Desert Carnival: Experiencing Rajasthan’s Annual Pushkar Camel Fair

By Priya Ranganathan

The landscape is a myriad of colours, pulsing with life, dazzling, radiant. A burst of chaos amidst a sea of sand and Prosopis.

My nostrils flare to absorb the unfamiliar mixture of smells, from camel hide to tanned leather to sweetmeats to sweaty horse to cattle droppings that litter the sandy soil. As the unforgivably hot sun beats down on our heads, we make our way into the Pushkar Mela, India’s largest traditional mela or fair.

Each November, during the full moon of the Hindu month Kartik, the tiny town of Pushkar, in Ajmer district of western Rajasthan, comes alive with the sound of camel bells. Thousands of livestock herders arrive in the fairgrounds to exhibit and trade their camels, bullocks and buffaloes. This is a gathering in the most traditional sense – from camel races to bull taming exhibitions to a vividly lively market! The Pushkar Mela is a treat for both the Indian and the foreign traveller. Each year, the fair attracts over 200,000 visitors. The dates for the fair this year, November 4th through 12th 2019, perfectly coincided with my visit to western Rajasthan.

 

We began our Pushkar experience with a visit to the only temple in the world devoted to Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, surprisingly located in this small town. Our van driver and guide who narrated the history of Pushkar, told us of the religious significance it has for both Sikhs and Hindus. Well known for its gurudwaras built to commemorate the visits of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, the town finds mention in the Puranas, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana. Under Aurangzeb’s reign,[1] many temples were destroyed, all of which were later rebuilt after the collapse of the Mughal Empire[2].

After braving the hordes of pilgrims at the Brahma Temple, we headed to Pushkar Lake and its many bathing ghats. Pushkar Lake is sacred, much like Manasarovar Lake in Tibet. Legend says that the lake was created when Lord Brahma dropped a lotus from his hand onto a depression in the soil, creating bountiful water. Hundreds of pilgrims were bathing in the lake and we too immersed our legs in the holy water, splashing a few drops on our heads as per tradition.

 

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 Folklore says that the Pushkar lake was created when Lord Brahma dropped a lotus petal on the ground, creating this massive waterbody, now used for religious worship and lined with bathing and cremation ghats.

Next, we took a leisurely stroll through the busy markets, which sold everything from sweets prepared in thick ghee to saddles and bridles for camels and horses. I was particularly drawn to the brightly coloured skirts and cholis that hung from rafters in every other stall. Children ran between us, holding bunches of gaudy flowers and pencils to sell to the milling tourists. Three women sat on the side of the path with woven baskets in front of them; one of them opened her basket as I passed to reveal a hissing snake. The poor thing had its mouth sewed shut. Various stalls sold elaborate Rajput swords and shields, remnants of a bygone warrior era. Pushkar Mela is famous not only for its market and temples, but also for its exhibitions of handicrafts, dance, and skills with camel and horse riding. A stadium of sorts had been set up in the middle of the fairgrounds, where crowds of bystanders cheered as camel races commenced. The stadium also hosts traditional sports like women’s and men’s tug-of-war competitions, bull racing, horse racing, and traditional dancing and sword fighting. Wrestling matches are very popular among men visiting the fair. A large fairground is also set up for those seeking more modern thrills amidst the traditional entertainment. Three giant wheels, a swinging boat, and countless stalls hawking frothy pink and blue candy floss are visible even from a distance.

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As vendors hawk their wares in the crowded bazaars, children dart about trying their luck at selling visitors flowers and sweets.

The fair is also famous for its Marwari horses. This stately horse is a rare breed from Jodhpur, known for its ear tips that turn inwards. They descended from Arabian horses cross-bred with Indian ponies. Local legend has it that the Rathores, rulers of Marwar, were the traditional breeders of the horse. Only members of the royal family or those in the Kshatriya warrior caste were allowed to ride it. Today, of course, one can ride these horses for a unique view of the Pushkar Mela.

A must-do in Pushkar is a camel safari, where you sit atop one of those precariously bad-tempered beasts and clop across the golden-brown sand. The sky seems endless at such moments, a swathe of blue over an ocean of gold. Having ridden camels in the past, I was content to stand and watch a caravan of these beasts trot in the distance. Carrying ecstatic tourists on their humped backs, their stately forms melted into that exotic place where the sand meets the shadows.

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Camels are known as the ships of the desert, and these regal beasts are everywhere in Pushkar Mela. Look out for camel races and camel rides if you visit this busy fair.

My visit to Pushkar gave me a newfound appreciation for the rich history of Rajasthan and the pride that its people take in tradition and glory. From the bedecked camels to the pure-bred horses, from the swords that gleamed in the sunlight to the glittery chaniya-cholis worn by the women, Pushkar Mela was a melee of colour and festivity, a glimpse of the true heart of rural India that is hard to find in our increasingly-urbanized world today.

[1] Aurangzeb ruled the Mughal Empire from 1658-1707 CE. Pushkar came under Mughal rule in 1301 CE and remained so until 1712 CE (Census of India, GoI).

[2] This statement is still, however, a point of historical debate and not resolved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Priya Ranganathan is a researcher with ATREE working on the CHANSE project. She is a geologist by training, with a master’s degree in Landscape Ecology and Conservation Management. Priya is interested in studying the ecosystem services associated with and conservation management of wetlands in India. Apart from adapting to new techniques and hydrological models, she writes popular science articles to promote knowledge about ecology and current environmental issues.

 

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