About This Festival
The Pushkar Camel Fair isn't just a gathering of the dromedaries. This is a county fair of epic proportions, complete with rides like the “Cage of Death,” friendly competitions like the longest mustache contest, and an endless, Technicolor parade of dancers, snake charmers, magicians and musicians.
A Feast for the Senses
Beware sensory overload! The nose gets an olfactory workout in India, and nowhere more strenuous than in Rajasthan’s dusty desert town of Pushkar during its famous Camel Fair. The “fragrance” of more than 50,000 camels, horses, cows, goats and sheep mix with every imaginable Indian delicacy to create a whirlwind of scents, every single breath for a week. Chickpea curry and a hot pakora wrapped in the daily newspaper nourish you. Gypsy music and snake charmer’s flutes harmonize to the cries of ornery camels. The sounds sift deep into your dust-lined ears and the dry desert air gets under your skin. Your eyes feast on a sea of colors from the tents to the traditional costumes and market stalls, and you feel his hard-lived years as a desert trader when he shakes your hand in a welcoming grip. This is a festival to nourish the senses of every wandering desert spirit. Once a year, nomadic souls find home again among camels and tents during the auspicious full moon of Kartik Prunima.
Dipping at Dawn
Pushkar and its lake, in the middle of the barren desert landscape of Rajasthan, have long been a welcoming oasis for spiritual pilgrims. The Pushkar Camel Fair coincides with the religious holiday of Kartik Prunima. The holy lake of Pushkar is said to have been formed when Lord Brahma dropped a lotus flower from the heavens in order to crush a demon on earth. For three days surrounding the fall full moon (usually around November), the waters of Pushkar Lake are said to hold an ancient purification rite of passage. By taking a dip at dawn, one is absolved of sin.
Religion and Survival in the Desert
Doubling-up on devotion and sustenance livestock trading makes this festival a two-for-one, giving visitors real insight into the trials of life in rural India. Religion and survival go hand-in-hand here in the merciless desert, where faith helps provide the strength to carry on with few resources or prospects. The festival ends after the full moon, when bathing at the ghats of Pushkar has the greatest power to absolve sin. However, the camel fair is in full swing up to two weeks in advance of this purification ritual. The real bartering is done during this period and it’s the most authentic time to witness the heart of the festival: camel trading.
This camel fair is the real deal, when up to 300,000 visitors and more than 50,000 camels descend upon Pushkar. A massive tent city occupies the dunes outside the town. It’s like a much smaller and more manageable version of the fabled Kumbh Mela, but nothing less of a spectacle. The Indians’ ingenuity in creating makeshift cities is nothing short of remarkable. This is where the action happens and where you will want to spend most of your time. The majority of the attendees are camel herders eager to buy or sell this precious desert commodity, but with them comes an endless array of musicians, magicians, dancers, snake charmers and holy men who provide curious entertainment for wide-eyed tourists and seasoned locals alike. If you have made it this far, you already have a taste of India and you know very well that anything goes.
White Gold of the Desert
Camels are in high demand, worth their weight in rupees as the price of oil soars in rural India. Camels can live to be 80 years old, are used for transport and agriculture, and they produce the “white gold of the desert”: camel’s milk. They cost a quarter of the price of a tractor and require far less upkeep. They also have quite a bit of personality, but when that fails, their meat, hair, leather and bone are used to feed and clothe the tribal people. This use-it-all society even values camel excrement as precious fuel for cooking in a place where timber is scarce.
The camels here come dressed for show, adorned lovingly with often better clothes than their owners. The best camels will be washed, shaved and fully-decorated with cloths, jewelry, silver bells, bangles and other finery before they are paraded around for all to see. There’s even a Camel Beauty Contest. Other camels will be entered into races and competitions. One curious contest turns the camel into a “clown car,” where the goal is to see how many Indians will fit aboard, until the camel has had enough, bucking them vigorously from its humps.
There is a wacky fun fair, the type you can find only in India. It’s surreal, although the rides might not exactly be up to the safety standards you might be used to. You’ll recognize the Ferris wheels, but you’ve probably never experienced an Indian “Cage of Death,” an exposed cement roundabout, where cars and bikes swirl in a horizontal kamikaze crash course, defying both gravity and common sense. Despite the array of activities and rides, the camels are still the main attraction. Wise wandering sadhus gather at the dunes at sunset, high on ganja-spiked bhang lassi milkshakes to watch the swirl of humanity below. It’s a beautiful sight.
Full moon fever kicks in for the last few days of the festival. With the real camel trading wrapping up, it’s a pious party cycle of sin and redemption, wash and repeat. There is a local version of the Olympics. You can even challenge the locals to a classic game of tug-of-war. Men vie for the longest waxed mustache and women compete in a bridal competition. At daybreak of the full moon, thousands of pilgrims gather at the baths. Dawn is a holy time in India and here it’s something you should witness with reverence and respect. Sadhus and pilgrims alike bathe in the lake in a ritual purification while the masses chant the mantra “Asvodiyov Brahma” honoring Brahma and the fallen lotus lake. Dust and sin drip back to the earth. Renewed and satiated herders, camels and tourists alike continue their journey onward.