Jelha Ram, a camel trader from Nagor, stands with one of his camels as sun sets over Pushkar. It was once almost unknown for a herder to part with a female camels but they now fetch high prices, partly because of increased demand for camel milk which is high in Vitamin C, and  low in fat and more digestible than cow’s milk.
Rajasthan – Long Read

World’s biggest camel fair

Photo by Ami Vitale

Rajasthan – Long Read World’s biggest camel fair

Hello Rajasthan, where India's sacred city of Pushkar comes alive under the autumn full moon every year with 200,000 Hindu pilgrims washing away their sins by bathing in a lake made sacred by Lord Brahma. And, for a week beforehand, the nomads of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert arrive to join the crowds for what has become the world’s biggest camel fair.

David Noyes
David Noyes Travel Writer

From a distance, the hundreds of tents in endless rows on the outskirts of Pushkar look like the military encampment of a besieging army. I hop off my camel cart to walk the sandy corridors between them, while thousands of desert nomads, here for the annual Camel Fair, start to welcome a new day. The barren landscape is coming to life with the traders, gypsies and pilgrims who descend on this sleepy lakeside city every autumn from all over India.

Countless camels kick up a cloud of suffocating dust under the heat of the rising sun, while cattle and goat herders water their animals at large communal troughs. The dung is being collected by women, serene in their bright saris, who will dry it in the sun to be used as fuel for cooking. A group of men huddle around a smoky campfire and children rub sleep from their eyes with tiny fists.

Through the haze of dust, smoke and early morning sun, a woman approaches me. She has a beautiful face and her long red scarf flows and dances along the sand behind her as she walks. Her captivating gaze is intensified by a few precise strokes of black eyeliner. Thick black hair is restrained with matching red pins and she wears a “nath”, the chain from pierced nose to hair that is normally a Hindu bridal ornament. Clearly aware of her striking beauty and its value as a photographic souvenir, she has dressed accordingly. Sure enough, in a soft, heavily accented voice, she smiles at me and whispers: “Photo?”

Her graceful self-confidence and charm are irresistible and I take her portrait in exchange for a few crumpled rupees. It is as if, in the quiet of the day, we are performing a sacred ritual between the visitor and the local, as a way of blessing the day to come. As I walk on into the heart of the city I feel lifted, carrying a smile on my face. She is only the first but certainly the most interesting of the onslaught of beggars, hawkers and performers I meet, each looking to begin their day by catching the eye of the first foreigner who crosses their path. This is India, there is no mistaking.

Persistent young men try to sell me postcards,

Making my way through the persistent young men trying to sell me postcards, beads, trinkets or toys, I reach the winding streets of the Sadar Bazaar and the markets near the Brahma Temple. Storefront shops selling jewelry, shoes, handbags, fabrics and carpets have attracted hordes of women, and bright piles of fruit and vegetables are laid out in ad hoc markets. Hundreds of brightly dressed pilgrims form a long line leading up the marble steps to the temple. It is a riot of color and a fascinating mix of aggressive commerce and openly expressed piety.

This is the most famous and most significant of Pushkar’s 500 temples and one of the few anywhere in the world dedicated to Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe. Topped by a distinctive 210-meter-high red spire, it is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in Hinduism. For many Hindus, pilgrimage is also their preferred form of tourism. They flock to holy cities such as Pushkar and Varanasi, traveling with their families and community groups for an enjoyable and spiritual vacation.

The temple honors Pushkar Lake, a miracle of water that sprang from the desert when a lotus petal (pushpa) fell from the hand (kar) of Lord Brahma at the time of Creation. As old as time itself, one dip in its waters will erase all sins. The lake has 52 “ghats” or bathing steps around it, each of which is said to have special powers, and walking around the lake on the eve of the autumn full moon or “Kartik Poornima” is especially auspicious. On this day, all of the 330 million Hindu gods are believed to join the bathers in celebration of the creator and it becomes the holiest place on earth.

I watch from a respectful distance, which also avoids the annoyance of priests hustling visitors to say the prayers of “puja” to be cleansed – and give an offering in exchange. Hindu men in homespun dhotis and veiled women in brilliant saris or pleated ghagra skirts and choli blouses cleanse themselves in the holy lake, speckled with rose-colored flowers. The only sound that breaks the humbling silence is the splash of water.

