The town of Pushkar sits in a lush oasis on the edge of the Negrev desert in Northern India. Regal white palaces and temples encircle a small holy lake, and bougainvillea, rose bushes, palms and cacti fill the town with colour. In vivid contrast the desert surrounding Pushkar lies vast, inhospitable and empty, except for a few weeks every November when thousands of nomads, camel and cattle breeders congregate to await the full moon and the commencement of the Pushkar camel fair.
The fair is yet to begin, but people and animals have been flooding in for over a week and I set out early one morning to take a closer look. The barren wasteland has been transformed into a giant canvas city and the pale undulating sand dunes overflow with a multitude of life forms.
Groups of men in colourful turbans huddle around fires warming their hands, many smoke chilums (clay pipes) and the sweet smell of hashish imbues the air. Others offer prayers, incense and flowers to the makeshift temples and alters. Thousands of camels greet the new day with huge yawns revealing dirty yellow teeth and bulbous tongues. Many are decked out in full camel regalia, including tassels, pom poms, and tinsel. Some have patterns clipped into their fur and others are covered in elaborate designs painted in henna. Most seem quite oblivious to all the fuss and carry on in their usual manner, spitting, biting and releasing noxious gas. This is the largest camel fair in the world and in the next few days thousands of camels and livestock will be bought and sold. Negotiations can take hours or even days, and involve copious amounts of chai drinking, finger waggling and theatrics. Most trading takes place in the week before the fair begins, leaving people free to enjoy the festivities which include camel racing, horse jumping, folk dancing and the highly sought after ‘best decorated camel prize’.
Camels are truly bizarre creatures with their comical facial expressions and awkward gait, not to mention those humps! They are notoriously stubborn and bad tempered, yet these beasts of endurance are essential to life in the desert. They can carry a 250 kilo load for more than 100 kilometers without water, but when they find water they can drink 100 liters of it in ten minutes.
People warned me that these were primitive tribal people and that I should not go out to the desert alone. Yet I find nothing but kindness, curiosity and a keen desire to be captured on film. As I photograph one person, someone inevitably tugs my arm and asks to be next – and I don’t here any of the usual demands for chocolate or rupees as payment. I join one group for a chai, but decline the opium filled chilum they are passing around. We all smile and nod at each other, the sweet milky tea warms my stomach and is, as we all agree “tikka” (good).
I am filled with a sense of contentment as I gaze around at this timeless scene, which is quite unlike anything I have ever experienced before. A group of tribal women surround me and look as if they have just stepped off a space ship. They wear pointy metal bustiers, their arms are covered from wrists to shoulders with heavy ivory bangles, and their faces are obscured by elaborate nose rings. They are clearly fascinated by me — it seems that I appear every bit as alien to them, with my jeans, blonde pony tail and rucksack. They follow me about, giggling excitedly, fingering my bag and touching my hair.
The arrival of full moon also signifies the beginning of another celebration, that of the Lord of Creation. At this time Pushkar’s holy lake is said to acquire divine properties — to bathe in its waters is to wash away all sin.Thankfully, I have already washed my sins away in a recent trip to the Ganges in Varanasi and I watch the crowd of thousands shoving and jostling to get into the tiny lake from the safety and comfort of my balcony. People make their offerings of flowers and coconuts to the accompaniment of beating drums, chanting and ringing bells. Huge black faced monkeys gracefully lounge on the ornate turrets and domes of the temples, keeping a lazy eye on the proceedings. Cows wander along the banks of the lake, stealing flowers and sweets from the pilgrims and the Brahmin priests do a roaring trade in ceremonies and blessings.
I return to the desert a few days later. The fair is now in full swing and there is an air of festivity and joy. Carnival people have arrived in droves, setting up ferris wheels, carousels and side shows. Indian pop music blares out from loud speakers and stalls sell everything from camel decorations to kitsch religious paraphernalia. Traditional artisans with ceramic pots sit amidst peanut sellers and chai stalls; snake charmers play haunting melodies to lure their cobras out of baskets; holy men in saffron robes with dreadlocks piled on top of their heads move through the crowds offering their blessings.There are so many bizarre sights it seems impossible to take it all in. I see a cow being led through the crowd, its birth defects include two extra legs, which hang limply from its neck, another has a deformed head growing off its back. Its owner calls to me, “Madam, you want to touch, only one rupee”. Of all the freaky sights I encounter, the most disturbing is a performing monkey copulating with a rabbit!
This time I am experiencing the fair from a new angle, astride a camel which seems appropriate under the circumstances. My charge however, turns out to be quite ill tempered, when I pat him in greeting, he tries to bite me . He then proceeds to steal a mouthful of food from every pile of chaff and camel fodder he comes across, to the amusement and sometimes consternation of the Indians: “Madam, you have very bad camel,” they call out to me. Most disconcerting is the way he constantly pokes his tongue out and shakes his head while making rather obscene noises. My guide explains that he is feeling frisky (the camel that is).
My friends decided to splash out and rented a camel cart. It looks comfortable enough with rugs and cushions, but looks can be deceiving and they find themselves trapped with an extremely flatulent camel in front of them and my camel directly behind, spraying saliva in all directions with every amorous shake of his head. We cover more ground on camel back than I had managed on foot and I am truly astounded by the size of the gathering which stretches much further that the eye can see. A cloud of dust moves towards us which turns out to be a camel race, the earth trembles as they pass us by. We climb to the top of a small hill and watch the sun sink behind the sand dunes. Evening fires are lit and clouds of smoke billow into air covering the desert in a golden mist. It is a beautiful vision, made perfect by the fact that it is fleeting, in a few days it will all be gone and the desert will again lie silent and empty.