The sacred and profane at the Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,Camels, crowds, culture and conmen gather under the full moon in Pushkar, Rajasthan

I WAS ATTRACTED TO the Pushkar Camel Fair by romantic ideas about camels and camel traders journeying across the vast deserts of Rajasthan in a time immemorial fashion to meet, socialize and trade. And indeed that is the historical truth of the Pushkar Camel Fair. There was a time in storied Rajasthan when camels were an integral part of every day life.

Camels were an agricultural mainstay; they supplied milk, leather and other products; they were elaborately decorated for weddings and other rituals. The romantic image of camels loping across the desert in Rajasthan is based in truth and fact. But, sadly, this way of life is waning as mechanization, water shortages and government policies against camel grazing are taking their toll.


Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,I was in Pushkar as a guest of Zostel, staying at their new hostel. You can read my review and experiences here: Zostel pioneers the hostel revolution in India. Thanks to Zostel, I had a great base to explore the Camel Fair, the town and much more.


The Pushkar Camel Fair continues to celebrate the camel’s place in Rajasthan. It is only one of many camel fairs in Rajasthan (and not even the biggest), but it is the one that has become a tourist attraction. Yes, camel traders still do come here to do business, but not in the same numbers (and mostly before the fair even starts). And the tourism part of the fair — the ferris wheels, displays, competitions and cotton candy — have eclipsed the original purpose. It is said there are now more photographers than camels at the Pushkar Camel Fair.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Ashok Tak, “the Camel Man,” with Raj his beloved camel in full regalia

The Pushkar Camel Fair is also timed to coincide with the Kartik Purnima (full moon). At this time, Hindu pilgrims flock to Pushkar to take a dip in the sacred lake, which they believe will cleanse them of their sins.

Pushkar is the site of the only Brahma Temple in India, and the small town rings lovely Lake Pushkar, which is a deeply serene place to be at sunrise — and one of my favourite Incredible India experiences. However, during the five days leading up to Kartik Purnima, the small town of 15,000 swells to at least 250,000.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

I had to stand on a truck to get this shot of the camel decorating contest

So, because of the combination of pilgrims, sadhus, camel traders, tourists and ubiquitous Pushkar hippies, the narrow market lane, ghats and mela (fair) grounds swarm with people, and the town’s usual serenity is lost in the melee. It’s still fun and interesting to be in Pushkar at this time, but beware that hotel rates go up (in some cases, way up), there are way more than the usual assortment of beggars, street kids, conmen and gypsies scamming for money and the authenticity factor of the fair may be lacking for some.

In the end, I enjoyed the town of Pushkar (as I always do), meeting some camel traders, attending a concurrent cultural festival called The Sacred Pushkar, taking part in spiritual rituals, and staying at the brand new Zostel hostel … but the Camel Fair … not so much. It mostly consisted of pale-skinned foreigners pushing and shoving each other to get a good camera angle for the camel decorating contest or the moustache competition or whatever. Poor organization meant that you had to jostle to see what was happening in the competition “pit.”

But for this post, I am highlighting two of the things I enjoyed the most.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

The ferris wheels at the Pushkar Camel Fair

From the camel’s mouth

First and foremost, I wanted to hear from the camel traders themselves. So one morning early in the fair, I went out to the mela grounds and by luck or chance met Gopal. A local man, Gopal takes tourists around the fair on a cart pulled by his camel, Raj. While I wasn’t interested in hiring his camel taxi for touristic reasons, I did want someone to take me out into the desert, someone who could help me interview camel traders and translate. Gopal understood perfectly, so away we went, away from the fair, into the beautiful scrubby desert outside of Pushkar.

The first man we stopped, Ratnaram, was lean and taciturn, and reminded me of an American cowboy, like Gary Cooper in a kurtah. He had a green pagri (turban) wrapped around his head, deeply lined face and when I shook his hand, it was like touching the roughest sandpaper. The sand of desert parches the skin — even I noticed it in a few days, and lathered myself with oil after showering each day.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Ratnaram with hisone remaining camel

Ratnaram told me, through Gopal, that he brought five camels to the Pushkar Camel Fair and sold four. He was left with just one camel, a female named Shelly. He said he was happy with the price the camels fetched, and really enjoyed the Camel Fair. It’s the most famous, he said, it’s the best. But he doesn’t enter any of the competitions.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Ratnamram

I was interested in finding out more about the life and prospects of a camel trader, and Ratnaram told me he doesn’t buy camels because of the Rajasthan drought. He still has 10 females and one male at home in his village, and will take most of these camels to the Nagur camel fair.

