Written by and photography by Bronek Kaminski
The outskirts of Pushkar, a small town on the edge of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, come alive once a year for the Pushkar Camel Fair, one of the world’s biggest livestock markets.
A great convergence of camels, brought by their owners to be bought and sold, as well as thousands of horses, ponies, and cattle, invade the normally peaceful sand dunes close to the town, and a carnival atmosphere soon takes over. The camel breeders and herdsmen set up camp next to their animals, while improvised stalls sell chai, camel races take place, and a bright, illuminated ferris wheel spins unsteadily in the distance.
As the sun falls behind the long dunes, filtering through the soft haze of dust kicked up by thousands of camels, and smoke from campfires hangs in layers above the golden ground, Sameer, a camel breeder from Udaipur, explains just how important the Pushkar Camel Fair is to him.“We spend all year breeding camels for this fair and come here to sell the young. Although we visit other camel markets, none are as big or as important as Pushkar. We have walked across 300 kilometres (186 miles) of desert this week to bring 100 camels here, but some of the camels which are too young to make the trip are brought by truck.“The trip across the desert is tough, it takes seven days each way, but it is very good luck to bring the camels to Pushkar, and it is good for business.”
Wearing gold earrings, and with a bright orange turban tied around his head, he sits twisting his long, traditional moustache as he speaks slowly.“My father used to walk here with his camels, and my grandfather came to Pushkar before that. Unfortunately, my children are not interested in the camel business. They want to move to the city to live and work rather than continue the life my family have had for generations,” Sameer continues. “Owning camels is not as popular as it once was. It is very hard work, and for some of the year we are nomadic people, moving from place to place.”
Shapes of camels cover the dunes in every direction, some lie scratching themselves, others stand silhouetted against the soft, blue evening sky while the herdsmen gather around campfires, chatting and relaxing.
Girls weave between the animals, filling baskets with camel dung, while women pass wearing vivid red, orange, and yellow saris. The air tastes of smoke, dust, and, of course, several thousand camels. Occasionally, one of the animals sprints off across the sands, making a sudden, desperate bid for freedom, whilst swiftly chased by a startled herdsman waving a stick in the air.
Madan, a camel breeder and farmer from a small village near Jodhpur, crosses 270km (168 miles) of desert with his herd to come to Pushkar.
“Every year I bring my 14 or 15 camels to the fair. We enjoy being in Pushkar and look forward to selling our camels, having a good time, and catching up with old friends here. Everyone knows everyone else and there is always a really great atmosphere, it’s like a big festival,” he says.
Wearing a white tunic, Madan squats in the sand next to his son, happily cooking chapattis over an open fire and drinking chai under the bright stars as he explains, “It is the one fair that all the family comes to, and that is why it is such a big event. The men take care of the animals, the women meet up with each other or sell things they have made during the year, and the children collect camel dung to fuel the fire at night.”
All the camels are meticulously groomed to look their best. Their hair is trimmed and shorn, designs are carefully painted onto them, and pompoms, tassels, and jewellery are added to decorate their heads and legs. Silver bells, bought from specialised stalls that sell camel jewellery and accessories, are tied to their ankles.
Some herdsmen shave elaborate geometric patterns into their camels coats as they attempt, like rival car salesmen, to outshine the competition. The animals, however, do not seem too keen on this attention, and many of them struggle, trying to escape, letting out deep, angry, growling groans at the unwanted hairdressing, keen to return to the leaves they were innocently eating before being harassed.
Dushyant, an ageing herdsman with a deeply wrinkled face, has walked for four days to bring his herd to Pushkar mela, or fair. Holding a stick and peering through thick, dusty glasses, he describes the effort involved to make the camels look their best for the buyers.
“We work hard to make our camels stand out from the others. As soon as we arrive here we begin trimming and shaving them. Some of them don’t mind this; other camels fight and do everything they can to stop you. Today we are finally painting their faces and decorating them with necklaces and jewellery.”
Groups of buyers, some wearing sunglasses and carrying mobile phones, move from herd to herd talking to the owners whilst closely studying the animals, examining how they stand, inspecting their large, cushioned feet, and occasionally climbing onto one for a short test drive. Eventually, if everything they see is agreeable, the long process of bargaining begins.
The fifth and final day of the Pushkar Camel Fair coincides with Kartik Purnima, the day of the full moon in the eighth month of the Hindu calendar, one of the most important religious festivals of the year. As the date nears, the warren of small winding streets that makes up Pushkar becomes increasingly crammed with a mass of brightly dressed devotees, worshippers crawling on their hands and knees, ancient sadhus, and holy men. The energy builds into a frenzy of excitement on the last day, when thousands of pilgrims bathe and cleanse themselves on the steps down to Pushkar’s holy lake.
According to the epics, Pushkar is said to have appeared on the site where Brahma dropped a lotus flower. The narrow, whitewashed lanes stretch out from rows of bathing ghats that encircle the sacred, calm lake. The town is compact enough to walk around and conceals hundreds of hidden temples, including one of the few Brahma temples in the world. There’s a mystical feeling to the place, with the sight of so many colourful pilgrims, and the sounds of early morning temple bells ringing out across the light-blue rooftops, as cows lie lazily in the shade. Small wooden stalls run by hunched old men sell incense, offerings, and powdered dyes of every colour. Out of town, a one-hour trek leads to Savitri Temple on the summit of a nearby hill, with unbeatable views over the town, camel fair, and surrounding desert.
Due to its holy status, consumption of meat, eggs, and alcohol is forbidden within the town limits. Pushkar lies 11km (6.8 miles) from the nearest railway station at Ajmer, and 146km (90 miles) from Jaipur Airport, where there are regular flights from Delhi.
Jagat Palace Hotel