PUSHKAR, RAJASTHAN, INDIA
In the northwest of India lies the Thar – India’s Great Western Desert. And every year for a couple of weeks in the fall, ranchers come from far and wide to the remote desert town of Pushkar to buy, sell and trade livestock. It’s a sight.
Think of the cowboy days of the US and the huge cattle drives. Except instead of ten-gallon hats and six-guns, it’s men with bright turbans and women in colorful saris. And camels. Lot’s of ‘em: some 50,000 of the inelegant beasts. Plus more than a few cattle and horses too, but it’s the camels that steal the show. You get camel racing, camel beauty contests, best-dressed, best-personality . . . you name it. Add to the mix hand-cranked Ferris wheels and a myriad other carnival rides, puppet theaters, kids tightrope walking above the crowds, and the snake-charmers of your typical Iowa county fair – all set between the dunes at the edge of town. Then add ten thousand or more religious pilgrims and hermit ascetics gathering for a Hindu festival at the close of the fair. It’s not to be missed. It could happen nowhere but India. Yet when I talked about it with a couple of my urban Indian friends back in Delhi they couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to go there.
We travelled to Pushkar with youngest-son. Once at the fair, the normal mode of inner-city transport all across India – three-wheel motorized rickshaws – was unavailable since we were so remote. Instead we relied on camel-cart taxis. These worked out fine so long as you weren’t in too much of a hurry and your beast of burden hadn’t eaten recently. (Could lead to unwanted ‘exhaust’ issues that often had youngest-son vying for a spot at the back of the cart.)
Once there we never tired of walking through the fairgrounds. Everywhere we turned there were incredible sights and sounds. In one direction we saw a guy showing off his dancing horse. He was working with it so gently and lovingly, as the horse did a sort of slow-motion horse ballet, moving around gracefully often on just its hind legs. A horse! The locals seemed unfazed but I was watching open-mouthed.
Turn in another direction and there’s a young girl up on a tightrope, walking high above the crowd. We would see only girls doing this; never boys. Somehow this was apparently considered a gender-specific activity.
Look over your shoulder and there’s a guy with a couple of smartly dressed monkeys. Give them a few rupees and they’d gladly put on a show for you.
Walk between the rows of tents and you’ll find all kinds of colorful bells and trinkets for sale to decorate your camel. But keep your wits about you as you wander because no matter how narrow and crowded the passageway you may suddenly find that it’s doubling as a horse track. With little warning there’d suddenly be a guy on horseback barreling down the narrow lane. Most rode bareback with a strange feet-splayed-out-in-front position that didn’t look very secure, or comfortable. Oh, but those horses, they were as beautiful as the camels were not. And most had pointy, curved ear tips the likes of which I’d never seen before.
Walk a little further and you’d find yourself in camel country. Acres and acres and acres of them. Ships of the Desert spread out all over hell and gone with people squeezed in between, camped out in tents, under carts or out in the open with just a couple of threadbare blankets against the desert cold at night. There was a camel barber with hand-held mechanical clippers, hard at work shearing fur into complex geometric patterns. But whether sheared, tattooed and/or painted, it’s hard to make a camel look attractive.
Here and there you would see someone working to break or train a camel, the two fighting each other as dust rose all around. We were told a lazy camel would cost the equivalent of about $400 while a strong, hard-working one more than twice that. We didn’t buy though did pick up some camel finery. Just in case, I guess. You never know when you might want to bring a camel home with you.
There were countless opportunities for fun and games at the fair. Besides the livestock activities, there were competitions for turban tying, longest moustache, water pot racing (a women’s event, of course, in this conservative old-school culture), wrestling (men only; previous comment applies), and tilak painting (forehead dot). And they had a bridal fair. Any marriages brokered, I wonder?
The town of Pushkar itself was also well worth a visit. It was a lively place, getting more crowded each day with Hindu faithful arriving for a festival honoring Lord Brahma. Legend has it that after he created the universe, Brahma fought a demon in battle with a lotus flower and its petals fell to earth at Pushkar, creating a holy lake. Bathing in it during this festival is equivalent to doing prayers for several hundred years, washing away many reincarnated lifetimes worth of sins.
We went in town for lunch one day to the Funky Monkey, a recommended street-side eatery to fill our bellies and watch the world go by. There are always interesting passersby to wonder about in India. For instance, the size of a man’s turban can be proportional to his influence and status in the community. These two gents had giant Texas-sized turbans almost as wide as their shoulders.
One evening we rode camels into the desert, to watch the sun set behind the sand dunes. There we came across a band of traveling musicians. A boy was dancing to the sound of his mother singing and father playing a kind of desert violin. The parents were making traditional, centuries-old Rajasthani music but the young boy’s dance moves were straight out of Bollywood, or American hip-hop. It was a wonderfully eclectic combination of old and new, young and old. And that is India – a land of wild contrasts and exuberant color.
Here is a link to some favorite photos from Pushkar and the Camel Fair . . .