Cows, camels and other princely tales from Jaisalmer, by Zerin Anklesaria

Could Ilium have looked like this, one wonders, as we approach the topless towers of Jaisalmer, all 99 of them rising from the desert sand. Not really, for the Troy of legend was a grim, dun-coloured fortress foredoomed to a tragic end, whereas here is a citadel built entirely of the pale yellow local stone, warm and life giving.

Our introduction to it was sexy, literally! Sightseeing starts at the chowk from which the streets radiate like the spokes of a wheel. Small and hemmed in by temples and the old palace, a rickshaw stand occupies the little available space, and all around are stalls offering flowers, cheap jewellery, puppets, and wallets, handbags and caps, all supposedly of camel leather, actually of coloured goat skin. Amid this clutter, a commotion erupted when a cow charged in from a side lane pursued by a bull with amorous intent. They careened about wildly, crashing into stalls, dispersing a herd of goats, and sending tourists and shoppers running for cover into shops and temples while vendors scrambled to save their wares.

The mayhem ended only when the cow, a wise and practical animal, took matters in hand. Skidding suddenly to a stop she sat down with a decisive thump. The bull, a determined Casanova, would not be so easily thwarted. Where coercion had failed he now tried persuasion. Turning circles around her, he nuzzled her back, butted her playfully and snorted sweet nothings in her ear while she placidly chewed the cud.

Eventually the owner arrived and, in a hurricane of gaalis, Casanova was led away in disgrace.

Barring the rickshaws, Jaisalmer must have looked much like this throughout its long history. Built in 1156 on a hilltop overlooking miles of open desert, it was conceived as a military fort and a trading post on the east-west caravan routes. As wealth poured into the town, the architecture became more elaborate, with huge havelis for extended families with their characteristic open courtyards, balconies, jharokhas, and the intricately carved facades peculiar to Rajasthan. The latter, apart from their beauty, are functional, their jaalis of finely wrought floral and geometric motifs letting in light and air and keeping out the desert sand. Ornate canopies and elaborate eaves, particularly of the crescent-shaped Bangla type that the Mughals took from Bengal and passed on to the Rajputs, provide further embellishment.

Back in 1974, so the story goes, the exquisite seven-storey Patwa haveli was to be dismantled panel by panel and sold to an oil-rich American who wanted a mini-Rajasthan on his Texan ranch. Luckily Indira Gandhi, our very own Iron Lady who was in Pokhran at the time, got wind of the intended outrage. “Yeh kya ho raha hai,” she stormed at the hapless then Chief Minister. On the spot, the building was declared a National Monument, and the front portion is now a crafts museum.

The skill with which the unknown planners of the Fort created a built environment perfectly adapted to the desert milieu still draws architects from across the world. The narrow streets, sometimes just 10 feet wide, give protection from the merciless sun, and have no pavements. You step straight on to them from the living spaces, and the open balconies of buildings jut out on either side, creating a tunnel effect that traps the cool air and brings it into the houses. The streets are divided and angled to disperse it as widely as possible.

Sadly, the foundations of the Fort built of porous sandstone are so water-logged that portions of the wall and buildings have collapsed. Conservationists are at work to save this incomparable structure built by King Jaisal for his household and retainers. Their descendants still occupy the original 400 houses, and get a steady income from backpackers looking for inexpensive lodgings.

In the evening, we went out into the desert to watch the sunset, and were besieged by camel owners offering rides on a galaxy of superstars such as Shah Rukh, Kareena, and Michael Jackson. We hauled ourselves up a sand dune and waited expectantly, and waited and waited… In vain alas! The cloud cover was so thick that not even a sliver of a sunset was visible.

That night though, we encountered MJ in another avatar at a puppet show in the hotel, a rollicking affair with a singer, a drummer, and someone playing a folk instrument that sounded like a parrot screeching. A dancer shook her bosom and hips with such abandon she was in danger of falling to pieces. Elephants, warriors, horses, and drums all reached a thunderous crescendo. After these theatrics, Wacko Jacko with a tepid hip wiggle was a sad letdown.

Sitting under the stars that night we looked up at the Fort floodlit on its hilltop, a gleaming block of burnished gold. Almost a thousand years old, this is no fusty relic but a prosperous city bustling with life, colour, and voices from across the globe.

A week later, back home in Mumbai, the seafront horizon is aflame. Slashes of pink, purple and orange streak the sky and the clouds are shimmering mother-of-pearl reflecting the dying light. Recalling the desert sunset-that-wasn’t, one thinks of what the intrepid Marco Polo said. ‘Ye traverse the whole wide world, only that ye may come home again.’