Located in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, the walled city of Bikaner is a dense urban settlement with narrow, winding lanes and buildings featuring highly ornamental street facades. Bikaner was established in the fifteenth century along a flourishing trade. A wealthy merchant class that profited from the trade route was responsible for the opulently decorated courtyard houses, known as havelis, which characterize the historic center of the city.
Constructed in red sandstone with elaborately detailed façades, they show various influences ranging from Rajput and Mughal styles to British colonial detailing. The architecture and urban form of the walled city are both a response to the harsh arid climate of the region and a celebration of its building tradition, with delicately carved stone jaalis (perforated screens), stone chajjas (overhangs), and projecting jharokhas (balconies).
When the havelis were included on the 2012 World Monuments Watch, over 400 of them survived in Bikaner. Dating from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries, these formerly grand homes had been subdivided, leading to their decay and overcrowding. Remote and largely untouched by the economic boom which India enjoyed in the years before the Watch announcement, Bikaner had seen little investment and limited tourism.
The havelis were being demolished not as whole buildings but piece by piece, because the value of their architectural and artistic components is higher than that of the houses themselves. Modern constructions were replacing the havelis, which were afforded no heritage protection. Poor maintenance and a lack of waste disposal and drainage systems within the city compounded the challenges. All of these issues required urgent response in the form of a comprehensive strategy for urban policy and heritage protection.
The havelis were included on the Watch in order to raise awareness locally and internationally about their significance and promote efforts to improve quality of life through the conservation of this historic urban landscape. Watch Day Watch Day was held in October 2012 in Bikaner to help spread awareness about the city’s built heritage and the need for greater stewardship of its architecture. Activities included an exhibition of artwork depicting the havelis and a heritage walk through the historic neighborhood with local students and community members.