Pushkar Camel Fair (1)
Pushkar, Rajasthan, India
Over the full moon of the Indian Kartika month, usually mid-November
For anyone who has ever wondered what a football crowd-sized quantity of farting camels smells like, the Pushkar Camel Fair, on the fringes of India’s Thar Desert in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, is the place to find out. This compact pilgrimage town, clustered around a pearl-shaped lake in the lee of the Aravalli Hills, is overrun by more than fifty thousand flatulent ships of the desert, along with cartloads of their owners, dressed in jaw-dropping traditional costumes. Concentrating the full spectrum of Rajasthani colour onto a sandy canvas the size of New York’s Central Park, it’s everything foreigners come to India hoping to experience, but usually only catch fleeting glimpses of from train or bus windows.
Picking your way through all the donkey turds, camel pats and goat droppings, it’s easy to forget that the livestock fair is only a sideshow to the main religious celebration of Kartika Purnima. For the three days of the full-moon period, the waters of Pushkar lake (believed to have formed when the Lord Brahma, the Creator Being, dropped a lotus flower to earth to crush a demon) are said to cleanse the soul of all sin. Ancient Hindu scriptures record this auspicious astrological phase as the one chosen by Brahma to convene all 900,000 deities of the Hindu pantheon for a yagya ceremony. Brahma also decided to get hitched at the same time, but his fiancee, the beautiful Savitri, failed to show up, and he found another consort, an Untouchable girl from the Gujar (herder) caste called Gayatri. When Savitri found out she’d been jilted, she flew into a cosmic rage and cursed Brahma, saying that henceforth he’d only be worshipped here at Pushkar. The spell has never been broken. Despite occupying a prominent position at the centre of the great Hindu trinity, the Supreme Creator Being only boasts one major shrine in India, overlooking Pushkar lake. From its shores, two hills sweep in gentle curves to rocky summits crowned by a pair of identical toothpaste-white temples: the abodes of Savitri and Gayatri, the jealous wives, locked in an eternal stand-off.
The yagya ceremony and Brahma’s marriage are the mythological foundations of the Kartika Purnima festival, when tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims pour in to Pushkar to notch up a few points on their reincarnatory balance sheet with a redemptory dip. Scriptures dating back more than 1500 years mention this annual event, and it is highly likely that the camel fair, which takes place in the dunes west of the lake and temple area at the same time, is just as ancient. Brahma’s wife Gayatri was, after all, a Gujar, and for the camel herders Pushkar remains the holiest of holies – “Pushkar Maharahajl”, or “Pushkar, King of Kings”.
Having got the harvest safely in their granaries, the Gujar herders, Lohar blacksmiths, and innumerable other castes and tribes from India’s arid border region spruce up their camels with fancy fur and other jazzy tack, don their most colourful turbans, wax the ends of their handlebar moustaches into pin-sharp points and head for the fair. Uniquely at Pushkar, the men are also accompanied to the market by equal numbers of women, whose flowing veils and pleated ankle-length skirts, glittering with mirrorwork and elaborate embroidery, outshine even their husbands’ candy-coloured headgear. Picture this spectacle against a backdrop of rolling ochre dunes, enveloped in a pall of woodsmoke and dust kicked up by tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims, ash- smeared ascetics, acrobats, snake charmers, Japanese film crews and Israeli ravers, and you’ll understand why Pushkar’s camel fair has become the cornerstone of tourist itineraries over the Indian winter.
The local tourist office, which has been muscling in on the camel ! fair for the past fifteen years or so, promotes the full-moon weekend itself as the core of the festival. However, to see the livestock market in full swing, you should come at least ten days before the culmination of Kartika Purnima. Most of the serious trading is done well before the “official” festival, or mela, even starts. By the time the tourist office’s camel races and beauty competitions are underway in its specially erected stadium, all but a handful of the Gujars and ‘ other tribals have moved off, having blown all their winnings and run out of fodder.