In comparison to other tourist friendly cities in Rajasthan- Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur- Bikaner remains relatively under-explored. Nonetheless, the lack of tourist-traps in this city bursting with colours, history, architecture and a rich culinary heritage comes like a breath of fresh air. The town is small, busy and crowded in the center, but quiet and gorgeous as you move away. For tourists, there’s Junagarh Fort and the Rampuria Haveli, and if you’re particularly interested in history & architecture, the dusty & dilapidated buildings around the colourful old town will most definitely fascinate you.
Rajasthan is known for it’s royal, timeless beauty, and anyone who plans a visit here expects to spend time within towering forts and expansive spaces that once belonged to royalty. One such space is Narendra Bhawan, a luxurious property in Bikaner that has some interesting stories to tell. I’ll leave the story-telling up to the hosts at the property, but I most definitely will share a sneak-peak into life at this heritage hotel in Bikaner. Narendra Singhji was the last Maharaja of Bikaner, who passed away in 2003 without a male heir. The MRS Hotels acquired rights to renovate the late king’s home, and that is how this larger than life design hotel came into being. Narendra Bhawan is an independent luxury hotel in Bikaner, and some say the main reason why the tourist influx in this city has increased in the last couple of years. The choice to believe this is completely up to you, but you can’t deny one fact- the residence of the former king is definitely more grand than what it used to be in the 90s.
Narendra Bhawan is located in a residential street, less than 5km away from the railway station. It is also well-connected to the airport that lies 15km away (you don’t have to worry about this since they offer airport pick up and drop services) If you find yourself feeling surprised as you’re offered a strong G&T as a welcome drink, or as the car turns into a driveway in the middle of a residential colony, allow me to tell you that this is just the beginning ; there’s a lot more that will leave you stunned, to say the least.
It’s quite possible that the Mughal style architecture of Narendra Bhawan will throw you off track. One step inside the palace and you’ll see that it’s full of cosy, intimate spaces filled with travel artifacts, books, music instruments and modern art deco carefully curated to create a contemporary design. As you take in this surprising change in architecture and design, there’s more G&T to be sipped on.
You enter the property through an al fresco lounge – The Gaushala, named after the space where the cows and dogs lived when Narendra Singhji lived here. MRS Hotels has respected his love for animals, and kept the property pet-friendly (I have a strong suspicion that Liz and Nala are the favourite members of the Narendra Bhawan family for every guest who visits) The property is designed keeping in mind the king’s flamboyant aesthetic – reds and pinks dominate the colour palette, while modern furniture in soft, pastel shades help make the space cosy. The property comes complete with sun-lit corridors, jharokhas, cosy alcoves, a central courtyard, intimate cigar dens (with Playboy issues from the 70s!) a dining space by the pool deck, a formal dining room adorned in chiffon and pearls, and finely decorated, comfortable, luxurious rooms.
The rooms are a bit of both traditional and modern architectural styles- there’s Portuguese tiles and swanky, state-of-the-art bathroom fittings, walk-in wardrobes, as well as antique stools and headboards on soft king beds. There are shades of magenta and royal blue, soft pink coral and neon yellow. There’s a heavy influence of Bombay Art Deco movement, which explains the tribal artwork, paintings and installations around the property.
The Clinic Spa at Narendra Bhawan is an indulgence you must save for a special celebration – of you. From emotional healing massages and physical rejuvenation therapies to Ayurveda and deep tissue massages, there’s a wide range that this spa menu offers. The price might be a little towards the steeper side, but is completely worth it all. As you check in to the spacious spa room (that comes equipped with a private bathroom and toilet) the vibrations of so-ham, a deep and calming chant, fill the space. Submit yourself to the therapist for a 60minute physical and emotional transformation. The smell of the essential oils, the heat of the BEMER bed and the calming chant will teleport you to a fantasy where troubles are minimal, and self-care is of supreme importance.
Those who’re strong enough to go through a painful massage (or those who know the struggles of getting a sports massage) should try the emotional rejuvenation therapy. There’s a lot of pressure involved, so be prepared for pain. But also be prepared for an emotional journey through your fears, hopes and dreams. It’ll anger you, calm you, or make you weep tears of pain and hurt; you don’t know what’s deep within, and this massage gives you a good chance for you to explore this. Only if you’re prepared for some pain, both physical and emotional.
Narendra Bhawan has 3 in-house restaurants – The Mad Hatter’s Bake House, the display counter of which will induce severe drool, Pearls & Chiffons, an elegant, family-friendly, royally adorned space serving Marwari cuisine, and the Gaushala, the al fresco lounge that welcomes you to this boutique hotel. The cocktail menu boasts of impressive, exotic concoctions, while the food menu spoils you for choice with its Indian and continental offerings. Millet rotis, lasooni saag, lal maas were some of the popular favourites at our meal table, while the Mac & Cheese, Chicken Piccata and Matcha Cheesecake from the continental menu had our hearts. Breakfast buffets at Narendra Bhawan are all about fresh fruit, lassi, pastries, eggs, toast, and Rajasthani staples like kachoris and bhajiyas. Each meal here will come as a pleasant surprise (a lot like Bikaner itself, a hidden gem in the Thar desert in Rajasthan)
By the way, by the first night you should have got used to being served tequila shots with cinnamon and salt in between each course.
The hotel offers various exclusive experiences that include a literary lunch with a menu inspired by the great works of literature, and sundowners by the Darbari lake, in the middle of the desert, complete with Rajasthani folk music and gallons of cocktails and tequila shots. A cosy, intimate dinner full of conversations and laughter can be enjoyed at the rooftop pool deck, under a starry night sky with the city lights sparkling in the distance.
We had the opportunity to dine in the sprawling gardens of the Laxmi Niwas Palace. Candlelight, wine, tequila shots, a 7 course meal that celebrated childhood nostalgia, and conversations around happiness and life lessons brought the 4 day stay at Narendra Bhawan to an end, a royal closing ceremony that this experience truly deserved. While we were at the palace, we were taken on a small tour that introduced us to the history, architecture and folklore that lies hidden in the walls and corridors of this 20th century dream. We entered rooms decked in gold, rooms with their walls covered with game-prizes, majestic dining halls, among others. A stopover at this regal venue is definitely a highlight of the experiences that Narendra Bhawan has to offer.
(You can also opt to stay at Laxmi Niwas Palace, but the rooms are usually booked way in advance. You can check for details on their website)
Narendra Bhawan also introduced us to the oldest apothecary in India:
We stopped by for a consultation, a tour of the factory, and I finally saw how chawanpyrash is made!
If you’re planning a trip to Rajasthan in the near future (once after the COVID 19 madness dies down) I’d strongly recommend a halt at Bikaner. There’s plenty of space to enjoy a leisurely stroll along forts & lawns, and even the crowded market streets where no hawker is trying to shove a handicraft into your face. Add to this an indulgent getaway in Narendra Bhawan, and you’ve got yourself a value for money vacation that you’ll remember for more reasons than one.
Getting there – Air India (Alliance Air) operates one direct flight a day from Jaipur and Delhi. You can also drive down, or opt for a train journey!