Rajasthan It's Fair Time in Pushkar

Discover the magic of the Pushkar fair in Rajasthan
Rajasthan It's Fair Time in Pushkar

Camel ride, sirGreat camel.
Nahin ji.
Why nahin ji, sir What could I say Theres only so much camel I can take, and Id been catching myself staring at these strange, disdainful beasts all day. One has to admire an animal that carries off such studied insouciance, all the while doing nothing more important than chewing cud. But I definitely had no intention of riding one.

I had never been to Pushkar before, and at the risk of sounding gauche, I have to admit that nothing had prepared me for this. Despite being one of Indias prime tourist magnets, Pushkar feels strangely isolated. This may be purely geographic the town is situated in a valley between parallel rows of the Aravali range, cut off from its larger neighbour, Ajmer, and indeed from the rest of the world. The Aravali are, of course, far older than the Himalaya, and it is fascinating to imagine how these mountains must have looked in the depths of deep geological time. Secluded in the desert, the town of Pushkar and its cosmic lake are indeed timeless.

This is in part due to a self-reinforcing alliance between the medieval architecture of the town and an even older religio-cultural tradition. Pushkar has to be one of the oldest holy towns in India, second only to Varanasi. Yet its different too. Brahma is worshipped here, as is well known, but his wives also get their due. The Brahmin Savitri and the tribal Gayatri, both boon-granting goddesses, occupy two prominent hilltop shrines on either side of the lake, keeping a watchful eye on their husband. Even in the context of the pantheon, this is Hinduism at its most basic Brahma and the holy cowrather, the cows purifying mouthget the two main ghats by Pushkar lake.

The 52 whitewashed ghats rise up from the lake in that familiar cluster of layered balconies, chattris and terraces that is common to many old pilgrim towns. These provide enough nooks and crannies for bathers to preserve their modesty, or for the bahurupiya to don his make-up, while he transforms into Hanuman or Shiva.

Photography is understandably banned here, considering the number of people in states of casual nudity as they dip themselves repeatedly in the lakes sacred waters. Every day brings more anxious pilgrims, clutching single carry-bags, the women with the ends of their saris firmly tucked into their mouth, and looking for a dharamshala to stay. Of these there are plenty, some of which specify caste affiliations, providing their patrons full servicelodging, food and ease of worship. When the waxing moon reaches its zenith on the night of Kartik Purnima, in a re-enactment of Brahmas mythical yagna attended by all the gods of the pantheon, thousands of people from around the country jostle here for just that one, cathartic dip in the lakes sacred waters.

Its easy to see how the intensity of an exotic faith and the sheer physical splendour of a landscape can combine to such effect on a jaded, urban mind. But while many come here in search of the ineffable, others are here for more tangible reasons. Ive been noticing a young man in a keffiyeh all day, wandering about town, his sharp eyes darting his bulging arsenal of lenses on the ready to capture the colourful and the serendipitous. I finally corner him at one of the large dining tents for camel-herders, while hes shoving his camera into the impressive moustache of a peanut vendor. His name is Vikram, and hes from Mumbai.

Are you here on an assignment
No man, Im here to shoot my portfolio.
Yeah, man. Your portfolio is incomplete without Pushkar. Look around, man, isnt it great

Yes it is, I agree, and he lopes off towards the makeshift tent city that sprouts up every year outside town. It houses the camels, horses and cows, as well as their grooms, minders and sellers. Its carnival time for the local tribal people busily chewing sugarcane, buying farm implements, hukkas and kitchen utensils while an army of photographers shadow their every move, shooting 15 frames a second. If you discount the camels and the holy city vibe, Pushkar is curiously like Santiniketans Poush Melaessentially an annual local fair that politely ignores its well-heeled city patrons.

In another category are the Pushkaritesdecidedly more urban than their nomadic brethrenwho go about their day in the cheerful knowledge that its one long holiday. When the slanting sun paints everything gold late in the afternoon, they emerge in their finery to ride the ferris wheels, eat whatever junk they can get their hands on, visit the temples and the ghats and generally have a good time. However, to many jaded Pushkar hands, there arent any real Pushkarites, just nomads and tourists.

The serious business is transacted at the camel fair. The camel is to the Rajasthani nomad what the yak is to a Tibetana support system, a source of sustenance as well as a principal mode of transport. So buying a good camel makes everyone happy. Everywhere I stop for a cup of tea or a smoke, theres invariably a gaggle of wiry, weather-beaten men in dusty white shirts and large colourful pagdis conspiratorially discussing camels. And in this regard, the notorious Rajasthani preference for all things male seems to fall through. A female camel or a male, what difference does it make, really I want a good camel, admonishes a bidi-smoking elder to a harried flunkey, who rushes off to seal the deal.

But if camels constitute the bulk of the business, horses fetch the higher prices. Pushkar Mela is the place to buy and sell thoroughbreds, especially the Sindhi and Marwari varieties. The horse enclosures are usually peopled by minor Rajput potentates or their agents dressed sharply in riding breeches, jodhpurs and sporting royal crests on their stylish jeeps. A hub for race and polo horses, some desirable animals can fetch really high prices, going up to Rs 5 lakh. Mohar Singh of Kherla village was busy brushing the coat of his dashing brown horse, Badal. Is it true, I asked him, that a horse had sold the previous day for Rs 95 lakh He hadnt heard of such a thing, but he asked me to beware of the sellers of non-Marwari horses. They were spreading misinformation. What did Badal cost He studied my face a full five seconds and said, Rs 4 lakh.

Later as I walked towards the car park, in the bright light of the waxing moon, I thrilled to the mystical charge of an almost-full moon in this oasis under eldritch stars, surrounded by hills over 200 million years old. Who knows, maybe on Kartik Purnima the Old Ones themselves might descend. Pushkar would probably take it in its stride.

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