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Sonar Kella, The Golden Fortress – I

(This is the first of a two-part series on Jaisalmer. While this part deals with the city and the fort, the forthcoming installment shall take you to some places around the city. Stay tuned…)

'Sonar Kella' DVD cover

'Sonar Kella' DVD cover

The valour and adventure of the Rajputs and the mighty castles and the endless deserts of Rajputana has always intrigued a different set of people in another distant part of the country. The Bengalis were first exposed to the romanticised tales of the great warriors by Abanindranath Tagore’s Raj Kahini, published in the dying years of the 19th century.

This fascination was given a tangible manifestation by Satyajit Ray through his famous detective novel, Sonar Kella in 1971. The sleepy little town of Jaisalmer, a speck in the vast desert, almost overnight became the toast of the Bengali tourist. The phenomenon of the Bengali mass migration to Jaisalmer during Durga Pujo was further encouraged by the release of the movie in 1974.

It was the night of Diwali! This photograph was taken from the balcony of my room

It was the night of Diwali! This photograph was taken from the balcony of my room

As a kid, growing up in a middle class household in a small town, I feasted on the works of Ray and dreamt that I was one of his protagonists – a little bit of Feluda and often, parts of Professor Shanku. When Ray passed away in May, 1992, the government of West Bengal ran a retrospective of his movies. On the last day, they telecast Sonar Kella. I was seven years old then, and looking back, I can still see myself sitting on the floor with a white vest and a pair of black shorts, staring google-eyed as Feluda, Topshe and the incredibly endearing Jatayu travelled from one Rajasthan town to another in search of the boy who could remember his past life.

Funny though, is the fact that before I visited the golden city in October 2008, my vision of the town was in flashes of the grainy black and white of our antiquated Sonodyne television set.

The sun rises over a sleepy Jaisalmer. Photograph taken from the fort ramparts.

The sun rises over a sleepy Jaisalmer. Photograph taken from the fort ramparts.

During the Durga Pujo, last year when I started planning the  annual family trip, I had no idea that we would end up in Jaisalmer. I was thinking on the lines of Kanha – Bandhavgarh – Jabalpur. Fortuitously, one night as I was up rearranging an extremely dirty bookshelf, I came across a battered early edition of Sonar Kella. I immediately knew where going for the vacation.

As the train chugged into what was the cleanest station I have ever set foot in, I realised that almost the entire city was built of the same golden sandstone. I had booked a nice hotel at the base of the hillock on top of which stood the famed fortress. What sets this fort apart from the hundreds of others across the country is the fact that it is still living.  More than 10,000 people still reside inside the walls as did their ancestors hundreds of years back.

The fort still houses people. The city though has spilled the walls and continues to grab bits of the desert to feed its grredy expansion plans.

The fort still houses people. The city though has spilled over the walls and continues to grab bits of the desert to feed its greedy expansion plans.

It was Diwali, the day we reached. The hotel we were staying at, had a beautiful rooftop restaurant and was set against the background of the fort, lit-up in all its festive glory. We spent the evening on the terrace, soaking in the folk music and dance show organised by the hotel staff. I was all keen to explore the markets but travelling with parents in their late fifties always has its disadvantages, it seems!

The next morning, we woke up while it was still dark. I was surprised to see mom dressed and ready before me! In fact,  she was so eager to see the sunrise from the fort walls that she got out and started walking to the fort, instructing us to catch up with her when we were done. Catch up, we did and by the time we settled ourselves on a canon atop a bastion, the eastern sky  showed a light shade of crimson.

Mom and dad at the bastion from where we saw the sun rise

Mom and dad at the bastion from where we saw the sun rise

The sun, all of a sudden, leapt out of the dark and stood suspended at what seemed like a foot above the horizon for some time.  In the magic light of the morning sun, I witnessed for myself why Ray called it Sonar Kella. The yellow sandstone glowed in the soft light like gold,  like it was giving off its own light. The phantasmic light and the light footfalls of the early rising residents transfixed us on our perch. It was a long time before we uttered a word and even longer before we headed to the nearest chai shop.

Diwali decorations in the fort

Diwali decorations in the fort

The chai,  sadly, was not made of camel’s milk, as i had encountered in the novel, but came out of a polythene pouch which promised that its contents were fresh and pasteurised. The tea-seller, an old man, with whom I struck up a conversation told me how he could vaguely remember the shooting of Sonar Kella in the fort. After a rather nice conversation, we left him in his stall, but not before we had taken the direction of the fort’s exquisite Jain temples.

The alleys of the fort were liked with stalls selling touristy knick-knacks. Bright postcards, even brighter ethnic clothing and the somewhat outdated Kodak film rolls dominated the list of exhibits. There were also stalls selling turbans, again in bright colours. If you did not want to buy one, you could always get photographed wearing one at the stall!

Pretty turbans, all in a row!

Pretty turbans, all in a row!

This little guy puts on a dance item for you in return for a tenner!

This little guy puts on a dance item for you in return for a tenner!

The narrow lanes wound through the fort to ultimately lead to the twin Jain temples. Built by the local rulers sometime in the 16th century, the shrines are in a remarkable state of preservation. Inside the temples one could witness what ‘pin-drop silence’ actually was. It was a strange world of narrow corridors, walls lined with exquisite sculptures and the all pervasive aroma of incense lingering in the air.

A priest walks past the central neve of the Jain temple in Jaisalmer fort

A priest walks past the central nave of the Jain temple in Jaisalmer fort

It was nearly 1400 hours by the time we decided that we were done roaming around the fort. We went back to our hotel and after a light lunch of the extremely tasty daal bati churma, allowed ourselves to drift off to a peaceful afternoon siesta. We woke up when it was already dark outside. A quick cup of tea later, the Sen Roy family was out walking the lanes of Jaisalmer’s main bazaar.

The streets of Jaisalmer

The streets of Jaisalmer

The shops had on display, a fascinating range of wares. The chief attraction here are the artefacts made of  Jaisalmer’s famed golden sandstone. From chess sets, to coffee tables and images of deities, these golden objects dominated the show windows. Also popular here are items made of camel bones. Rajasthan is known for its colourful dresses which are further embellished with exquisite embroidery. A number of shops in the market displayed an impressive collection of these traditional textiles, many of which now rest in my mother’s wardrobe.

My girlfriend is more beautiful now!

My girlfriend IS more beautiful now!

Another highlight of the day was definitely the dinner. At the end of our (what I actually mean is, my mother’s) shopping spree, we started asking around for a decent place to eat. Turns out that only a handful of restaurants in the city served non vegeterian food, and people who know me, are aware of the fact that I am a strict non vegeterian. We were finally directed to a rooftop restaurant at the entrance to the market called the Trio. Spread out on the vast terrace of an old haveli, it presented a breathtaking view of the illuminated fort. Part of the restaurant was made to look like a tent, complete with plush cushions, soft carpets and even a multicoloured glass hubble-bubble. What was even better than the ambiance was the food. Nothing could have ended the day better than the rogan josh I ordered.

The illuminated fort viewed through the window panels of a restaurant.

The illuminated fort viewed through the window panels of a restaurant.

The day had been rewarding, and that night as I went to bed, it was nice to know that I would be in this town for another two days.

(to be continuoued…)

 

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