I also wanted to know who bought his camels, as I had heard many were bought by Muslims and slaughtered for meat. Ratnaram told me Hindus bought his four camels. Just at that moment, we saw a Muslim camel trader inspecting some nearby camels.

I thanked Ratnaram, and gave him 10 rupees to take his picture — the standard price at the Pushkar Camel Fair — and he obligingly posed for me.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Kanaram wanted 250 rupees to take his photo. I clicked this one while negotiating.

From there we moved out further into the desert, which was beautiful and peaceful, and met Kanaram. He was making a very delicious looking dish over an open fire, and was willing to talk to us, but wanted 250 rupees to take his photo. Kanaram brought 120 camels to the fair, and sold 40 to a business man who is going to use them for farming, he said. He pointed to some pregnant camels and a couple of baby camels.

I offered him 25 rupees, far above the standard rate, for his photo, but he declined and I walked away. Nearby, we met Ganpatram, who brought 15 camels to the fair and sold 7. He said he was happy with the price, and was generally happy with being a camel trader because his village has a well and they had good rains this year.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Ganpatram is a man with a twinkle in his eye

Ganpatram is a man with a twinkle in his eye, and he enjoyed posing for me with one of his camels. He said he really enjoyed the camel fair, and was thinking of entering the camel race competition for the first time. He twinkled even more when he said this, then we posed together, and I left him as the sun was casting long shadows on the desert.

I felt a great sense of satisfaction for having crossed the divide between tourists and camel traders, thanks to the adept skills of Gopal. Until this interaction, there was no exchange whatsoever, due in part to the language barrier but in larger part due to suspicion and skepticism. When I had walked through the camel grounds before, I heard only “money, money” from every local person I met. It was disheartening, though I understand their struggle to survive, and how they must feel about the onslaught of camera-toting tourists.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Gopal translating my questions to Ganpatram

The Sacred Pushkar Festival of Music, Yoga and Meditation

During one of the busy religious rituals in Pushkar, I got caught up in a swarming crowd of pilgrims pushing through the narrow market lane towards the lake. To avoid the crowd, which was causing me some panic, I sprinted towards the much-less crowded ghats on the far side of the lake. A crew of people were setting up VIP seating, which blocked my way. I investigated and discovered they were setting up the first event of The Sacred Pushkar Festival of Music, Yoga and Meditation.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Just then, I caught sight of Sanjoy Roy, the energetic and personable managing director of Teamwork Arts, the company organizing The Sacred Pushkar. I had met Sanjoy at the Jaipur Literature Festival last January, and luckily he remembered me. He very kindly gave me an invite to the evening’s performance and put me on the guest list for the other events. So I left the ghats with a skip in my step, marveling at the way things change in India so fast, and how moments of magic happen out of nowhere.

That night, my colleague Derek Freal of The Holi Daze travel blog accompanied me to the first event, an evening of music on Raj Bohra ghat. We took our place on cushions behind the stage, and facing the lake, and settled in for an incredible night. The evening started with a Maha Aarti and Vedic chanting as the sun set. Afterwards, drummers from Rajasthan performed on a different ghat, and then the scene switched back to the Raj Bohra ghat for flautist Sunil Kant Gupta and singer Shubha Mudgal. Fireworks over the lake marked the end of an amazing night.

Six more events in and around Pushkar were lined up over the next three days and I managed to make it to two of them. The following night, Derek and I headed out to the sand dunes on the edge of town for a very different musical evening. This one was more like a concert and featured the Jaisalmer Boys, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and pop singer Kailash Kher. It was also a great evening though perhaps less sublime than the music on the ghats. I especially like the music of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who invented the Mohan Veena and played with incredible intensity and mastery.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt plays at The Sacred Pushkar festival

The following morning, I was walking through the market in Pushkar when Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Arts appeared again, somewhat like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, and swept me up with some others who were on their way to join the Heritage Walk. In fact, I had forgotten about it … but when Sanjoy asked if I was lost and looking for it, I said yes — as I had wanted to join in. So, I found myself on the ghats, along with about a dozen others, with Ravi Sharma of Roots of Pushkar Records as our guide. (Readers may remember Ravi as the man who helped me during The Mirabai Expedition when I was looking for the nearby Mirabai temple and museum.)

