Singh used his good judgement to form strategic alliances with the British, who were hesitant at first but then perceived this as their chance of acquiring strategic advances into Rajputana. Through their mutual cooperation in matters of state security, finance and due compliance, the British maintained an alliance with the state of Bikaner that permeated well beyond the merely diplomatic surface.
The succeeding Maharaja Sardar Singh inherited the continuing scenario of poverty, political disorder and social disquiet in Bikaner. It was also during his reign that the 1857 War of Independence broke out. It was the first time since Indians had openly and powerfully revolted against the British and imperial authorities had plunged into serious doubt. Even during a time of such intense volatility, the Maharaja had helped subdue the mutiny in his area and came to aid the colonial forces with a spirit of true friendship and loyalty.
THE FINEST HOURS: Jai Jangalpath Badshah: Victory of the Lord of the Desert & Mahi Maratib: The Order of the Fish
When Rao Sur Singh’s fifteen year-old son, Raja Karan Singh was placed on the governing throne of Bikaner, it was difficult to imagine his legendary contestation of Aurangzeb’s forceful Islamisation of Rajputana. Having proved his loyalty to Emperor Shah Jahan through his wartime mettle in the Deccan, Raja Karan Singh faced existential challenges from his son Aurangzeb, who was engaged in a desperate bid to convert Rajput kings and princes to Islam against an ultimatum of annexing their thrones. To his dismay, Raja Karan Singh’s sons joined Aurangzeb’s incentive. However, he was unwilling to yield to Aurangzeb at any cost, and would soon go to the extent of destroying the vessels that were to carry several Rajput princes including himself to a military campaign directed by Aurangzeb. He courageously bore the brunt of imperial displeasure and was proclaimed by the surrounding princes as Jangalpat Badhshah or the Lord of the Desert. Raja Karan Singh and the other princes thereafter returned to their respective kingdoms and their forceful Islamisation was contained. Aurangzeb extracted his revenge by wielding an attack on Bikaner but stopped short of the border and summoned Raja Karan Singh to his royal court in Delhi, where Aurangzeb had plotted to murder Raja Karan Singh. Protected by his sons on either side, Raja Karan Singh thwarted Aurangzeb’s devious plans with diplomacy and poise. Aurangzeb had relegated Raja Karan Singh to an exile in the Deccan and handed over the sovereign command to his son, Maharaja Anup Singh, who was duly credited in his times for braving the onslaught of powerful warriors in the Deccan, such as Shivaji himself.
TRIVIA: It is this very motto that was accorded to the Bikaner coat of arms that Queen Victoria granted to the Maharaja of Bikaner in 1877, when she assumed the title of Empress of India.
The continued vigilance exercised by Bikaner’s succeeding Maharajas ensured the futility of all invasive efforts towards their beloved motherland. It was Bikaner’s Maharaja Gaj Singh who remarkably quelled unyielding rebellions in the Bikaner state with an iron hand. His superior sense of statesmanship earned Bikaner its second insignia- Mahi Maratib or the Order of the Fish.
A few generations later, when Maharaja Ratan Singh came to assume his stately responsibilities, Bikaner was rife with terror and unrest, both internally due to plundering dacoits and externally, with the Bhattis of Jaisalmer on the one hand over matters of trade; and the house of Jodhpur on the other due to diplomatic pressure by the British. Yet, the Maharaja was a man of true grit and moral foresight. An instance is reported when the British demanded that he hand over Jawahar Singh, a fugitive who had sought asylum from the Maharaja. Maharaja Ratan Singh abided by the Rajasthani principal of providing shelter to whosoever knocked on your door and hence, refused to hand Jawahar Singh in. In lieu of this default, he voluntarily offered his own son as a hostage to the British. A true reformist by nature, Maharaja Ratan Singh also ensured that Bikaner undertook an oath to ban female infanticide, which he had deemed to be a punishable offence by law. Such acts of moral chastity and political liberation were much ahead of his time, as was the Maharaja himself. Through incidents such as these, he proved the exalted values of the Bikaner court as well as that of Rajput system of governance, which was evidently not as feudal as it was generalised to be. His sense of justice tinted with moral sensitivity led him to become the third Maharaja of Bikaner who was merited with the insignia of Mahi Maratib by the then Mughal Emperor.
