"If you are going to Rajasthan you must go to Jaisalmer,” said a friend.
I probably rolled my eyes slightly. Though I have been to the Jaipur Literature Festival several times, Rajasthan has always seemed too touristy. I felt that as soon as I set foot there, someone would set a safa (turban) on my head, sell a photo-op with a caparisoned camel and strike up “Padharo mhare des” on a folksy stringed instrument.
But Jaisalmer is different, it’s real desert, insisted my friend. Then she added, “Just don’t tell anyone there that you are Bengali.”
The reason, of course, is Satyajit Ray.
After Ray filmed Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), in Jaisalmer, Bengalis discovered the city in droves. The 1974 film which introduced Soumitra Chatterjee as Feluda, Ray’s famous detective, remains so beloved, Jaisalmer has become a Bengali pilgrimage spot of sorts. The story is that every Bengali tourist who comes to Jaisalmer convinces 10 others to follow. I was told many tour guides there speak Bengali. A Google search of famous dishes of Jaisalmer threw up, to my chagrin, a Bengali thali and aloo-posto.
But travel options outside India were tricky in a time of ever-changing pandemic restrictions. I had an invitation to an event in Udaipur. I added Jodhpur and Jaisalmer to the itinerary. As the car headed towards Jaisalmer from Jodhpur, the scrubby wasteland gave way to actual dunes of sand, the occasional phlegmatic camel and nilgai.
Suddenly, my partner Bishan pointed to a sign. Ramdevra—49km, it said. Ramdevra, I remembered, was where Feluda and company boarded the train after their car broke down on the desert highway. We were in Sonar Kella country. As our car finally came to a halt in the rather chaotic town centre of Jaisalmer, we looked up. The walls of the fort were a dusty gold in the mid-day sun. I could imagine generations of Bengalis gazing up in rapt wonder and saying “Sonar Kella” in hushed tones.
Ray had actually discovered Jaisalmer when he was filming his children’s musical, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, in Rajasthan in 1968. The erstwhile royal family of Jaisalmer had provided the extras and camels for the great war between the kings of Shundi and Halla in that film. Ray had been awed by the golden-hued fortress. But Goopy Gyne was a black and white film and he resolved to do Jaisalmer justice by filming it in colour. Sonar Kella was that film.
We were not just going to Jaisalmer. We were actually staying inside the Sonar Kella. Kila Bhavan is a little boutique property tucked into the wall of the fort. The walls of our room were curved because it was built into the ramparts. When we sat on the terrace, the town opened up like a fan in front of us while the fort curved around us. Jaisalmer Fort is one of the last living forts in the world.
Some 3,000 people still live in the fort itself, while thousands more come every day as vendors and tourists and tour guides. During the day, it’s bedlam. But at night, when the tourists finally leave, and the stores down shutters, you could sit on the terrace and soak in the quiet. Then it really feels like a fortress from another time.
But there’s no escaping the film. Alongside the old, exquisitely carved Jain temples with rubies and yellow sapphire stones embedded in the ceiling, and the palace, there are signs pointing to Mukul Bari. In the Ray film, the boy Mukul has visions of a past life in the desert town and the house he recognises as his family home still exists, even though it’s in disrepair. It’s a very ordinary house but Bengalis make a beeline for it. I overheard one guide telling his group: “Had I known you were Bengali, I would have brought you straight here. Many Bengalis want to see nothing else.”
“Look, those are the steps where Kamu Mukherjee was chasing young Mukul,” another guide told his flock. I was gobsmacked. Kamu Mukherjee, who played the villainous Mander Bose in the film, is hardly a household name in Bengal. But in Jaisalmer, even he is a celebrity.
I loved that film but it was all getting a bit embarrassing. That film had turned the whole city into a Sonar Kella tourist trap. I half-expected a captive peacock screeching at the top of the steps to give gawking tourists a moment, just as it had happened in the film.
Ray was not trying to make a Padharo Mhare Des tourist brochure. And his portrayal of Marwaris in other films is less than flattering. But somehow that film changed this city. Jaisalmer had been a major city on the Silk Route trade networks connected to Sindh, Afghanistan, Balochistan. Partition had ended the trade caravans and the town had languished until the military set up a base during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. But it was Sonar Kella that rebirthed the city in public imagination. Other films have been shot in the area—Reshma Aur Shera, Rudaali, even a Jackie Chan film—but nothing has come close to the romance of Sonar Kella. Ray once said that despite the desert sand he avoided the colour yellow as much as possible in the film before the film arrives in Jaisalmer. “There’s no emphasis on yellow,” said Ray. “The first yellow you come across is when Mukul sees the golden fortress through the train window.” It’s still magical.
The tourism boom has not come without problems. It’s not a town set up to deal with swarms of people. Until the Indira Gandhi Canal became operational in the late 1980s and helped deliver water to the city, said Lalit, our jovial tour guide, his mother and aunts would go down to the lake and bring back water in pots on their heads. Now there are flush toilets and showers, things that tourists want.
But it has also meant water seeps through the old limestone into the clayey soil below and has caused sections of the wall to collapse. The climate is changing. A cloudburst in 2006 caused rain to fall in sheets for hours and part of the palace walls collapsed. Unesco gave the Jaisalmer fort world heritage status but much of its funding is tied to the cessation of commercial activities there. This, however, is a living fort, albeit one that seems frozen in a film from 1974.
On the last day, we went camel-riding in the sand dunes. The sun was setting, a ball of fiery red. Johnny, the camel we were on, plodded desultorily through the sand, pulled along by Kishan, one of the boys from the villages nearby. Despite being far from Jaisalmer, though, we were still in Sonar Kella land.
As we dismounted, I had a flashback to the scene when Feluda, his sidekick Topse and the comic thriller writer Jatayu hitch rides on camels after their car breaks down. “Are you walking like Jatayu now?” one Bengali tourist asked another, chortling with glee, at the memory of Jatayu strutting around bow-legged, his back aching after the see-saw camel ride.
“You must be so tired of this constant Sonar Kella, Sonar Kella refrain,” I finally told Lalit, whose family has lived inside the fort for generations. I wanted to be the cool Bengali, the one who wanted to see the “real” Jaisalmer, not the nostalgia-soaked filmi version from an old Ray movie.
“What are you saying, sir!” Lalit said in shock. “Satyajit Ray invented Jaisalmer. He gave me my bread and butter. When I take his name, I touch my ears. Until that film, Jaisalmer was punishment place.” I looked at him in surprise, wondering if he was buttering my Bengali ego. He was not. “Look at my Reeboks,” he said. “Without Satyajit Ray, I would be wearing slippers till they fell apart.” His eyes were glinting with tears.
It was my turn to be embarrassed and look away. We were sitting on a rooftop, watching the sun set over the city. The city was truly glowing golden in the fading light.
We sat quietly, joined companionably by a film from decades ago. And the silence was golden, just like the Sonar Kella.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.