Pushkar was never really on my India list. It was only after we’d lived in India for a year, using every opportunity to hone my photography that I considered it. I was looking forward to the photo opportunities but expecting the worst after spending a challenging weekend in Calcutta, despairing of the downsides of India, despite its amazing beauty and potential. The trip to Pushkar was already booked and there was no backing out. So off we went, determined to make the best of it.
The only temple in the world dedicated to Brahma is in Pushkar. Legend has it that Brahma intoned a mantra on a lotus flower to kill a demon, which fell onto the ground in Pushkar and formed into a holy lake. He was also required to perform a ritual sacrifice to enforce the protection of the earth, for which he needed his consort Saraswati. Sadly she was indisposed so Brahma was conveniently married to Gayatri, a Gurjar girl and performed the ritual with her. Allegedly Saraswati was outraged and cursed Brahma to be worshipped in Pushkar only.
During Kartik Purnima, one of the most auspicious dates in the Hindu lunar calendar, this tiny town (by Indian standards) of approximately 20,000 inhabitants swells to accommodate 200,000 people. Special food is prepared and offered to gods in the temples. Hindus refrain from eating non-vegetarian food, cutting their hair, cutting of trees, plucking of fruits and flowers and cutting of crops. A dip in the holy Pushkar lake is thought to bring blessings and good luck throughout the year. Special aartis are performed at dusk on many of the 52 bathing ghats surrounding the lake.
The Pushkar mela also takes place around this time. The whole town comes alive with vibrant folk music and dances, magic shows, horse and camel races and other entertainment designed for townspeople, traders and tourists. Moustache twirling competitions feature alongside fashion parades for camels on the programme. Within the fairground, two giant ferris wheels along with other amusement rides are erected. Tempted as we were, we couldn’t bring ourselves to get on one.
Up to 50,000 camels are brought from miles around to be traded over the dunes surrounding the fairground. The camels are cleaned, adorned and some are shorn with interesting patterns. This annual event sees its fair share of Mewar horses and a smattering of cattle. We wandered past the hawkers selling trinkets, everything from jewellery to musical instruments to camel adornments, over the crests of the dunes, far away from the main road, where we saw herds of camels and turbaned traders sitting – some smoking, some making chapatti, some tending to their charges. I followed a group of buyers around the dunes, eavesdropping and trying to muster all the Hindi I’d learned to figure out what makes a good camel purchase and the prices that go with it. I didn’t quite figure out the charms of a good camel but I did hear prices in the ranges of Rs 7,500-20,000 (£75-200), the former perhaps for a young, unruly buck and the latter for an older and steadier camel.
I walked through the herds, treading timidly at first, a little on edge in case of any wayward kicking or nipping. Almost all the camels were hobbled, restricting their ability to run away. They seemed affable, languorous and content, much like their carers, who were a chilled out bunch, probably thanks in no small measure to the green-smelling contents in their chillum pipes.
They were a joy. I was mesmerised by their laid-back nature, their contentment and their social interaction with each other. I’d never been around so many before. Traders were generally happy to pose for photos. Many just wanted to see their photos on the screen. I wished at that point that I had a Polaroid camera. We returned again and again, in the mornings when the trading was just starting, at sunset to catch the golden light. It was enough just to stand and watch.
I realised that everything I knew about camels was from Robyn Davidson’s book, Tracks so I re-read it. I was struck by the quote, “There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns—small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track. I watched a pale dawn streak the cliffs with Day-glo and realized this was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence—and lasted about ten seconds”. I believe that these moments are fleeting and easily missed if you close yourself to the opportunity that they may appear. I came away grateful for my Pushkar experience.
It set my India to rights.
For more photos of camels and their keepers, check out Graeme’s blog.