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Pride of the Desert

Every year, the Rajasthan desert plays host to the vibrant Pushkar Camel Fair, as well as a spiritual festival to purify the soul.

Words: Stephanie Brookes  Photography: David Metcalf

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Camels can close their nostrils and lips during dust storms, while their thick eyelashes offer protection from desert dust.

A line of camels, horses and their traders, as well as musicians, vendors and snake charmers appeared over the sand dunes, stretching for miles. This crowd descends on Pushkar every year and the stadium here fills with talented circus acts. Sideshow entertainers abound and bazaars spring up overnight.

     As the early morning light rose over the desert dunes, a surreal scene unfolded before me. Silhouetted against the distant mountains, thousands of camels in small groups and tethered to sticks in the ground, grazed nonchalantly.

     Nearby, their masters huddled over the last remaining glowing embers of small fires, cigarettes in one hand and cups of chai (tea) in the other. As they kept watch over their herds, bands of turbaned camel drovers, with brown, sinewy legs, stood in small trading circles conducting business, smoking incessantly and haggling over prices.

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A camel trader from the Bhil tribe, the largest of the Rajasthan tribes. They live in the Southeast and speak their own dialect and have a talent for archery and are skilled in the art of warfare.

     The Pushkar Camel Fair is a sensation overload. The smells of camel feed and piles of dung (that’s quickly swiped for fuel) accompanied the sounds of belching camels and restless livestock, while the tunes of snake charmers filled the air. 

     This event has a long history dating back centuries and is a must-do on any traveller’s itinerary when in Rajasthan. Every year in late October or November, the fair attracts some 200,000 people. Droves of gypsies pour into town and the sounds of their traditional sarangi (string instruments) fill the air as you wander the huge show grounds and get lost in little market stalls.

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A bharaat (wedding procession where the bridegroom arrives on horse), in progress in Pushkar.

     Here, not only camels are traded, horses, cows, goats and sheep are thrown into the mix too. The fair gets bigger and bigger each year, with over 50,000 livestock up for trade this year. 

A GOOD INVESTMENT 

Chatting with Hari, a camel trader who has been coming to the fair regularly for years, I learned about the camel trade. “It takes me 15 days to get here. It’s worth it, as I get very good money for my camels,” he said. “At the moment, it is around USD1,000 per camel, depending on the quality, but I must use all my negotiation skills to obtain the best price as there’s a lot of competition!” he said with a grin. “It’s a long journey for me across the desert, and my camels drink water only once every 15 days, so when I reach the mela (festival grounds), it’s straight to the water trough!”  

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Known as ‘ships of the desert’, camels are valued as packsaddle animals that are able to carry heavy loads. They are prized for their milk, meat and hides, and are also used to till the land.

     Camels are valuable assets in Rajasthan. An investment in one camel can yield up to 20 years of service. Camels are used for transport and agriculture, and their milk is highly prized too. They cost a lot less than a modern tractor and they don’t need petrol, oil or motor servicing. Even their dung is worth money! Once dried into cakes, it can be used for precious fuel. In the desert, timber is a rare commodity, so an investment in a camel is a solid purchase that provides fuel.

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The camel master has a quiet word with his ‘girl’ who he will dress in silks, anklets, colourful-mirrored fabric and finery. ‘She’ will compete in the ‘Best Dressed Camel’ competition.

     Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and these camels compete for high stakes. Many camels are adorned in glittery fabrics complete with silver bells and beautiful jewellery like earrings, anklets and bracelets. Some have intricate henna motifs etched around their necks and on their hides. Their masters wash them and keep their coats in perfect condition, hoping to obtain the highest price for each one. 

A DESERT RENDEZVOUS

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This young rider keeps a tight rein on his feisty camel on the fourth day of the Pushkar Camel Festival, when the races take place.

For entertainment, there are camel races and an annual camel beauty contest where both behaviour and beauty are judged. There is even a competition to see how many people can fit on a camel without being thrown off! There’s an official programme of events for each day, but don’t be surprised if no one seems to stick to the schedule. It’s best to make your way to the giant amphitheatre on a daily basis and simply catch the events as they unfold.  

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The Pushkar Camel Festival is an international event, attracting perfomers from all over the world, including this dancer from Japan, who presented a traditional gypsy dance.

     I witnessed a performance of 200 dancers in traditional costumes, followed by a tightrope walker who held the audience captivated until a procession of costumed ‘rajas’ entered the arena on elephants that were adorned in Indian finery, colourful beads, fine silks and brightly coloured tassels. 

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The Kalbeliya gypsies are a nomadic tribe of the Rajasthan desert and are known as the ‘snake charmer’ caste.

     I noticed many debonair handlebar-moustachioed gentlemen mingling with the crowd. They were waiting for the longest moustache competition! At a snake charmer’s tent, I was happy to drop a donation into a wicker basket to watch a snake coil and dance in rhythmic motion to the lilting sounds coming from its charmer’s small, wooden flute.

     The fair was amazing. Street musicians entertained visitors all day long, and there were spicy chickpea curries and lentils boiling away in huge vats, as well as hot pakoras (fritter snack) wrapped in newspaper to feed the throngs.