THE BIRTH OF MODERN BIKANER
After Maharaja Sardar Singh, Maharaja Dungar Singh faced some serious administrative challenges that involved a dipping revenue and an indebted treasury. More so, Bikaner suffered an utter lack of infrastructure, roads, schools or hospitals whatsoever. An untrained army further gnawed at the revenues of the state and the administration was skewed by the local thakurs clenching onto a precarious system of self-proclaimed authority.
Maharaja Dungar Singh set out to modernise his state’s administration by implementing a federal system of governance and an accountable revenue system. He also restructured and revitalised his army and reformed the judiciary as well. Maharaja Dungar Singhji was not willing to look back in his modernising drive and was willing to do whatever it took. He established several schools, hospitals, jails and post offices. Electricity was brought to his ancestral fort in 1886 and long pending disputes between the State and local landlords were resolved. Maharaja Dungar Singh also sanctioned the building of two new palaces, Lall Niwas and Ganga Niwas, as well as several temples in and around Bikaner.
MAHARAJA GANGA SINGHJI: The Builder of Modern Bikaner
Growing up, I used to hear my father refer to the great Maharaja Ganga Singhji of Bikaner in several anecdotes and stories from the past. The most iconic of them narrates the Maharaja making his customary visits to his estates disguised as a commoner, such that he could be acquainted to more discreet problems that are not brought to his regal notice. Astride on his horse one day, he came across a lone shepherdess, a young damsel, adorned in precious jewellery and striking clothing. Intrigued by the carefree girl’s solitary conduct and her oblivion towards matters of personal security he approached her to ask her, “what makes you wander here on your own, that too in such striking attire? Are you not afraid of being robbed or harmed by a dangerous onlooker?” Upon hearing this, the young girl turned towards the horseman, with enraged eyes that gave out a penetrating scowl. She replied, almost impertinently to the disguised Maharaja “Sir, are you unaware of Maharaja Ganga Singhji? Should he gain the slightest idea of an ill-meaning onlooker, he will find him and take his eyes out. I am no less than his child and this is my home. As long as he lives, I am safe!” Hearing her raw and candid worths of such deep and undying faith towards him, the Maharaja returned with tears of sentiment streaming down his face.
There is an exhaustive list of tales that echo Maharaja Ganga Singhji’s glory, who is considered to be amongst the greatest kings of all time.
His grand demeanour has emerged into a cult of its own stature and his illustrious career as not just the people’s Maharaja, but also as a revered soldier, sportsperson and as the builder of modern day Bikaner collectively ascribe him with the status of a legend in his own right.
The most commendable part of his story is that the Maharaja succeeded his older brother at the minor age of seven. After being intensively trained in spheres of education as well as military expedience, Maharaja Ganga Singhji served in the China Boxer Rebellion when he was only a twenty year-old boy and commanded the Bikaner Camel Corps in the first World War. He was awarded several laurels for his wartime gallantry.
Outside the battlefield, Maharaja Ganga Singhji was the harbinger of several landmark reforms in Bikaner, such as the development of the Gang canal, which transformed the arid topography of Bikaner into an arable landscape, with nesting ground for an exotic species of birds that warrants several ornithological visits from around the world. He also constructed the spectacular Lallgarh Palace and brought railways and electricity into his state, hence countering Bikaner’s geographical and technological isolation. He was the first Rajput prince to grant full charter powers to a higher court of Justice and also introduced constructive prison reforms that led to several jailed criminals mastering the art of weaving carpets, forming an entire cottage industry in their own right. Several historians and mathematicians point to a surge in the state’s economy during Maharaja Ganga Singhji’s reign, to the extent that the Bikaner treasury had begun to rival its colossal predecessor of Jodhpur.
Speaking of Jodhpur, it was during Maharaja Ganga Singhji’s reign that Bikaner buried the four hundred year-old embitterment towards their brethren and embraced the house of Maharaja Jaswant Singhji with open arms. Ever since he was a teenager, the Maharaja was adept in matters of colonial diplomacy and was admired by his native as well as British onlookers as a promising regent who was not only well-acquainted with his duties as a ruler but one who was willing to excel in every aspect of his governance through a heartfelt and unconditional participation.
His noble intentions were brought to test when, just eight months into his assumption of office, Bikaner was hit by the devastating famine of 1899, which destroyed three fourth of the state’s livestock due to a scarcity in water and fodder. The young Maharaja responded to this crisis with practicality and proactive redressal. He systemised the transportation of grain by outsourcing it to the military and set up a famine committee. In order to battle poor sanitation and the resultant spread of diseases, the Maharaja expanded his private estates and ensured the setting up of medical relief camps. He personally campaigned across the area with a modest body of staff and three tents. He also extended loans to the poor and needy farmers. Despite the unfortunate occurrence of this dreadful incident, Maharaja Ganga Singhji emerged triumphant as a credible king who was capable going to self-effacing extents in order to mitigate the challenges that tested his people.