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Ravi Sharma and local musicians guide us on a heritage walk in Pushkar

Rajasthani musicians played to get things started and accompanied us around the town as Ravi told stories about the town’s mythical and historical past. We learned that Lake Pushkar was created when Brahma dropped a lotus flower there, and that it’s the site of the only Brahma Temple in India because his wife Savitri cursed him after he married a local girl, Gaytri, for religious religions. Pushkar was the first place the Gaytri Mantra was recited, in honour of her.

For about two hours we walked around the lake as Ravi related stories and showed us ancient monuments and exquisite temples I never knew existed, despite having spent a considerable amount of time in Pushkar. Ravi explained how some of the ghats got their names, why Pushkar is famous for roses, and how the five days leading up to and including the full moon in the Hindu month of Kartik are by far the most powerful for gaining Brahma’s blessings. Even the Indian journalists who were on the tour were impressed by some of the things we saw and learned — particularly the Chandraghat Temple, the only moon temple in India.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Traditional Rajasthani musicians play at temple on the heritage walk

Like everything The Sacred Pushkar presented, the heritage walk was extremely well-organized and well-presented and rich with thoughtful substance. Sanjoy Roy told me it was planned to complement the Camel Fair, and add cultural depth and texture. It does that, they have definitely achieved the goal, and much more. In fact, it’s much better and more enjoyable than the touristy, elbow-butting, crowded and disorganized Camel Fair. I would plan to attend The Sacred Festival again, no question. But I have no desire to experience the Pushkar Camel Fair again.

At the end of the heritage walk, Ravi invited me to take part in a puja on Varah Ghat, where he is one of the presiding pandits. I went that night, and sat right at the front, next to the pandits, on the edge of the lake. I was fully immersed in the sacred element of Lake Pushkar, and felt elated by the energy. Likewise, on the full moon night, Derek and I hiked up to the top of Savitri mountain, to the temple, and watched the moon rise over the town below. These were some of the very special, spiritually oriented experiences that I love Pushkar for. The Camel Fair notwithstanding.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

The full moon — Kartik Purnima — over sacred Pushkar

NOTE: I was a guest of Zostel Hostel and in Pushkar for the Camel Fair to help promote the new location. However, this arrangement did not, and will never, influence my opinion or my remarks. I write this blog with my readers firmly in mind at all times.

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26 Responses to The sacred and profane at the Pushkar Camel Fair

  1. Shubhajit Chakraborty December 1, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

    well well, how beautifully and tactically you incorporate three stories into one story. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this story. Pushkar Fair is indeed an exercise in disbelief.

  2. Ramani December 1, 2015 at 10:56 pm #

    To a large extent, your article was a good read.

    But you displayed a stingy churlish attitude when you paid only Rs 10 to Ratnaram, but cheated on Ganpatram by sneakily taking his photo without paying him anything. What a cheapskate.

    And you did not mention how much you pay paid Gopal.

    • Mariellen Ward December 1, 2015 at 11:39 pm #

      Thanks for reading and commenting, I appreciate it.

      I have never been called “stingy” or “churlish” before, so that’s something!

      Listen, unless you spend time as a foreigner in India, especially in a touristy area or at a touristy event, you cannot imagine what it’s like. You are constantly badgered for money, and people do things like dump a stinky mound of shit on your shoe so they can pay to clean it up. I have learned to see all of this as a game, and took his unposed photo while negotiating in good faith for a posed one.

      Gopal I actually hired, that was a real business transaction, so did not feel the need to divulge his rates.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Zostel and the hostel revolution in IndiaMy Profile

      • Ritesh December 2, 2015 at 7:27 am #

        Ramani seems really unhappy abt you : ) …. Stingy, churlish… 😀

  3. shubhajit December 2, 2015 at 4:07 am #

    Stingy , churlishh..hahahaha

    I guess Mariellen come to India for 4th time. She could have visited Thailand, Vietnam , Sri Lanka and lots more cheaper countries but she choose to come here , I personally like it. She drinks tap water directly back home , so a little ” stingy” attitude is required in India .

