Pushkar has been a holy place and a destination of pilgrims since time immemorial. It’s one of India’s oldest settlements, and that’s saying something in a country so richly embedded in antiquity. Centred around a lake sitting in a vast natural amphitheatre — a bowl surrounded on three sides by hills and by sand dunes on the fourth — Pushkar is venerated and visited by thousands of Indian pilgrims throughout the year.
Pushkar is so holy that pretty much all of it is sacred — and worth seeing, any time of the year. The water is holy, the tiered steps leading down to the lake are holy, and there are more than 500 temples (!) in and around the town — including the only temple in India dedicated to Brahma.
And then, each November, something extra special takes place at Pushkar — and that’s why we run our Pushkar Camel Fair photo holiday. The Pushkar Camel Fair, part wheeler-dealing livestock trading convention, part enormous festive fun-fair and hoe-down, is a staggering visual feast and sensory experience; nothing can prepare you for it, but we’ll try!
Camels, camels, camels!
For weeks before the Fair’s official opening date, tens of thousands of camels, cattle, goats, sheep and horses are driven by their owners across the barren desert plain towards Pushkar. With the livestock come entire families — women and children, the very young and the very old. It’s a mass migration and, with tribal colours lighting up the brown desert, a spectacle in its own right.
And when all these good folks finally roll up at Pushkar a few days before the opening date, they pitch their tents, unpack their fashionable Sunday best and every bit of jewellery that they can muster, and get out there to drive a hard bargain, turn their animals into cash (or vice versa), and prepare to party!
“50,000 animals and 200,000 people are about to pass before your camera. There are not enough memory cards in the world to store everything you will want to capture.”
Prepare to be amazed. Here, in this sandy water-bowl, all of Rajasthan’s cultural diversity and splendor is around you. 50,000 animals and 200,000 people are about to pass before your camera. There are not enough memory cards in the world to store everything you will want to capture.
The men are there for the animals (see How to buy a camel, below), the women for the fashion and the glamour. The ladies crowd into the serried ranks of stalls selling jewellery and accessories… intricate silver ornaments, hairpins, nose-rings, chains and neckwear, anklets, toe rings and bangles that run from wrist to armpit. And then there’s the clothes… patchwork, tie and dye, sequined blouses and pleated ankle-length skirts.
The fair's origins are simple: the desert people of Rajasthan needed somewhere to buy and sell camels, and the Pushkar event became the main trading-post. To sell camels, you need to show them off to best advantage, which means decorating them. In turn, that led to the camel beauty contests, which prompted the rise of the many stalls selling camel accessories. And because the event involves people from far and wide, the food stalls sprang up: the visiting women attracted the fashion accessory vendors, and the stock exchange became a kind of cultural Woodstock, with musicians and folk dancers to amuse the visitors.
There are two broad phases making up this 9-day spectacle: first the trading and then, after the deals have been done and millions of rupees have changed hands, the serious traders — and most of the camels — vanish off back into the hills and Pushkar becomes more of a country fairground than a trading exchange. Because we want to show you tons of other amazing things in Rajasthan, our Pushkar photo tour brings you to Pushkar at what is commonly considered the most unique and authentic time: just before and into the opening, when the horse-trading is at its most intense, when the access to the stars of the show — the Rajasthani people and their livestock — is easiest, and when every image you take won’t have a foreign tourist in it.
And then we, like the camel-traders, will slope off to our next destination, dodging the densest onslaught of visitors — the riotous can’t-move-for-people crowds, the dancers, the jugglers, the snake-charmers, the tattooists, the street musicians, the crooks and their shills. It's all amazing fun, but we have more exclusive photo-engagements waiting for us.
Check the consumption, it's OK to haggle!
Just in case you're tempted to take home a new camel to replace your tired old one, we thought you might like a briefing on how to go about it.
Now you’ve probably bought a used car or two in your time: kicked its tyres, popped the hood to inspect the engine-room, peered under the fenders to check for rust, that kind of thing. Well, that’s not too far off how you go about sizing up a camel.
- Walk around it slowly, inspecting the merchandise.
- Check its consumption — is it eating well?
- Is the suspension in good shape? Is it sagging on its springs? Your proposed acquisition needs to stand strong and sit down straight, else it’s likely a feeble specimen.
- Check underneath: a clean undercarriage is a sign of loving maintenance and recent servicing.
- Pop the hood: open its mouth and check its teeth — is everything looking healthy behind the radiator grille, or is this likely to be a temperamental beast, a purchase decision that’ll come back to bite you later?
- And of course, you need to take it for a spin: does it ride well? How’s it feel over the humps?
All common sense, really. And this process is followed a hundred times a day at the Pushkar Camel Fair.
Sometimes, the negotiations are quick, sometimes a lengthy and elaborate social waltz around the final price. Needless to say, the vendor finds it necessary to extol his camel’s virtues — never been raced, one careful owner — while the prospective buyer needs to perfect his technique for sucking air through his teeth to exhibit a polite dismay at the modest goods on offer.
When the deal is finally struck, the seller will walk away with his moneybag stuffed, typically, with something between 8,000 rupees (for an old banger) and 110,000 rupees for a prize showroom-class specimen. (That’s between US$200–2,500). The new owner will promptly head off to the camel equivalent of the motor accessory shop: entire market stalls devoted to selling camel doodads and gewgaws such as handmade saddles (guaranteed to soften every hump and bump), saddle-straps and cinches, shiny beads, bells and shells to adorn the new beast. This is often followed by a shearing, a shining, a body-scrub and an all-over perfuming before the owner proudly takes his new transport, fuzzy dice duly dangling, for a boulevard cruise to impress friends and strangers who have the bitter misfortune of driving last year’s model.
Check out Pushkar in our Rajasthan photography expedition!