Despite being an important contender in the ongoing negotiations between the British and the princes of Rajputana, Maharaja Ganga Singhji always gave precedence to his home affairs. That said, he was one of the select few princely representatives who was weighed with the onus of tackling matters of the princely council and projecting their shared interests on international platforms, such as the Round Table Conference.
The fifty six year-long era of Maharaja Ganga Singhji was as glorious as it could be. Several aspects of his expedient rulership have had to be regretfully bypassed for the sake of this article’s limitations. However, as his forthcoming descendants came to display, they were a chip of the old block and would further their predecessor’s footprints into the making of modern Bikaner’s destiny.
MAHARAJA SADUL SINGHJI: The Builder of Modern Bikaner
In his seven years of governance, Maharaja Sadul Singhji displayed an expedient sense of administration and governance for the collective good of his people. He requested stately permission to represent his army at the warfront and also donated large sums of money to assist wartime efforts. As a diplomat, Sadul Singhji was an important contender in India’s quest for independence, which he saw as an inevitable consequence that was to be reaped in harmonious cooperation with the British. Maharaja Sadul Singhji was very forthcoming in his perusal of several Rajput kingdoms’ accession to the Indian Union, an effort hailed by Sardar Patel himself. An eminent patriot of his times, Maharaja Sadul Singhji’s efforts to contain cross-border violence during partition is deserving of much praise and recognition in that, despite being a Hindu king, he ensured the safety of Bikaner’s muslin inhabitants and re-called the Muslim families who had already fled in order to return their property to them. It is not surprising to note that according to historical accounts, that the Bikaner-Pakistan border witnessed the least amount of bloodshed. Hence, in such a brief period, Maharaja Sadul Singhji had exhibited his instinctive and unconditional sense of patriotism and humanitarian justice, which are elementary yet rare values in modern day statesmanship.
MAHARAJA DR. KARNI SINGHJI: The Sportsperson, Parliamentarian and Creative
Fondly known by his grandfather as ‘Soldier Boy’, Maharaja Dr. Karni Singhji had grown under his direct guidance and upbringing. He was ushered by him to the frontier at seventeen years of age. Dr. Karni Singhji breathed a new fervour into his illustrious dynasty by becoming a maverick in his own right. A scholar, artist, author and one of the finest shooters of all times, Dr. Karni Singh has left his mark on Indian shooting in a way that not only inspires one and all, but which makes a legend in itself. Personal and candid accounts of his can be found in his sporting chronicles, From Rome to Moscow, which is an inspiring story not just because of his skyrocketing achievements as a marksman but more so because he took up the sport only at twenty eight and waited another eight years before he reaped his reports and gained significant acclaim in the sport. Kunwar Kishore Singhji makes an interesting observation with regards to Dr. Karni Singhji in that Dr. Singh has found fame and a personality not by birth, but by act, recognised, and with several records that still remain unbroken by others.” After having participated in five Olympics, Dr. Karni Singhji graciously made way for younger talent to display themselves.
Besides his spectacular career as a sportsperson, Dr. Karni Singhji has served his country as a parliamentarian through five consecutive terms. During this time, he brought about significant reforms to Bikaner such as the establishment of the medical college there, as well as the preservation of the Bikaner workshops, one of Northern Railways’ largest divisions to date. Dr. Karni Singhji faced resolutive challenges in the parliament as a result of serving as an independent candidate but these limitations did not deter his progressive zest. He is also responsible for the setting up of India’s largest tractor factory in Ganganagar. Despite experiencing political realism for nearly three decades, he still preserved his personal essence as a liberal and creative mind. He confesses his passion vis-a-vis the professions of medicine and flying, while also accounting for his compliance to his grandfather’s wishes of being an army man.
True to his forefathers, Dr. Karni Singhji was an avid philanthropist and preserver of ancient heritage. He is responsible for having set up around eight charitable trusts and preservation efforts in the form of local museums that exhibit some of Bikaner’s unique heirlooms.
The last Maharaja of Bikaner, Maharaja Narendra Singhji departed from this earth much before his time, however, the grand legacy of Bikaner continues through its brave clan of women, who have shouldered enormous responsibilities to rightfully built a renewed feminine legacy of their own.
