Narendra Bhawan, a house that the last Maharaja of Bikaner preferred to the palace, is as singular as the man who once called it home, discovers Meraj Shah.
The solitary hunting trophy—a stuffed leopard—at the Narendra Bhawan stands in a dark corner of the snooker room. Obscured from prominent display, the big cat strikes a discordant note…the late Maharaja Narendra Singh glances down disapprovingly from a lifelike portrait on the wall.The leopard won’t do. Not here. Not in his house.It’s a reasonable conjecture that the last king of Bikaner was no fan of taxidermy. He was an ace marksman—part of the job profile for a regent of a princely state in Rajasthan—but much preferred to track inanimate clay birds in trap and skeet with the muzzle. And in this sanctuary, which he chose to retreat into after taking leave of regal and family commitments, animals ruled the roost—hundreds of cows, dogs, and a host of other animals.
An army of handlers and keepers were employed full-time to look after the quadruped denizens of the house, and the King himself only partook of his repast after all the animals (he apparently knew each one by name) had been fed. This veritable menagerie precipitated the need for simple, almost austere, living quarters. Relatively speaking that is: A vast estate in the middle of the city could never qualify as a spartan living, but as the abode of an erstwhile monarch, in Rajasthan—where royal patronage and the lineage of the erstwhile ruling family still have social sanction—Narendra Bhawan was a minimalist, almost ascetic manifestation of a king’s sensibilities.
The most obvious trait of the late maharaja that persists in Narendra Bhawan—Bikaner’s newest heritage hotel—is a lack of ostentatiousness. It may not seem like much, but when compared to the hotels’ counterparts in Rajasthan, it is the one thing that genuinely sets it apart.
To be fair, it’s not as if Narendra Bhawan doesn’t pander to the tropes of royalty and grandeur so pervasive in hotels of its ilk:You’ve got the ramparts, the colonial furniture, long colonnades on the roof, and immaculately turned out staff in traditional attire that could get a walk-on part in a period film. But, there’s no ostentatiousness.“Narendra Singh ji was a very interesting man,” says Faisal Nafees, General Manager, after some contemplation. “And with this hotel we’ve tried to create a monument that represents his personality, life, and tastes. And not just from the relaxed stage of his life when he settled here, but from his youth when he travelled extensively around the world.”
The late Narendra Singh had a special love for theatre—Moulin Rouge and Broadway shows in particular were staples on his itineraries. That’s no spiel: walk into the lobby, and at the very end sits the late Maharaja’s striking red upright piano—Édith, a tribute to the French chanteuse. I resist the urge to play a rendition of La vie en Rose, but imagine the monarch, sitting here in the evening, singing of love and angst.
The interweaving traditional Rajasthani and Victorian-era motifs, symbols, upholstery, and architecture come together at Narendra Bhawan as seamlessly as these elements did in the lives of royals from princely states in colonial times. The 80-odd rooms, generously spaced out over six floors, differ not just in space, but also thematically—again being based on a different period in the late Maharaja’s life. There’s velvet upholstery, English floral prints, lots of big ornate mirrors, spring beds, and a thoughtful curation of objets d’art. What all of them—the Residence rooms, the Prince rooms, the Regimental rooms, India Rooms, and the Republic suites—share is unhindered space and guilt-free luxury. It’s easy to get ensconced in your well-appointed quarters and decline your hosts’ invitations to explore the city. That would be a mistake.
Bikaner, with its genuine untrammelled vibe, is a great city to soak in Rajasthan’s pre-tourist-juggernaut character. The historical merchant houses in the old city, reminiscent of Fleet Street, are living, even if endangered, relics of a time when prosperous merchants plying their trade on the Silk Route built gorgeous mansions in the city. On the other end of the spectrum, the hotel will happily put together an evening experience out in the boondocks. There, in the flicker of oil-lit lamps, the dulcet notes of a manganiyar singer, and generously potent cocktails, you can lounge about at sunset, and watch the desert sky transform into a sea of stars.
Back at the hotel, the Mad Hatter bakery (modelled on Alice’s adventures, a favourite literary wonderland of the late Maharaja) dishes out authentic puddings, pies, and toffees. If you do decide to stay in, grab your swimsuit in the evening and take the elevator all the way up to the breezy terrace. Settle into a corner of the infinity pool, and ask the khidmatdar for the cocktail of the day and to turn up the jazz. With the flat skyline of Bikaner stretching in front of you, contemplate on existential questions. Or, just enjoy your drink.
The Narendra Bhawan makes its case in two very compelling ways: One, the quality of isolation that Bikaner affords from the marauding hordes, and second, pets—you can get yours along. Animals will never be let down at the Narendra Bhawan. The Maharaja would have been very pleased.