     My favourite thing to do was to escape the crowds and take a gentle ride on the huge Ferris wheel. It was a delight to take it all in from above! 

THE KARTIK PURNIMA FESTIVAL 

Near the Camel Fair, another event occurs around the time of the full moon. Kartik Purnima is a religious festival that attracts thousands of pilgrims who come to bathe at the holy ghats and wash away their sins, moving towards greater spirituality.

     The Pushkar Lake has 52 ghats and a serene energy surrounds this idyllic spot. Devout Hindus strive to make at least one sacred pilgrimage to Pushkar. The brilliant hues of saris dipping in and out of the holy waters make for a stunning sight.

     The beauty of Pushkar comes alive at sunset, particularly during the Hindu month of Kartik, 10 days after Diwali. The daily activities of the pilgrims create a magical scene around the lake. Seen as a purifying element, water has a very special significance at this time.

     The name Pushkar comes from the northern Indian words pushpa (flower) and kar (hand). It is believed that Lord Brahma, Creator of the Universe, battled with the demon, Vajra Nabh, and slayed him with a lotus blossom. A petal that fell from Lord Brahma’s hand became Lake Pushkar. 

     When strolling around the lake, there are two significant ghats that are excellent places for reflection. At the Varah Ghat, Lord Vishnu is said to have appeared in the form of a boar, while Lord Brahma is believed to have bathed at the Brahma Ghat. The Gandhi Ghat (formerly Gau Ghat) is the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were sprinkled. 

     During this religious festival, ritual bathing takes place at a tirtha, a body of sacred water that is a pilgrimage gathering place. This could be a river or a lake. The holy bath is called kartik snana. Many Hindus bathe in either the River Ganges or the lake waters at Pushkar. The bathing ritual is for the purpose of absolving sins; it is believed that the most auspicious time to do this is at sunset and at dawn. The festival ends after the full moon. 

     I was extremely privileged to attend a puja (prayer session) one evening. My tour guide, Debbie Kindness, made special arrangements with a local priest. We were invited to sit at the water’s edge and partake in a blessing with the full moon high in the night sky. Taking in the peacefulness of the local people around me who were praying and receiving blessings was a special moment. Being part of this ceremony and watching the devotees taking evening dips and chanting their prayers in ritualistic worship was a moving experience.

     Later, hundreds of candles were floated across the lake in small paper boats accompanied by distant temple bells, with many of the locals releasing rose petals onto the water. The scene was one of beauty and peace. 

STREET LIFE IN PUSHKAR 

Pushkar is a peaceful town, partly because it is well known as a prominent Hindu pilgrimage town. You will see many sadhus (holy men) and pilgrims amongst throngs of free-roaming cows nudging their way through the colourful market, alongside travellers who hail from all corners of the world.

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Local women carrying camel dung to be sold at the market as a fuel source.

     Tiny market shops selling everything from sandals to embroidered clothes stand next to sacred temples. Pushkar is a great spot to shed your city clothes for a while and go for lightweight traditional tunics. There are bargains galore: Silk scarves and saris can be found in lovely air-conditioned shops right next to tacky tourist T-shirt shops selling tonnes of bric-a-brac and souvenirs. You can even buy stylised didgeridoos there! 

     There’s a range of nice hotels, as well as backpacker hostels. The feel of the town is friendly and casual, and you can catch a faint whiff of marijuana that is used by some pilgrims in their spiritual practices. A laid-back ambience pervades Pushkar. 

     Sometimes when you travel, there are places that are rich in culture and hold a special energy; Pushkar is such a place. When you witness religious rites with reverence and respect, you feel a humbling of the soul.

     Pushkar is one of those places on the ‘must-do’ list of India’s highlights. Even though 200,000 people converge there for the Camel Fair every year, there is plenty of room. It is possible to seek out some of its 400 lesser-known temples and find peace. If you take a careful look, you can find a fine balance amongst the treasures of Pushkar. 


CAMEL DIARY 

From The Magazine, Feature Story, Travel 3Sixty, AirAsia,Inflight Magazine,India,Rajasthan,Pushkar,Pushkar Camel Fair,camel,snake charmers,ships of the desert,shrewd traders

Skilled at negotiating, shrewd traders wait around, holding out for the best price.

This year, the Pushkar Camel Fair runs from October 26 till November 6.

OCT 26 Traders, who come by foot across the desert, start to arrive and set up their tented camps.

OCT 27 One of the most interesting days because you can move about the camps with ease. This is ‘set-up day’ for the many traders that come by truck.

OCT 28 Trading starts, but many hold out for a good price.

OCT 30 Camel races and competitions start.

OCT 31 Numbers swell. The cattle fair is well established and stadium events are scheduled.

NOV 1-4 The full programme is underway with fairground rides, stalls and sideshows, as well as musical and cultural events.

NOV 5 The town fills with pilgrims. The ashrams and pilgrim rest houses (dharamshalas) overflow. Devotional hymns and ceremonies take place in many of the temples.

NOV 6 There is mass bathing in the holy lake. At the fairgrounds, the grand finale takes place in the stadium. 

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