On the Trails of a Childhood Dream"

Are you guys from Kolkata?”

The question clearly sounded like one that our young driver had already asked several other people. And when he got to know that we were Bengali, he promptly replied that we were one major reason behind Jaisalmer becoming such a popular tourist destination.

“I have to say, you people give us enough business to see us through the whole year.”

The hotel that we were taken to by our driver was one frequented by mostly Bengali tourists and had a number of portraits of Satyajit Ray displayed on the walls of every floor. Indeed, Mr. Ray had done a good job with the tourism of this otherwise sleepy desert town.

As we were being driven through the streets of Jaisalmer in the early hours of a cold November morning to our hotel, I remembered the first time I watched Sonar Kella, the movie. I was in 5th standard when my father took me to Bharati (A movie theatre in South Calcutta) to see the already famous Satyajit Ray movie. I had read the book before watching the movie and knew the story but seeing the characters of the book enact the whole story on silver screen was a fascinating experience for me. Feluda looked so much like the character from the book. So were Jatayu and Topshe. And Rajasthan was the perfect backdrop for an adventure story.  Seeing the three immortal characters of Bengali fiction travel all the way from Calcutta to Rajasthan and solve the case of a small kid who remembered his past life was an experience that stayed with me and I’m sure with millions of Bengalis.

I’d always thought of visiting Rajasthan and especially Jaisalmer since my Sonar kella experience and although I ended up living in Delhi, it was not until my 10th year in Delhi that I managed to visit this small desert town in West Rajasthan.

Travelling from Jodhpur, we boarded the Jaisalmer Express at 11.30 PM and reached Jaisalmer at 5 in the morning. The journey was uneventful except loads of dust seeping through the gaps of the windows and polluting our nostrils. We tried to grab some sleep inhaling dust in our every breath which is a normal phenomenon in this part of India. It was still dark and we were still in deep slumber when the train rolled into Jaisalmer platform. The moment we stepped onto the platform, I felt the sharp chill in the air – just the perfect setting for a trip like this!

“You’ll get all kinds of Bengali foods here”, our driver assured us before leaving. Dibakar, a boy in his late teen from the hotel helped us with our luggage. By the time we reached our room from the lobby, we knew that Dibakar was from Murshidabad, he had completed his higher secondary education in his hometown and had spent 2 years working in this hotel.

The first look of the Jaisalmer fort from the balcony of our hotel room was spectacular. As I stepped on the balcony after a brief nap and looked out, a dazzlingly bright sunny morning greeted me with the very yellow looking Jaisalmer Fort in the backdrop. The fort made by Raja jaisal in the 12th century looked nothing like any other fort I’d seen so far. No wonder Mr. Ray used the term ‘Golden Fort’ for his story – the imposing fort made of yellow limestone looked breath-taking and indeed close to something made of gold!

A 10-minute walk from our hotel brought us at the gate of Jaisalmer Fort, inside which thrived a small town and its people. Yes, the true inhabitants of Jaisalmer lived inside this fort. Narrow darkened alleys bustled with a lifestyle that seemed cut away from the rest of the world. Walking on these alleys and looking at the houses that tried desperately to look modern but could not shed the old flavor of this historical place, one had a strange feeling. There were cyber cafes filled with foreign tourists, shops selling leather products made of camel leather and the omnipresent tourist guides in search of customers. As we wandered through the lanes inside the fort, we heard a familiar noise that sounded like a band party. Soon, we reached an open area where a big crowd had gathered to celebrate a marriage. The mood was celebratory and noisy. Youngsters danced to the rhythm of latest Bollywood songs, ladies looked on curiously and the sherwani clad groom sat atop a horse, trying not to look nervous amidst all this. It was an amusing environment. The sky was a spectacular blue, the fort’s walls created a brilliant backdrop for the ceremony. High on the walls of the fort, pigeons occasionally broke into sudden flights startled by all the commotion.

Jaisalmer fort is about 460 meters long and 76 metres wide. It has seen many upheavals in its tumultuous past including an attack by Ala-ud-din Khilji who managed to hold the fort for 9 years! Today, Jaisalmer Fort is a UNESCO declared ‘World Heritage Site’.

Besides the fort, Jaisalmer offers some really amazing piece of architecture. One such extraordinary example is the Patwon Ki Haveli where the intricate designs on yellow limestone leave one speechless!  It is actually a cluster of 5 havelis built in 18th century by the 5 sons of Guman Chand who was a trader in textiles and precious metals. Looking at the sheer beauty of these havelis with their splendid carvings and designs made me wonder which art college those people went to!

Other such havelis that are equally beautiful are ‘Salim Singh Ki Haveli’ and ‘Nathumal Ki Haveli’.

As evening approached, we could feel the change in temperature as it became suddenly chilly. There is not much to do in Jaisalmer once it gets dark, so we headed for our hotel.

I’ve heard some people say that Jaisalmer is not worth anything. That there’s nothing to do or see there. It may be true for some, especially those who haven’t had the good fortune to experience the thrill of Satyajit Ray’s timeless ‘Sonar Kella’. But even if one discounts that bit, Jaisalmer has a special charm for a traveler. The dusty roads, the camels, the rustic people of Rajasthan - specially the hauntingly beautiful and strong Rajasthani women and the unmistakable sound of ‘Ravanhattha’ the quintessential Rajasthani musical instrument – all these are magical!

24dil1y

No trip to Jaisalmer is complete without a day-long excursion to the sand dunes which is a drive of roughly an hour or less. So next day, we decided to head for the sand dunes. We were promised a camel ride, a visit to the ‘sunset point’, an evening with Rajasthani folk artists and their thrilling performances and a traditional Rajasthani dinner to conclude the trip. Although one can spend a night amidst the sea of sand and marvel at the incredibly clear night sky displaying a thick crowd of stars, we opted for the same-day trip as I preferred the comfort of my hotel room for my nocturnal sleep than a tent in the middle of nowhere.

On a normal day in winter, visiting the ‘Sam’ sand dunes means being in the middle of a sea of tourists from virtually every part of India and parts of rest of the world. It’s like a fairground where expressionless camels, boisterous tourists, overzealous local folk singers and dancers jostle for space. You will experience a wobbly ride on a dispassionate looking camel to what is known as the sunset point. Few performers would be ready to break into a song and dance routine (Not the one scheduled in our itinerary) which I have to admit, feels unique in that setting. But the sea of people and their collective noise take away a lot of its charm. After we were done with all that, we were taken to a nearby village where we were presented with some truly fascinating music and dance performances. A traditional Rajasthani dinner later we headed back to our hotel through dark desert roads.

Our Jaisalmer trip came to an end after 2 days. We bid adieu to Dibakar and headed for the sleepy Jaisalmer station to board our train back to Delhi.

As the train rolled out of the station, the Golden Fort of Jaisalmer disappeared beyond the hillocks and sand dunes. I felt happy, having visited a place of my childhood dream. It felt like finally reading the last page of ‘Sonar Kella’. 

b6sz2d