By all accounts, Narendra Singh, the last reigning Maharaja of Bikaner, was an interesting man. Born a year before India gained independence, he led a charmed life with frequent trips abroad as he grew from a westernised young prince to a military man. The townhouse in Bikaner, where he lived until his passing in 2003, is called Narendra Bhawan, and today, it is a luxury boutique hotel.
Make no mistake—this is not your usual haveli-turned-hotel so common to Rajasthan. Instead, the owners, the MRS Group, have tastefully built upon the original townhouse, seamlessly adding three floors with a stone jali facade. My husband and I arrive one late afternoon to welcome glasses of cold belasharbat (locally made jasmine cordial) and an enthusiastic reception by the resident golden retriever Nala (the hotel is clearly pet-friendly).
The wide patio is laid with Portuguese tiles, cabinets filled with objects d’art, and books strewn about with deliberate casualness. Step inside and your eyes immediately go to the electric red baby grand piano scribbled over with lyrics of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”. You can almost imagine the maharaja sitting here playing his favourite songs.
In the foyer of Narendra Bhawan, terrazzo floors and Portuguese mosaic tiles merge seamlessly with Bombay art deco motifs, none of which seem out of place in the grand Rajasthani haveli setting. The P&C restaurant’s dining room is done up elegantly, with pearls for drapes. Photo By: bulentgultek/Getty images
“Narendra Bhawan is a collection of memories. We imagined the kind of life Narendra Singhji must have led, and created this hotel to match his personality,” says Siddharth Yadav, Vice President, MRS Group, who is showing us around the property.
There are eclectic design touches everywhere—Bombay art deco motifs, Bikaner terrazzo floors, vintage carpets, plush benches upholstered in Prussian blue velvet with horse-limb legs—the level of period detailing is astonishing. The Pearls & Chiffon Restaurant (its name a homage to the sartorial style of the royals) is a mix of Indian royalty and Victorian decor with rich fabrics, gold pendant lamps, and floral wallpaper. The erstwhile haveli’s terrace has been transformed into Diwali Chowk, a central courtyard with clusters of flowering trees, perfect for sipping a cup of coffee or lounging with a book.
We have one of the Republic Suites on the third floor, a contemporary space in steely blues and concrete greys. It’s the “architect’s room,” channelling Le Corbusier in its straight lines and scaffolding-inspired decor elements, with sharpened pencils at the writing table (a particularly nice touch).
We spend our days exploring Bikaner with the hotel’s concierge, Ram Saran. The Merchant Exploration trail takes us to the city’s famed havelis. The intricately carved red sandstone structures built in the 1920s and 1930s are a testament to the wealth of the merchants who came to the city on the invitation of Maharaja Ganga Singh, Narendra Singh’s great-grandfather.
On the Royal Exploration trail the next day, we get a peek at Bikaji ki Tekri, a fort built by Rao Bika of Jodhpur when he arrived here in 1486. His marble cenotaph lies within. We continue on to the remarkably well-preserved 16th-century Junagarh Fort. Its red sandstone facade contrasts beautifully with its Italian marble courtyards, and the sheer opulence of the many palaces within takes our breath away. Later, we explore Bikaner’s chaotic markets that sell everything from colourful silk saris to piquant kersangri pickles (local capers and beans) to the famed Bikaneri bhujia.
Back at the hotel, the rooftop infinity pool gives us a bird’s-eye view of Bikaner’s yellow and pink houses, stacked cheek by jowl like Lego blocks. There’s also a gym on the fourth floor to help you work off those calorific Rajasthani meals, of which there are many memorable ones. Sample this: The halwai breakfast of kachori, puri, methi ki sabzi, lassi and jalebi is followed by a literary lunch comprising dishes inspired by food writings in books as diverse as The Bell Jar and Ulysses.
Each room mirrors the Maharaja’s sensibilities (left); Multi-cuisine delicacies are rustled up as adeptly as Marwari meals (right). Photo Courtesy: Narendra Bhawan
On the Royal Exploration trail, we are treated to lunch at the museum inside the Laxmi Nivas Palace (Bikaner’s royal palace, now a hotel). The setting is the lavish Gold Room, decorated with a whopping 45 kilograms of gold. The meal draws inspiration from a 1927 royal banquet, the menu of which is on display at the Sadul Museum in the Lallgarh Palace next door.
On our last evening, we drive to the Darbari Lake outside the city, which was once a favourite game hunting spot for the maharajas of Bikaner. A snow-white shamiana with lanterns and candles has been set up by the lakeside. A lone flautist serenades us as we feast on a shikarmeal of quail, rabbit and goat. A million stars dot the inky-blue sky as we raise a toast to the maharaja.
Narendra Bhawan is located in Karni Nagar, Gandhi Colony, Bikaner. Air India has a daily flight from Delhi to Bikaner. The hotel is 16 km/20 min from the airport. One can also fly to Jodhpur or Jaipur and drive to Bikaner (www.narendrabhawan.com; doubles from Rs12,000, plus taxes).
is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer who is obsessed with coffee and all things Italian. She tweets and instagrams as @delishdirection.
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