Built at ground level and defended only by high walls and a wide moat, Junagarh Fort isn’t as immediately imposing as the mighty hill forts elsewhere in Rajasthan, though its richly decorated interiors are as magnificent as any in the state. The fort was built between 1587 and 1593, and progressively enlarged and embellished by later rulers. The entrance price includes a compulsory guided tour, though it’s easy enough to break away from the tour and make your own way around.
Entering the fort, look out for handprints set in stone near the second gate, Daulat Pol, which bear witness to the satis of various royal women. From here a passageway climbs up to the small Vikram Vilas courtyard, beyond which you’ll find the main courtyard. Opening onto the main courtyard is the Karan Mahal, built in the seventeenth century to commemorate a victory over the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and adorned with gold-leaf painting and an old punkah (fan). Next to here in the Rai Niwas are Maharaja Gai Singh’s ivory slippers, one of Akbar’s swords, and a representation of the Pisces zodiac sign which looks remarkably like a dinosaur in a headscarf.
Past here is the Anup Mahal (Diwan-i-Khas), the grandest room in the palace, with stunning red and gold filigree decorative painting and a red satin throne framed by an arc of glass and mirrors. The carpet was made by inmates of Bikaner jail – a manufacturing tradition that has only recently ceased. After such a hectic display of opulence, the Badal Mahal (“cloud palace”), built in the mid-nineteenth century for Maharaja Sardar Singh (1851–72) is pleasantly understated. Upstairs, a room exhibits beds of nails, sword blades and spear heads used by sadhus to demonstrate their immunity to pain, while across the terrace in the finely painted Gaj Mandar is the maharaja’s chaste single bed and the maharani’s more accommodating double.
The next part of the palace, the twentieth-century Ganga Niwas, created by Maharaja Ganga Singh (1887–1943), can be reached either via a long and labyrinthine passageway from the Gaj Mandar or, more directly, from the Vikram Vilas courtyard. This section of the palace is centred on the cavernous Diwan-i-Am, dominated by a World War I de Havil and biplane, a present from the British to Bikaner’s state forces. Next door is the early-twentieth-century office of Ganga Singh, followed by several further rooms stuffed full of guns and swords.
Also in the fort complex, the Prachina Museum houses a pretty collection of objects (glassware, crockery, cutlery and walking sticks) demonstrating the growing influence of Europe on Rajasthani style in the early twentieth century. A whole circa-1900 salon has been recreated, and there’s also an interesting collection of Rajasthani textiles and clothing.