Fair and Festival:  Pushkar’s Amazing Contrasts


Every November during the harvest full moon in the Rajasthan province of northern India, the Kartik Poormina festival coincides with the Pushkar Camel Fair.  What results is an explosion of visitors and a fascinating study in contrasts.

In the sand dunes just outside of town, excitement abounds as we prepare to join the Pushkar Camel Fair. The pungent scents of animals, camel dung, and unwashed bodies intersperse with the aroma of delicate spices from food stalls, permeating the air before we even enter the fairgrounds. Soon the dust soaks into every pore.  Soft sand seeps into eyes, noses and mouths, creating a lingering thirst.

The fair is a major trading event for camels and other livestock, including goats and sheep.  While a sizable portion of the grounds is dedicated to horse trading, the camels steal the show.  Valuable in rural desert areas in India, camels are used for transport and agricultural production, including dairy products. Tribal people also use the meat, hair and bones for food and clothing.

Tan, brown, and black camels are everywhere. Regal in their finery, the best are bathed, then elaborately decorated with nose rings, bells and bangles.  They model beaded and floral necklaces of deep purple, emerald green and hot pink.  Black or henna-orange tattoos adorn their faces, necks, rumps and tails. Their hides are shaved with elaborate geometrical patterns. One of the camels, with long eyelashes that many women would kill for, sidles up to my companion, longingly staring at the lovely lady through intelligent eyes as they pose together for a photo.

The sounds of diverse languages, children’s shouts and revved-up motorcycle engines create the hum of background noise.  The occasional roaring of irate camels rises above the din, drawing our attention to men cleaning camels’ ears or piercing their nostrils.

Herders’ tents, carts, mopeds, and cooking fires dot the landscape.  Visitors ride on camels’ backs. Hitched to carts, elaborately embellished camels wear long, flowing fabrics festooned with fancy tassels and decorated with pastel-colored beads and silver coin ornaments.  Nearby, men in traditional garb of vibrant turbans and white dhotis talk animatedly on cell phones.

Transient shops offer an array of handicrafts and local Indian products. Disheveled young gypsy children hold out their hands, begging for money.  Swarms of pesky children and adults peddle their trinkets, relentlessly pursuing visitors. Forewarned not to engage these hawkers lest they attach themselves to us like leeches, we dutifully ignore them.  Ashok, an enterprising twelve-year-old boy, switches tactics and soon becomes our escort, shooing away beggars while answering questions and sharing information.  With limited formal education, he has been dealing with tourists since age seven and speaks smatterings of a dozen languages.

Amidst the herding and selling, a festive, carnival atmosphere flourishes.  We are transported into a unique and intriguing culture where multiple Ferris wheels spin on the midway while an array of musicians, dancers and snake charmers perform on schedule. In the coming days, visitors will be treated to various contests, including one in which men vie for the title of “Longest Mustache” and women enter bridal competitions.  Some camels are entered into races, others into beauty pageants.

In contrast to the simple herders’ tents scattered between the bands of camels, temporary, yet elaborate tent cities offering limited Wi-Fi, meals, hot showers, heat, electricity, and even massages spring up on the outskirts of town to accommodate the influx of vacationers.

As our time is limited, we take the easy walk from the fairgrounds to Pushkar proper, shifting our focus to Kartik Poormina, the religious festival dedicated to the Lord Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.

The ancient town of Pushkar is one of most sacred sites for Hindus. According to legend, Lord Brahma created Pushkar when he dropped lotus flowers to earth from his hand to kill a demon, resulting in the formation of three holy lakes where the petals fell. The town is surrounded by hills on three sides and sand dunes on the other. Eating meat and drinking alcohol are strongly discouraged within the town limits.

One of the few Brahma temples still in existence today, Jagatpita Brahma Mandir, Pushkar is located here. Before visiting the temple, devout pilgrims descend one of the fifty-two ghats (sets of steps) situated around the lake to take a ritual dip in the sacred water.

At Vara Ghat, our guide Dependra warns us against unscrupulous priests who offer ritual prayers and blessings to foreigners in exchange for money. If the foreigner refuses to pay or the money is deemed insufficient, these priests loudly curse the foreigners and their families. Not an auspicious way to continue our journey!

In the open plaza on the upper level of Vara Ghat dozens of Langur monkeys can be seen everywhere. Some climb walls or hang from electric wires. Others groom each other.  Several play or eat.  A few languish in the sun. A mother langur cradles her very alert and anxious newborn. Dad comes, scoops up the baby and huddles with his family.

Prayers, chants, footsteps, and hawkers selling their wares mingle with the odors of garbage, diesel fuel, exotic spices, fried foods, freshly baked naan, curries, and falafel.  Stray dogs are ubiquitous.

Dressed in orange, a sadhu (holy man) punctuates prayers and chants by ringing a large brass bell that hangs at the entrance to the ghat.  Holy cows lie beside cars or walk nonchalantly down the street, seemingly certain that traffic will swerve to avoid them. As the afternoon progresses, throngs of sadhus, families, and women in vibrantly colored saris or salwar kameez of every imaginable pattern sashay purposefully down the main street on their way to the Brahma temple.

As the sun begins to set behind the mountains that surround Pushkar, we prepare to leave the town.  This has been a truly unforgettable travel experience. The amazing blend of commercial and spiritual, of chaos and serenity, the incredible scents, sights, and sounds weave a timeless, intricate and unforgettable tapestry as colorful as the photos that fill our cameras.