Troy Hightower

Take a good look at that face—hooded, suspicious eyes, long flat snout and protruding lower lip—with an unquestionable air of superiority. A face that only a camel’s—or more accurately a dromedary’s—mother, or their camelteer could love. This is the face of Pushkar, an internationally known camel fair that has been going on for a century and a half or more.

Pushkar has long been on our bucket list.  We were scheduled to go on our last trip to India a dozen years ago but got word two days before that the state department had issued an advisory of expected terrorism and warned Americans away. We chickened out, didn’t go, and of course there were no incidents.

Originally, Pushkar was only an annual trading/buying/selling event for traders across northern India where an estimated 30,000 camels well as cattle, horses, sheep and goats. It varies slightly in time every year as it is scheduled to coincide with the Kartik Purnima lunar festival. In recent decades, it’s also become effectively the Burning Man of Rajasthan.....a quarter million pilgrims and tourists combined descend for the 5 day event, and there are a myriad of activities besides livestock trading.....a camel beauty contest, famous camel race, horse dance performances, a mustache competition....the biggest allegedly at ten feet....and of course religious ceremonies.

The drive from Jaipur is long—4.5 hours of jouncing and jarring, with mostly terrible roads. As we arrive in town there is a palpable carnival atmosphere.... vendors of all sorts, cooking stalls with smoking braziers and bubbling cauldrons of fat, lugubrious camels, prancing horses, meandering cattle and goats and colorful people. Ranks of dun colored tents march into the distance, housing all of the traders, vendors and pilgrims.

Eight kilometers past town, still more jarring track leads us to the Westin Pushkar—a resort oasis in the desert—dozens of acres of lush landscaping, lawn, fountains and pools among the scrub, with only 95 rooms. My original dream of a luxury tented camp in the desert apparently doesn’t exist at Pushkar (we’ll find it down the road this trip) and the Westin is the best option. We get settled, have a bite of lunch, and head back into town, right into the thick of it, to meet our guide, G.D.  He leads us off toward the lowering sun, into huge groups of camels that are roaring, braying and growling most is abundantly clear that some of the sounds in the Star Wars films were directly adapted from camel talk. And as we watch their lumbering gait, it’s also crystal that the jerky forward March of the AT-AT Walkers introduced in Empire Strikes Back were also camel-based.

Small groups of traders cluster on the ground around smoldering fires, in their dusty white robes and turbans of saffron, red and tan—some smoking bidis, others munching a bite. There are great groups of female camels, with cute youngsters.....the males are kept separate, and they are shaven on the sides in tribal patterns, and adorned with dark painted symbols. Rich asks about prices at the camel auction.....G.D. says prices are down as much as a third, due to multi-year drought in many regions...he points to a one year old, and says you could probably buy her for 15,000 rupees, or about 200 bucks US. But transport and upkeep will be a lot—30-40 pounds a day of feed—and his beloved pooch, Birdie probably would object. We’re told that average camels are going for around 25-30,000, or $400 or so. Prize males can of course fetch a good bit more.

We meander from group to group gawking and snapping photos....looking for that Nat Geo shot. G.D. tells us we’ve come at the perfect time...unbeknownst to us despite research, all the camel, horse and cattle auctions take place the first two days—this is the second—and by the third most of the animals are headed out for the trek home, and then the thousands and thousands of pilgrims descend for the holy festival, and you literally can’t move in town save by inches. We clamber aboard a camel cart...a tented 5x5 rug-covered wooden platform with two big wheels pulled by a single camel—again actually dromedaries—one hump, not two. There are breeds generally from a few areas of Rajasthan—Bikaneri, Jaisalmeri, Kachchhi and Mewari. We lumber and bounce around the fair, past stalls showing the famous Marwari white and black mounts, with curious forward curving ear tips, more vegetable vendors and food stalls, beaten tin pots and hardware, handmade wooden rakes, and a slew of stalls selling colorful tack for horses and camels.

