Every October in the 8th month of Kartika, business and religion come together and the quiet town of Pushkar is transformed into the circus that is the Pushkar camel festival.
Thousands of livestock owners stir in the Thar desert, pack family and belongings onto wooden carts, trailing camels, horses, and cows behind them, to trade on the Mela ground – a huge, dry, expanse of scrub on the northern edge of town. Some 50,000 camels and cattle cover this terrain – animals as far as the eye can see. With front legs tied together, the camels eat, drink, snort, groan and slaver. Trying to encourage a sale owners decorate their animals to show them in their best light. Snouts adorned with flowers, the beasts are draped with pom-poms, tassels and bows. But a ship of the desert, even so adorned, is not a pretty sight. Comically, they chew, and screw up their faces, waiting while herders squat on their haunches, smoke hash pipes and try to clinch the all important deal.
The haggling starts as the men pull at the camel’s mouth, examining the teeth to check it’s condition. The animal’s loud protests are completely ignored. Money changes hands and the serious business of buying and selling is done before the fun and games start.
Slowly, a festival atmosphere builds. A huge fairground is set up. Itinerant sellers storm the town. Roadside stalls spring up like mushrooms out of the ground. Everything is available to be bought and sold. Farm implements, steel pans, pashmina shawls, melaware plates, T-shirts and jeans – and everywhere bangles. Glistening, sparkling armbands. Countrywomen cluster around the carts like bees around a honeypot. Already owners of the most fabulous jewellery, it seems there is always room for one more trinket. The women wear the most mind boggling colours and the most extraordinary colour-combos. Cerise and red, mustard and burgundy, fuchsia and lime green. Thin fly-a-way fabrics, edged with sequins and silver teardrops and golden lace. Veils pulled seductively over faces, a flash of an anklet here, a glimpse of a toe ring there. Faces adorned with nose rings which cover whole cheeks, forehead broaches and gold earrings. It’s a riot of colour, a cacophony of noise and a press of people.
In the stadium a whole range of events are put on for tourists and locals alike. Camel races, camel dancing, even camel beauty contests! Turban tying contests, ‘best moustache’ competitions – Pushkar has become an international phenomenon – tacky, trashy, and terrific. Musicians, snake charmers, (‘only a little cobra, sir, – not poisonous’) children walking on tightropes, sacred five-legged cows, mystics- all stalk the streets.
But all of this is a side show to the main event – nothing more than a sauce for the main-dish. It’s all about the religious festival when pilgrims come to bathe in the holy waters of Pushkar lake. Legend has it that the lake appeared after Brahma had defeated his evil opponent, the devil Vajra Nabh, with a lotus flower. Where the petals of the lotus fell to earth, lakes formed. Pushkar is considered to be the most holy of these. Never mind that there is no lake, ever increasing numbers of the devout flock to the ghats. The religious fervour builds with the fair. Pilgrims douse themselves with water, (the bathing pools have been filled) and make offerings of crimson rose petals, and orange marigold blossoms. They burn incense, float tiny wax lights on the water, say prayers and are blessed by priests. To sit at the ghats in the morning, watch the sun rise and observe these ancient rituals is strangely moving – almost mesmerising.
This, not the camel fair, is the heart of Pushkar. Milky white domes, tiny spires, aged havelis, and weathered temples. The religious festival reaches it’s crescendo at full moon, when thousands of pilgrims bathe to cleanse themselves of sin, and pray ‘for a happy life’. Until the next year, when the whole sequence is repeated.
I too, hope to return to Pushkar, – when there is no fair, and no fuss – but when there is water in the lake!
20 thoughts on “Pulsating Pushkar.”
Fabulous Tracey, wonderful colours and photos
Thanks Val. It’s great to look back over old photos and trips.
The photos are great fun and your narrative is very entertaining! The camels seem rather bored with the whole thing. (Maybe camels always look bored.)
I think animals are often bored when humans make a fuss!
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Such a vibrant city. Rich in colour and culture, amazing 🙂
Wait until you see ‘Men in Turbans’ next week, Lorelle!
Such an amazing experience you have had Tracey, mesmerizing!
I can’t stop thinking at the poor camels, they even have earrings lol
Yeah, I think it’s not such a party for the camels.
Veronika Hurbis Love the story and your photos.
Tracey have you ever come across a book called From Alice to Ocean? It’s one of my all time favourite books, a story of a female (YEP!) explorer’s trek, with camels, across Australia (from Alice Springs to the Ocean).
Please read it, you’d love it. I actually have the photo version here. The photos (not by the lady) are incredible.
Here is a bit of a story about the book/trek and some of the photos:
Thanks so much Veronika. This book sounds right up my street. I’m going to see if I can get a copy and I’m looking forward to seeing the photo book at yours in May!
I visited Pushkar a few weeks before the festival many years ago, and it was delightfully serene. I’d highly recommend going back. You got some amazing photos of the photogenic and colorful people of India. I really like the woman with the giant nose ring.
Thanks Jeff. I’d love to go back some day.
This looks great for people-watching, but I don’t think I’d have the stomach to spend a day at a camel market.. They’ve got one here not far from Cairo but I just hate watching any kind of animal exploitation or buying and selling.
I love your wonderful portraits of the people – so vibrant and colorful.
You make a good point Dee. I never saw any bad treatment of the camels, but it’s obviously not much fun for them. It’s easy to overlook this, with everything else that’s going on at the same time.
Oh this brought back memories! Wonderful images and storytelling! we spent 10 or 12 days there for the fair a few years back. Mind blowing! There was water in the lake then! What happened? Did they fill it just for the religious rituals? So strange. Perhaps there’s a water shortage now.
There might be water in the lake now – don’t know, it was ten years ago that we were there. This was at the very beginning of our first trip – what a way to start!
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No kidding! What a way to start!
I’d never heard of Pushkar before this post. Thanks for giving us an insight into its rich culture
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Thank you – for reading and commenting.
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Ah Pushkar! We first visited there at a random time and heard about the fair and vowed to return for it.
And so we did, years later. We spent about a month in Pushkar the second time around, enough that by the time we left, I was certainly ready to leave. During the fair we spent most of our time around the sacred lake as that is where we were staying and as you so rightly point out, is the center of everything and what it is all about. By the time we left I was “burnt out” by the noise, the commotion, the dust, the ongoings.. even though we never went to the stadium even once. It was magnificent and overwhelming all at once. An experience of a life time.
Hardest parts for me were the dust (all of India) as I am allergic to dust and then the abuse of the camels was too hard to watch. And why after the first few visits to see the camels we opted out of the stadium events.
Wonderful photos ~ thanks for the memories.