It was but natural that Jaisalmer made it into the travel itinerary drafted for the land of forts, palaces and camels. Like most true-blooded Bongs, we too were drawn to that unofficial guide to the city the Satyajit Ray detective fiction classic Shonar Kella.
The 1974 comedy-thriller which takes audiences from Kolkata to Jaisalmer was shot within the citys biggest tourist draw the golden-hued sandstone qila (fort). And it ended up capturing popular Bengali imagination in such a huge way that today, 80 per cent of Jaisalmers tourist traffic comprises Bongs and even a few city hotels sport Bengali signage! And every single tourist information brochure or literature available on Jaisalmer uses the name Sonar Qila, immortalised by Ray, to describe the fort.
But the Rajasthani desert city itself derives its name from Jaisal and Meru (fort). Thats because the fortress town was founded by the Rajput king Jaisal when his capital of the time, Lodarva, 16 km away from the current fort, was destroyed by Mahmud of Ghori.
Sonar Qila is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, its a living fort where over 4,000 people continue to reside a reason perhaps for not shelling out an entry fee, unlike at Jodhpurs Mehrangarh Fort or the Junagarh Fort in Bikaner. Second, the four gates that successively lead you into the fort (the Akhai Pol, Ganesh Pol, Suraj Pol and Hava Pol) are built in such a manner that you cant spot what you left behind once you reach the next one.
Next you take in the intricate carvings of the Jain temples inside theyre beautiful but par for the course since Jain culture has traditionally flourished in Rajput kingdoms with active royal patronage. In turn, such artistry lent itself liberally to the ornate mahals of the maharanas, maharaos and maharajahs.
The narrow, winding lanes that take you through the fort also take you to Mukulwadi, a spot which gets the Bengalis all excited its the exact location where the Ray classic was shot. Mukulwadi is actually named after Sonar Kellas protagonist, Mukul, who is being haunted by memories of his previous life. He gets kidnapped by conmen-turned-gold diggers as he goes in search of his roots to Rajasthan. The film ends with detective Feluda recovering him and Mukul finally tracing his past at a goldsmiths house inside the Sonar Qila. Aaj kal logon ko history se zayda Mukulwadi dekhne ki chaahat hai, says Mukesh Goswami, a local guide. (Today, more people come here to see Mukulwadi than for the history of the fort). The site, sadly in ruins after the Gujarat earthquake, will hopefully be restored soon.
Quite aside from the Bengali connection, Jaisalmer is exactly what youd expect from a city slam bang in the middle of the Thar. Long stretches of sand dunes greet you on either side of the state highway as you drive down from Jodhpur. Even the kitsch a la a camel ride across the dunes becomes enticing. So, we drive down about 42 kms from Jaisalmer to Sam where Feluda accompanies us, as we remember the detective along with his assistant Tapesh and writer Lalmohan Babu chasing a train on camelback!
At Sam, we ride Hrithik Roshan er, the camel. The five-year old has Michael Jackson for company. While a half-km, 10-minute ride to Sunset Point will cost you Rs 80, you could dish out anything between Rs 250-350 (depending upon your bargaining skills) for a longer ride that will take you to the relatively virginal dunes.
So the next time you fancy a blend of history and popculture, Rajasthan and Bengal, Bollywood and Hollywood... you know where to go.