The ladies are in front, and Rich and I are sitting facing backwards, legs dangling.....there is one metal step to alight the cart, and immediately after we set off, a small, nut-brown smiling boy hops onto the step, sits, looks up and holds out his hand for money....we say NO and he smiles and rides along, soon joined by a littler fellow who holds onto him and tries to sand surf...falling quickly into a short sand drag. For the whole trip we have one or more tiny stowaways chatting up and impugning us for handouts.... all smiling and laughing, all the while.

We return to the Westin for a thirst-slaking Bombay Sapphire and tonic in the bar, and then move into the restaurant/buffet. The Westin is not very upscale, and they try and emphasize the buffet.... but when forced, they will bring the ala carte menu. Curiously, they feature dim sum, so we dine on mushroom and chicken bao, Shanghai dumplings, spring rolls and chicken siu mai, accompanied by Sula Indian Sauvignon Blanc. We’ve found the few Indian grown wines, most made in the Maharashtra area, to be quite good. Sula is made by Rajeev Samant, an Indian tech mogul who made his fortune in Silicon Valley and returned to start a winery 20 plus years ago. Grover is one of the early pioneers, and we’ve found their Chenin Blanc lovely. Fratelli is an Indo-Italian collaboration—their Chardonnay is unoaked, crisp and minerally.

We return to town the next morning to wander around the fair, then into the town, through a cacophonous colorful shopping street. We have to leave cameras in a locker, and shoes in a tea shop, then join the packed throng leading up the steps, through a clearly ineffective metal detector, and into the most important, and one of the few Brahma temples in India—Jagatpita Brahma Mandir. Brahma is the god of creation, and once the world was born, he’s no longer needed—hence so few temples dedicated to him, or so we’re told. As the holy festival is near, the temple is jam packed, and police all over the place are hurrying people along, past the solid silver Brahma for just an instant’s viewing. 

Recovering shoes and camera, we thread through the narrow streets, lined with temples to other gods everywhere you look .... there are over 400, as Pushkar is the area’s greatest pilgrimage site. We pass meandering cows, desultory goats, a guy scratching his head repairing his motorbike, a ragged fellow picking through a trash pile to retrieve a broken flip-flop, and through a group of school kids in uniform, finally arriving at the lake, surrounded by 52 ghats....where Brahma performed a sacrifice at the Kartik full moon (this years just four days from today). From our vantage point there is a seething mass of women in a riot of colors—fuchsia, salmon, turquoise, saffron, red, cobalt and more at Varah, Gau and Vishnu ghats. A dip in the lake.... or three at twilight at these most important ghats absolves a woman and her husband completely of their sins, according to Hindu tradition. We are unable to take near photos for this account, since many of the women are partially nude as they bathe, and photography is strictly prohibited.

Finally, we plod on in the increasing heat to the already packed arena, where we sardine ourselves, and I mean that quite literally, in the shady steps to watch the Marwari horse dancing exhibition. The Marwari were bred beginning in the 12th century by the traditional rulers of the region, the Rathores, as cavalry horses. A strident tattoo starts up on the drums, and a big white Marwari stallion prances into the arena......led at the bridle by his trainer, who coaxes with a baton and voice commands, and followed closely by the drummer. The elegant steed jigs, jitters, sidesteps and prances, his step varying with each change in drumbeat. The trainer throws up his hands, and the horse rears, and dances in circles on his hind legs to roaring cheers and applause from the audience. Two mores white horses, then a black perform, and a final huge white stallion—last year’s champ—his chest circled with gold medals, ends the thrilling show.....the Lipizzaners have nothing over these beauties .....we came for the camels, and the beautiful Marwari horses are a terrific bonus.

On the way out, we’re overtaken by a train of camels.... a huge male in the lead, head held high and proud, egged on by the drover with a cane and barked commands...the entire herd of dozens more placidly follow the leader without direction or accompaniment—headed back to their home pasture. The Pushkar Camel Fair is over for them, and so for us–-bucket list ticked.