    • Mariellen Ward December 2, 2015 at 11:30 am #

      Actually, I have made 8 trips to India, and have spent well over 2 years here. Not sure if a stingy attitude is required in India … but there are a lot of “games” between tourists and touts, that’s for sure.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Zostel and the hostel revolution in IndiaMy Profile

  4. Philippa December 2, 2015 at 8:12 am #

    It is as I feared, too many tourists these days and not enough about the culture or the people and yet, as all tour companies do, they follow the crowd rather than breaking new ground and offering new experiences.

    Next year, why don’t we break new ground and do Bateshwar and Chandrabagga – lets be mould breakers!

    • Mariellen Ward December 2, 2015 at 11:32 am #

      I know, there are a lot of other livestock fairs in India … and many other festivals and events too … no need to go to Pushkar Camel Fair at all! However, The Sacred Pushkar is worth attending …
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Zostel and the hostel revolution in IndiaMy Profile

  5. Rubina Ramesh December 3, 2015 at 11:26 am #

    Your words and pics brought India to me. Thanks.

  6. Izy Berry December 3, 2015 at 11:38 am #

    This is amazing incredible experience and is so different

  7. vrinda December 4, 2015 at 3:57 am #

    incredible india

  8. Travel Expert December 5, 2015 at 2:34 am #

    Pushkar Camel Fair is one of India’s most highly-rated travel experiences and attracting more than 11,000 camels, horses and cattle. For visitors it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the color and carnival of one of the last great traditional melas, which brings livestock, farmers, traders and villagers from all over Rajasthan.

  9. KandC December 12, 2015 at 11:05 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing. It’s so great to be able to learn so much about the Pushkar Camel Fair!
    KandC recently posted..Jamaica LovingMy Profile

  10. Deepshikha M December 17, 2015 at 11:39 am #

    Nice post and pictures
    Deepshikha M recently posted..Bharatpur – RajasthanMy Profile

  11. Valen-This Way To Paradise December 21, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    I love your photos, especially the one of Ratnamram! This looks like a fascinating festival!
    Valen-This Way To Paradise recently posted..The Top Portugal Beaches To VisitMy Profile

  12. Prachi Sharma December 22, 2015 at 5:56 am #

    Ha ha. How colorful my country looks 🙂 !

    I liked the way you have taken time out to pen in every small details, Mariellen.

    Those little ‘i-pose-for-money’ encounters are rampant in many developing nations and India is no different. But, am sure, you have had more positive experience in here and that is evident from your profile description (Indiaphile/Indophile).

    Have you covered Rann Utsav as well?

  13. Laia December 22, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

    I never heard about the Pushkar camel fair, thanks for a very interesting post!
    I specially enjoyed reading about meeting the camel traders, I also like going a bit further than the touristic side of places and see what lies behind.
    Laia recently posted..The 10 best experiences of my round the world solo tripMy Profile

  14. Stephen Garone January 10, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

    Terrific post. I really have absolutely no interest in camels or camel traders, but your piece intrigued me nevertheless. Thanks!
    Stephen Garone recently posted..Christmas at Steigenberger Metropolitan Hotel in Frankfurt, GermanyMy Profile

  15. Brittany January 24, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

    Wow, it seems like a really amazing event (despite the issues inherent when these things become so popular), and something I’d really like to see on my inevitable visit back to India. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir when I say that India has an irresistible pull on me!
    Brittany recently posted..Trekking Through El Chaltén, ArgentinaMy Profile

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  17. rajasthani folk singer August 23, 2016 at 2:40 am #

    Thanks for sharing this!

  18. Swaranjeet October 22, 2016 at 1:18 am #

    Well. I have been going to Pushkar for photography and must confess The fair is not what it used to be. Animals as well as ethnic people are fast shrinking in numbers. The only thing that you get more of now at Pushkar is photographers. It is almost impossible to take a picture without photographers getting into the frame.

    I love the Rajasthani culture, the big turbans, the whiskers, the colorful clothes and I am seeing less and less of it. It is sad but true.

    • SusIndia November 7, 2016 at 12:30 am #

      I think it’s normal the numbers of camels are reducing year after year. Unfortunately, modernity and some strict laws force them to change methods of agriculture: the camels are no longer used so often to carry water or to carry agricultural vehicles. And to maintain a camel is an expensive operation too.
      So, let’s enjoy as much as possible because, year after year, there will be less and less.

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