Largest fair of its kind anywhere in the world

Pilgrims arrive from all over India by train, car, bus, camel cart and on foot to bathe with the gods and this small city of whitewashed buildings, with a permanent population of just 15,000, is overwhelmed. The devotees come for enlightenment and salvation, but they also come to shop the local markets and be entertained by the largest fair of its kind anywhere in the world, as nomadic desert performers and foreign tourists boost Pushkar’s population to 200,000.

The woman I first met belongs to one of the lowest castes in India, the Kalbelia, known as the snake charmers for the traditional occupation of their menfolk, often called on to rid homes and farms of snakes, and cure snakebite. When Rajasthan still had its wealthy maharajas with their opulent palaces and spectacular fortresses, their skills as entertainers were highly sought after – the cobra is the manifestation of Lord Shiva – while their women danced, their sinuous movements echoing those of the snake.

As the maharajas declined in prestige and wealth after Indian Independence in 1947, the Kalbelia began to follow fairs and festivals, performing for a pittance, or begging. Other wanderers of the desert who come to Pushkar include the Bhils (archers), who account for about a third of Rajasthan’s tribal population; Gadiya Lohars (blacksmiths), the Bhopa (musicians and singers, whose stories preserve oral histories), and the Nat (acrobats, magicians, and tightrope walkers), each with their own costumes and features.

As these service castes of India’s western desert mingle with higher-caste pilgrims, Pushkar offers a glimpse of India’s past and into the lives of marginalized people existing outside the high-speed, high-tech modern economy. The first five days of the fair are a time of carnival and camel, before the focus shifts to the religious festival of Kartik Purnima. The peaceful pilgrim town explodes into a spectacle of local culture, layered and intertwined with myth, history and spirituality to make a bewildering bazaar of gypsies, gods and dromedaries.

The “bioscope wala” drums up business for his films

The snake charmers play hypnotic music to entice cobras to rise out of wicker baskets and dance, joined by elaborately dressed street performers, ash-covered Sadhus – many fake but seemingly lost in a spiritual trance – and six-legged cows, whose owners highlight their deformities to elicit money from the curious. The “bioscope wala” drums up business for his films and the “nautanki wali” perform their dance shows. And the festival organizers put on longest mustache and cattle milking competitions, tug-of-wars, camel races and “matka” (water pot) races. Most of all, there are the tribal women in their brightly colored saris and the thousands of amazing faces that reflect the long and fascinating history of an ancient culture that still lives in the heart and soul of Rajasthan.

“Come meet Marilyn,” shouts a young camel driver. “She will win the race today. Do you want to ride?” he asks. “Not a chance,” I say. Besides the blonde hair and shapely silhouette, I don’t see much of a resemblance to the American icon and the camels that race are among the most belligerent. The smell of camel shit doesn’t help much either. This Rajasthani beauty could be dangerous.

“Okay,” he says, noticing my camera. “Photo? 50 rupees.” He agrees to 20 and I snap a portrait of him and Ms Marilyn as she poses in all her glory. Herders wait a full year for this fair to come around so they can sell their animals, both new and pre-owned. And, like any good car salesman, they make sure the product looks its best. Camels are decorated in designs made of henna mixed with black dye, while others have their hair shaved to better show off their racing lines. Stalls sell accessories, from saddles and blankets to halters and decorative tassels, but most of the camels in ornate trappings are, like this one, for tourists to ride.

I am a bit surprised to meet such a young boy among the seasoned camel traders who have traveled for days across the desert to buy and sell at Pushkar. He belongs to the semi-nomadic caste called , identified by their bright turbans, who are the historic camel breeders of this arid province of Rajasthan. For thousands of years, the camel served many purposes including wartime cavalry, who continue to patrol the remote desert border with Pakistan.

Its hide is used for leather after it dies

For the Raika, the camel is the foundation of their livelihood. In the desert, it is a beast of burden and mode of transportation. Its dung is used for fuel, its milk is used for food and its hide is used for leather after it dies. For centuries, the camel was their currency and this annual fair was important family business. Owning camels was once and still is a sign of wealth and status.

