Way back in 1990s, I had first heard about magnificence of havelis or traditional Indian mansions at Bikaner and ever since had a subtle desire to visit the place to watch the architectural beauties in person. The newspaper feature articles that used to appear in the intervening period since I first visited Bikaner in 2000 AD could not satisfy my vision of depicting the splendor that could be individually felt by witnessing as personal inspection. Twelve years ago on my first visit to Bikaner the visit to havelis was facilitated by Tourism Writers Guild whose active members viz. Shri Updhyanchandra Kochar, Zia-ul-Hasan Kadri and several others had organized a Heritage Walk in the old sectors of the city covering major havelis. At that time, it was cloudy and digital cameras had not come in vogue, which could have given considerable advantage to accurately record the beauty of the mansions of yore. Everyone was using 35 mm negative colour or B&W film of 100 to 400 ASA. Tarun Chhabra, 30 at that time, civil engineer by profession and an ace photographer had accompanied me on this tour. I managed a few clicks but later was not satisfied with the results. However, 12 years later that is now, the situation came to be realized in an entirely different and more advantageous manner as the weather was cool-warm with a bright sunshine. Secondly I was equipped with a Nikon D800 and Kodak Easyshare Z990. During the five day’s stay in the City with friend Dhaneshwar Kujur and Pallave, her young, energetic and intelligent wife, I could thrice sneak into the old lanes and narrow alleys on whose arms the splendor of havelis was created by reputed architects or Suthars (सुथार), stone carvers (शिल्पी) and painters (उस्ता और चूनगर) whose names were collected with great research effort by Kadri ji.
Rampurion ki Haveli (रामपुरिओं की हवेलियाँ) is the most well-known architectural wonder of a haveli at Bikaner. The Department of Archaeology of the Govt. of Rajasthan has declared these group of havelis as protected monuments. In fact it a cluster of several mansions in three lanes in which the buildings rise to three stories. The front of all these havelis was laid in red sand stone which was quarried in abundance at Dulmera in the erstwhile princely state of Bikaner. The city is situated amidst sand dunes, interspersed by several lakes full of sweet water that collect runoff rainwater such as at Gajner and Koyat (22 and 34 kilometers away on the road to Jaisalmer, respectively), abundance of thorny vegetation of the arid zones as well as shady trees such as Azadirachta Indica (नीम). Sometimes, it can rain in torrents in the Bikaner region but the weather may run dry for several years at a stretch causing scarcity of water. However, ground water aquifers are exploited to meet the growing needs of the people for water to keep them comfortable, which is sweet at some places and brackish at many. In the regions that sustain brackish groundwater, the people have devised innovative ways in the form of Kunds and masonry tanks to collect rainwater. Nowadays, many industrial units have been set up in the district, which may enhance the need for water. I don’t think that the State Industrial department will be able to meet the demand as well as manage disposal of waste and toxic water released by these newly set up units.
Shri Kadri’s listing of havelis or old mansion at Bikaner and its agglomerations makes an impressive great number -1003, which is amazing in itself and indicates the great effort and time devoted by both the builders and the designer architects in addition to the crafts persons that could be involved with the creation of the architectural splendor, which has become not only a window for the world to depict the ingenuity and standards of workmanship of Indians artisans but also as rich source material for study and research to the students of the Schools of Architecture and Design. A close inspection of the fine carving on stone and wood, the methods of cladding and fixing of stones, juxtaposing of the carved pieces and brackets without a visual indication of the glue, creation of frescoes on wall, niches and roof and the layout can leave one stunned for a while. Every haveli had one or several internal courtyards, curved, narrow and vestibule type entrance whereas the Nauhras or business houses attached with godowns had a wide, arched gate with heavy door sets made of wood. The layout of the havelis and positioning of windows and doors afforded complete privacy to the occupants who could perform mundane activities without noticing from outside. Not much wood was used in the havelis but wherever it was, great wisdom and appropriate methodology was used such as in window panes , which deliberately kept small-sized, lattice or Jalee at certain places for the outer windows and, of course, door sets, lintels and the jambs.
It came to be observed that from the year 1860s to 1930s, the wealthy Seths or traders, which, as builders, had commissioned construction of the havelis, were visionaries in a sense that they loved creation of art forms and splendor in stone that was capable of enriching the ambient space of Mohallas in a magnanimous manner. Additional creation of frescoes depicting contemporary events, episodes from Hindu pantheon and mythology, native life and other decorative motifs within the interiors provided cultural ambiance to life of the people. The architects of the havelis were fully aware about the fine rules of utilization of space in a creative and aesthetic manner as could be witnessed by inspecting all the major and minor havelis from within.
It is regrettable that many havelis have become victims of intensifying air pollution laden with toxic fumes. The principle of cause of the air pollution and quality of air that consistently deteriorates as the sun rises on the eastern horizon are numerous numbers of auto-rickshaws that ply within the narrow lanes throughout the day. These vehicles run on diesel fuel and ooze out black smoke from the exhausts also causing respiratory distress to residents and visitors. I am not aware if a policy of controlling pollution of the air in th city exists or the district administration is alive to the problem to regulate the type of vehicles or the type of fuel that can be used within the city. It is high time the district administration thinks of introducing innovative ways of ferrying passengers by mini-vehicles that may run on battery power. In the area of Taj trapezium at Agra, these types of battery-run vehicles have given some respite from air pollution. The noxious gases that come out from the exhausts of diesel-run vehicles mix with small amount moisture already present in the atmosphere and transforms into sulphuric and nitric acids, and then comes into contact with red sand stones having fine carvings. It reacts with the stone and causes slow decay of the surface of the stone. Within a few years the cladding of red sand stone on a building becomes disfigured and weak. Therefore, with great urgency the suspended particulate level in the air as well as the content of noxious gases need to be controlled by the city administration in collaboration with Rajasthan Pollution Control Board and Department of Tourism that is essential to preserve the architectural heritage of Bikaner.