Asia 20 – Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar Camel Fair (2)

The camel fair

Once you’ve dumped your luggage at whichever tent camp or guesthouse you’ve managed to find a space in, follow the tide of humanity down through the Main Bazaar, and past the northern edge of the lake to the main mela ground. You’ll smell it long before see it. For most of the past decade, something like 200,000 people have converged on Pushkar for the fair, the majority of them camel herders, whose makeshift encampment, strewn over the dunes outside town, is the great sight of the festival. Crouched or leaning on sticks under the knobbly knees and imperious necklines of their animals, the villagers congregate in knots of dealers and family groups to buy, sell, smoke chillums and watch the world go by. For the women in particular, dripping in heavy silver jewellery, their eyes heavily lined by black kohl, Pushkar represents a rare break from the daily grind of life in the desert villages. This is the time when mothers and aunts fix matches for their daughters and nieces, and when sisters separated since marriage are reunited to swap news.

As an outsider, you may feel a bit uncomfortable amid the sea of camel legs and outsized turbans, but no one seems in the least perturbed by the hordes of white people that mill around these days, not even when they find themselves staring down the barrel of a 200mm lens. Rajasthanis adore dressing up, and pose with evident pride beside their animals, after a last-minute twirl of the moustache or twitch of a sequined odini to preserve modesty. Beside the campground, a good old-fashioned funfair provides a hefty dose of subcontinental surreality.

Join the queue of Gujar girls in their swirling skirts and veils for a ride on a rickety big wheel, or check out Rajasthan’s take on the Wall of Death, in which a Maruti hatchback is driven at top speed around the vertical sides of a drum, with a man leaning out of the window to grab the rupee notes offered by the astonished spectators standing on the rim. Meanwhile, between racks of day-glo party gear and crazy-patchwork bedspreads, crowds start to congregrate around the sideshows: tight-rope walking toddlers balancing brass pots on their heads; folk bands singing desert songs to tabla, harmonium and reed-pipe accompaniment; and, weirdest of all, the masochistic sadhus (holy men), smeared with cow-dung ash and sandalwood paste. Brandish your camera and you’ll find a gang of them dangling bricks from their penises, sticking skewers through their tongues or rolling around on beds of nails and crushed glass. Towards the end of the afternoon, however, everyone – even the sadhus – packs up and heads to the dunes for sunset. This is the time die-hard druggies hit the bhang lassi – a potent psychedelic concoction of marijuana leaves mixed with sugar, spices, milk and yogurt. Even without one, though, the sight of the world’s largest camel herd spread across the darkening dunes, with campfires illuminating the faces and silver necklaces of the herders, is pure magic.

The full-moon fair

If only as an antidote to bhang-lassi-induced brain fuzz, the mayhem of the “official” fair, staged at the stadium on the outskirts of town, is worth hanging around for. During the three days of the full moon itself, various agricultural competitions and races attract straggling herders and a stadium full of camera-toting tourists. Adornment and fur-clipping contests, livestock beauty competitions and cow-milking demonstrations are followed by rounds of horse- and camel-dashes, where the spectacle of flapping camel lips and the prodigious quantities of spittle flicked from them, leave the most lasting impression. More hilarious still is the “camel­loading” event, in which villages compete to see how many people can pile on to a growling beast before it flips them off – kind of like a camel rodeo for large crowds. The weirdest race of all is one in which teams of men with terracotta pots of water balanced on their heads attempt to run through ranks of club-wielding opponents, whose task is to smash the pots and soak the runners, provoking cheers of approval from the stands. The foreigners get their chance to bag a Pushkar prize in the grand Tourists v Locals Tug-O-War. Each year the line of burly Germans and American ex-footballers looks certain to kick sand in the face of the scrawny Rajasthani squad, but the result is always the same: a humiliating defeat for the visitors and unbridled jubilation among the Indian spectators. The madness of the mela’s wacky Olympics is a far cry indeed from the mass devotion of the main puja, or religious ritual, which brings Pushkar’s Kartika Pumima festivities to a spiritual close on the final day of the full moon. Throughout the afternoon and evening, pilgrims pour in by the thousands from the surrounding villages to be at the lakeside for dawn, the most auspicious bathing time. Thumping drum beats, bells and devotional songs, pumped out by the temples’ crackly old sound systems, create a decidedly unholy din that drifts across the still waters of the lake and rises to a crescendo just before sunrise. Standing waist-deep, those lucky enough to have made it to the ghats (bathing places) in time savour the moment with the mantra “Asvodiyov Brahma”, pouring the sacred lake water from cupped hands to worship the source of life – the sun – as it rises above the parched Aravalli ridges.

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