Their tribal creation story claims that their ancestors were brought into existence by Lord Shiva in order to tend for the first camel, which was called into being for the amusement of the Hindu goddess Parvati. The Raika have historically taken this divine charge seriously, developing a unique bond with their camels, but their future is in doubt. Farmers can now afford more modern methods, rather than having land irrigated by camel-powered systems, or fertilized by camel dung, and there is increasing pressure on land. When the government banned all grazing animals from national wildlife reserves, formerly traditional pasture lands, one Raika elder said: “Before, we could survive famine after famine, but we can’t survive the Forestry Department.”

The Raika once considered it taboo to sell female camels outside their community, or any camels for meat, but in the last decade it has become a common sight at Pushkar as the trade becomes more difficult and less profitable. The decade from 1994 to 2004 saw Rajasthan’s camel population drop by half and, as less young camels are bought and sold, the Raika still involved in animal husbandry have started to raise sheep and goats.

Camel urine is good for piles

Although prices at the fair can range from $US200 to $US2,000 for camel, younger generations increasingly turn to menial work in India’s cities as times change fast for these herders of antiquity. It is a real concern for those who recognize the importance of the camel in preserving the ecological balance of this arid region. Not to mention the fact, as one elder tells me: “Camel urine is good for piles, and for ear infections.”

The Raika and Kalbelia are among an estimated 500 nomadic castes in India, making up 80 million people or around seven per cent of the country’s population. Rajasthan has more than double the national average of nomadic tribal groups and they have a long history. A thousand years ago, a group of nomads left the Thar Desert, traveling through the Middle East and reaching Europe late in the 13th century. Eventually this migration spread across the entire world.

They are the Romani and they have been called “gypsies” in one language or another in nations on every continent. It is a word that has come to define a traveling population living outside the boundaries and laws set by more settled peoples, using their wits and talents to earn a living. Often meeting prejudice and discrimination wherever they go, their brethren who remained in Rajasthan have not fared much better.

In 1871, British colonial authorities imposed the Criminal Tribes Act, which labeled dozens of nomadic castes in India as “habitually criminal,” restricting their movement and forcing them to register and report to local police. Originally written to combat and control wandering groups of thieves and murderers known as “Thugs,” who preyed on travelers in India’s northwest frontier, the Act also victimized these small communities of low-caste nomadic traders, skilled craftsmen, entertainers and pastoralists who didn’t conform to the colonial model of a civilized society.

Marginalized, impoverished and branded “born criminals” by government decree, they effectively became a hereditary underclass. The newly independent Indian government withdrew the Act in 1952, only to replace it with the Habitual Offenders Act, which still categorizes many of these same nomadic tribes as “habitual offenders who pose a threat to society”. The legacy of 140 years of statutory discrimination continues to haunt those who belong to these communities.

This annual gathering is not a tourist extravaganza

Although not entirely accepted, as a foreigner and photographer, I am welcomed with smiles and tolerated as a potential source of income as I wander through their encampments. However, this annual gathering is not a tourist extravaganza. It is their party, their fair and their festival. Smiles and laughter add to the air of festivity at the camel races and beauty contests. Giggles suggest the lightness of the moment while scores of young women wait in line at the Ferris wheels that tower above the desert horizon.

Families indulge in music, dances, games and shopping after the business of the day is completed. The fair is a chance for Rajasthan’s nomadic tribes to meet old friends and enjoy a break from the harshness of their daily lives, for young people to meet potential husbands and wives, and marriage arrangers to start making deals.

As the desert swallows up the sun, which blazes on the horizon before giving the stage to the full moon, campfires spread like a carpet of stars. Music and song, laughter and whirling dances bring the night to life with all the dignity and richness of India. Ancient melodies and tales of the heroes of old entertain this colorful mix of peoples from all across its vast and varied landscape.

The camels snort gently, the tourists have gone to their hotels and the fairground rides lie still. The fires will die out one by one, while thousands of tired bodies sleep through the Pushkar night until they once again welcome a new day with the dawn.

Other stories about Rajasthan