The day started badly when I forgot to lean back as my camel lurched rump-first to a standing position and I face-planted into the Rajasthan desert. OK, I was still half asleep after a night spent on the unforgiving sand with nothing to kick-start the day apart from a masala chai (spiced tea) boiled over a smouldering fire; the fire’s grey ashes were all that was left of our campsite as we steered our mounts through the wind-scooped dunes on our way to Pushkar and the world’s biggest camel sale.
For most of the year, the town of Pushkar is quiet and uncrowded. It has the tranquillity one might expect of a place sacred to Hindus, built around a holy lake and remotely located at the edge of a desert in northern India’s Rajasthan. It is a centre for meditation. The streets are often empty as the population of just 13,000 spend most of the day indoors to escape the heat.
That’s for most of the year. Around November, the full moon signals an event that swells the population to over 200,000 and raises the desert dust as 40,000 camels lope into town for the Pushkar Fair.
The sale attracts buyers and sellers from all parts of Asia. And the argy-bargy you’d expect of a major sales event provides the backdrop for a true country fair with the kaleidoscopic colour only India can deliver.
Villagers travel across the desert for days to attend, to exchange their camels for cash, to improve their herd, or simply to join in the fun. Intense trading goes on day and night. Turbaned cameleers twirl banana-sized moustaches as they consider humps, teeth and hooves, while their women haggle at fairground stalls or enjoy a rare chance to chat with distant friends.
Camels aside, these women are the stars of the show. Their saris are of the richest colours. Bracelets clatter on their wrists and ankles as they move with an arm-swinging caravan stride, their handsome faces framed by the mystery of tinselled veils and accentuated with chained nose hoops and red Hindu bindis.
The density of the crowd means vehicles are out of the question. Everyone walks or rides a camel, or a horse if you prefer – they’re also up for sale; riders startle and divide fair-goers as they demonstrate the speed of their compact Arab ponies.
In the afternoons, everyone gathers in the dusty stadium for events including camel races, beauty pageants (yes, for camels – dressed in elaborate harnesses and shaved in geometric patterns to please the judges), dancing and wrestling, all conducted with energy and mayhem, frequent falls and collisions plus much cheering and jeering.
Sunlight slants through the raised dust and trumpeters blast holes in the scorching air as beggars work the crowd, competing with chai wallahs, mystics, snake charmers, souvenir hawkers, pickpockets and acrobats. I pass a tiny child, eyes rimmed with kohl, reluctantly sliding along a tightrope as Dad passes around the hat.
Camel poo, readily available as you’d expect, is in demand for cooking fires and carried in baskets on the heads of swaying women. These fires add a smoky whiff to the proceedings as squatting families dig their hands (right hand only, thank you) into mounds of steaming rice and dahl.
The heaving crowd means business, and virtually every family in town gets into the act, spruiking, selling, feeding the mob. A township of tents appears overnight, offering aromatic curries and breads, tasselled camel harnesses, tattoo studios, marriage brokers, makeshift Bollywood movie theatrettes, camel milk ice cream stands and, of course, carpets.
This was the scene as Rebecca and I arrived on our camels. And our familiarity with the rolling motion and loose-limbed gait of our mounts took a jolt as they reacted excitedly to encountering the world’s largest gathering of their kin, nearly pitching me onto the sand yet again.
The Pushkar Fair was the final destination in our journey across northern India. A journey that started with lazy days drifting down the Ganges in a well-worn row-boat and camping on the river bank (two-man tent, no refrigeration, campfire food, toilet dug with a spade, washing in the river if you dared). Then clambering ashore through the smoke of bodies smouldering on the ghats of the holy city of Varanasi. On by stinky overnight trains and battered buses, with a final night in the faded glory of an ancient Moghul fort before sharing a 4×4 with sari-clad locals for the final bouncy leg to Rajasthan.
We spent a fascinating day at the Fair before checking into a room in the adjacent town of Pushkar. This proved to be an interesting stop during our three-day stay. Here, the visiting crowd funnel led through the labyrinth alleys of the souk while saddhus – saffron-robed and bizarrely painted – nodded meditatively in shady patches cast by temples surrounding the sacred lake at the centre of town and locals descended the ghats to shed their sins in the water, or stood knee-deep whacking their laundry on flat stones.
Meat is not served in any Pushkar establishment, eggs are a rarity, and the possession of alcohol or drugs will cop a gaol sentence. The food, while limited in ingredients, is good, though the hygiene is not.
We mingled happily with the crowd – dull backpacker colours amid a rainbow of tribal saris, constantly amazed by the scenes that haunt and inspire every visitor to this country. As with everywhere in India, opportunist monkeys watched from roofs, thoughtless families and overweight tourists punished rickshaw wallahs struggling along broken roads, cattle ambled through the traffic and sweating men flipped pillow-puffs of bread in sizzling pots of oil. As everywhere in India, ragged bundles marked the beggars, many misshapen and deformed, sleeping rough on footpaths, surviving on handouts.
India confronts the senses and can shock with its poverty, heat, pollution and pressing crowds. Yet the vitality and colour are unforgettable.
And if you want to buy a camel in Rajasthan, now you know where to go.
When to go
Timing of the Pushkar Fair is dictated by the full moon. In 2013 it will be held from 13 to 17 November, though camel herders, traders and nomads start to arrive from the desert several days earlier. November is an ideal time to visit, with daily temperatures averaging 8ºC to 22ºC
Jet Airways has daily flights from Singapore to Jaipur, the nearest airport; return fares in November start from $S950. From Jaipur it’s three hours by bus to Ajmer (approx. $15 return), the capital of Rajasthan, which is 11km from Pushkar – half an hour by local bus or taxi.
Camp Bliss offers near-luxury tented accommodation in a peaceful gooseberry orchard with genuine hospitality, a short walk from the Fair showground. A tent for two with all meals included will cost $375 per night.
Hotel Kishan Palace is quaint and quirky, clean and welcoming, with air-conditioned rooms and a rooftop bar and restaurant, and is a 10-minute walk from town. Room rates in November start from $110 per night.
Where to eat
Restaurants in Pushkar tend to be cheap and cheerful and mainly vegetarian, and alcohol can be hard to find. Here are two worth visiting:
Om Shiva Garden Restaurant – tasty food in a lovely garden by the lake.
The Sixth Sense – rooftop dining with pleasant views; friendly, and good for Rajasthani specialities.
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