THE INVINCIBLE WOMEN OF BIKANER
In his reference to sixteenth century Bikaner, Kunwar Kishore Singhji states, “theirs was a cloistered world, and yet, the zenana played an important role in the royal household, and was in its own fashion, equally strong, even though there is little instance of a women playing an influential role in the politics and administration of Bikaner.”
For the last few decades, Bikaner has been an empire of women in the absence of a male heir. The first and foremost reference inevitably goes to Rajmata Sushil Kumariji, the princess of Dungarpur who was married to late Maharaja Karni Singhji. Many fondly refer to her as ‘the Amazon of Bikaner’, for instilling a new life into the then receding pulse of Bikaner as its evergreen matriarch. A grand old lady, Rajmatasahiba has tirelessly led her state into rapidly changing times as its custodian and a modern exemplar of boundless grace. Despite having her privy purses seized, Rajmatasahiba continued to indulge in charitable efforts and used her trusts to fund war widows and uplift the downtrodden.
Her daughter, Baijilal Rajyashree Kumariji has followed her father’s footsteps in leaving her mark in the sporting, authorial and philanthropic spheres, and her exclusive feature in the forthcoming pages reveals her multifaceted talents in finer detail.
In present times, the torch of Bikaner is held in the determined grip of Baijijlal Siddhi Kumari, who is the second daughter of the late Maharaja Narendra Singhji. A credible and revered member of Rajasthan’s legislative assembly and of the Raje government, Siddhi baisa serves as an ideal embodiment of the multifold virtues that were historically churned in the house of Bikaner. Her grounded nature as a representative of her people and the overwhelming love that she harbours in the hearts of her people is almost an uncanny resemblance of her great grandfather. Simultaneously, Siddhi baisa’s tender and selfless sense of service to her people are intrinsic qualities that she also derives from her mother’s side, who is fondly cherished for her placid and loving disposition.
In a candid conversation, Rajputana Collective captures Siddhi baisa’s insights into her role as the present day fore-bearer of a five hundred year old legacy.
“We, as the women of Bikaner have served our state as strong leaders in our respective fields and have worked very hard under the various circumstances of a male-dominated society. My grandmother has been an idol for one and all for being both, the king as well as the queen of our hearts and embodies my value system.
As a legatee, it has been a humbling experience to say the least… we are karmayogis first and foremost, so in a way it has been indoctrinated in me to keep doing good work for my people who are in need. I thank my ancestors for a beautiful legacy which has given me great goals in this life, and a will to keep it strong and alive. What makes the journey more meaningful is that in many ways, me and my family members serve as a living heritage for our people.
In fact, it is our foremost duty to preserve our ancestral legacy through physical, moral and intellectual efforts. Since its restoration, the Junagarh fort attracts lakhs of domestic and international visitors throughout the year, wile the architectural wonders of Laxminiwas, Lalgarh and Gajner continue to be well-preserved and showcased. I am grateful to the state government for its sincere promotion of heritage. As patrons of the arts, we are extending our cultural heritage through initiatives such as the New Prachina Museum, wherein new and younger artists are given a free creative space to blossom and sell their arts with profitable measures.
All this and more exhibits the ever onward relevance of the grand old legacy of Bikaner, be it through its governance, its service, its preservation of heritage, a patronisation of arts or its charitable ethos. It is not without good reason that Bikaner is known as the jewel of the Thar. I resolve to serve it with my best efforts.”
- Baijilal Siddhi Kumari of Bikaner
The five hundred year-old dynasty of Bikaner flowed through the sands of time in a glorious odyssey, battling the odds, celebrating their victories and emerging triumphant every time for they knew that the utmost of virtues lay in presiding over the hearts of their people. In not governing a land as if they owned it, but in a sense that they were children of that soil, and by default, would not spare any opportunity to nourish that soil with their blood, sweat and tears. The desert solitaire that was birthed in the lush imagination of Bikaner’s founding forefather was successively nurtured, honed and championed for through ages that progressed with not the slightest inhibitions of slowing down. And right from the very beginning, in diverse forms and combinations of warriors, builders, visionaries, reformists, intellectuals, patriots, diplomats, sportspersons, politicians and creative romanticists, the children of Rao Bika duly orchestrated their inherent resolve that the virtuous always found the way, and that in the end, it was the brave that reaped the earth, and toiled through the thickest of sands to unearth the desert solitaire that we all know today as Bikaner.