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Push Comes to Shove: The Pushkar Camel Fair, India

By Nancy Cooper Frank

I came for the camels, but stayed for the "Holy Dip." Such is the dual nature of the Pushkar Camel Fair.

Every fall, a huge livestock bazaar engulfs the sacred little town of Pushkar in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan. Hundreds of thousands of nomads and camels arrive in the town for furious trading and partying before giving way to a splashy religious celebration at Pushkar's holy lake. Call it an Indian Carnivale, if you will, only with camels.

On my first morning at the Pushkar Camel Fair, I rented a camel cart that lurched through acres of camel-covered sand ringed by mountains. I was brought nose-to-nose with gaunt and well-fed beasts, velvety brown and sand-colored, growlers and spitters, some painted with black squiggles, some decked out with flowers. 

There were sporty Jaisalmeri racing camels in ornate canopied saddles and stout, bushy-eyelashed Bikaneri draft camels. There were even a few horses and bulls--handsome enough considering they weren't camels. 

The villagers and nomads who raise these animals were camped out on the livestock trading ground, creating a giant communal living room. Men groomed the camels and women tended their families' cooking fires, adding eye-stinging smoke to the baking heat and the pungent animal smells. 

One man was carefully wrapping yards of pink turban cloth around his head. A barber was giving a customer a haircut on a swivel chair set up among the dunes.  Buses, camel carts and trucks clogged the road. Women in bangles from shoulder to wrist balanced suitcases over mirror-work veils.  Men with heroic mustaches under pink or orange turbans lugged sacks. 

From elaborate canvas pavilions and spare patches of dust on the roadside, merchants proffered bangles, toys, cosmetics, farm implements and fabrics. Buyers flocked around the vendors of fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice or staggered away with ten-foot canes "to go." 

Just past the sugar canes, policemen turned back all vehicles. Fair-goers flowed in past the trading grounds to the stadium that hosted camel and horse races by day and tribal folk dances by night, to the circus tents and the Ferris wheel, and on to the edge of the old town.     

Over the next few days, as the full moon of the Hindu month of Kartik drew closer, pilgrim fair-goers from all over India converged on Pushkar -– not just for the camels, but for the water. Pushkar Lake was created, tradition says, at the spot where Brahma let a lotus fall. On the full moon of Kartik, the lake’s healing and purifying powers reach their height. By the day before the full moon, negotiating the entangled streets meant a constant struggle against cross currents in the human stream, as pilgrims from all across the country streamed into the otherwise quiet town.

I squeezed my way through, noting the by-now familiar falafel stands, pizza houses and fried-sweet shops (meat, eggs and alcohol are banned in this town consecrated to the god Brahma and beloved by the world's backpackers).  Snatches of sacral music, live and piped, wafted out from the scalloped arches of temple gates. 

Trying to follow the signs to an Internet cafe, I entered a building and stumbled into a tiny walk-up shrine--one of the estimated 400 temples and shrines in Pushkar. Further on, young men gave out flowers to be tossed into the lake in worship.   But where was the lake?  The fluctuating crowds and makeshift shopping arcades altered the topography of the town every time I turned around.  

A left turn, a right turn, and at last, the labyrinth revealed its secret -- the still presence at the center of all the clashing noise and color of the fair. Stone steps led down to the water's edge, where the chanting and bells were punctuated by the splashes of worshipers lowering themselves into the water. A group of girls who'd just taken the "Holy Dip" (as the official schedule listed it) were toweling out their waist-length hair. Refreshed, cleansed and purified.

The fair opened with camels –- t he traditional mainstay of survival in arid Rajasthan -- and closed with a celebration of water as a spiritual and life-giving substance. That night, by the full moon, the pilgrims set the lake shimmering with hundreds of little floating lights. Like a holy fire glowing in temple shrine, the glow from the lake was unearthly. Even the crush of humanity of the past several days seemed to dissipate in the light. If push came to shove, I’d have a hard time choosing which I enjoyed more –- the camels or the candles.

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