In a country overflowing with holy sites, Pushkar is high up on the Pilgrims list, with India’s only temple dedicated to the God Brahma. A quiet, laid back hippy hangout for most of the year, this small town in the state of Rajasthan, comes alive each November as it hosts the world’s largest camel fair. Over 50,000 camels and 200,000 people swarm here to enjoy the festive atmosphere.
We stay at the Green Park Hotel, a short walk from the centre of town. Wow! What a view with the rose and marigold fields and the temple topped Ratnagiri Hill as a backdrop to the hotel. But the main reason we had come to Pushkar wasn’t to relax around the resort pool but to witness the annual Camel Fair, when thousands of brightly decorated camels, bedecked with colourful cloth fill the narrow streets.
The camel owners gather for one week, camped in the nearby desert, to trade their expertly groomed ‘ships of the desert’. The camel coats are clipped into intricate patterns, dyed with henna and accessorised with brightly coloured necklaces and nose piercings to look absolutely fabulous. We wandered through the enormous campsite admiring the camels, colourful tents, flamboyant gypsy girls, and proudly prancing horses, as we passed by huddled groups of men noisily trading their livestock in auctions.
Crouched on the ground around inconspicuous woven baskets, were the snake charmers – their charges woken from slumber when the basket lid was briskly removed to allow the hooded Cobra to rise, swaying to the vibrations of the flute-like instrument. Everywhere we went were giggling children, always eager to practice their ‘hello’s and have their photo taken.
A highlight of our visit was a camel safari into the nearby desert. As we headed out along the sandy lanes, my camel boy assured me that nothing would harm me in the desert as we gently meandered through some of the most picturesque desert in all of India. Groups of children would magically appear from the simple huts lining the path, waving and cheering as we passed. Making our way through farms and villages I began to imagine what it would have been like, a thousand years ago, to traverse the desert in search of new lands.
As the sun began to set we tucked into a delicious Indian camp meal and settled in for an evening of campfire stories and entertainment. We chose to sleep out under the billions of stars above rather than retire to the tents. We woke to fresh air and the smell of a traditional Indian Breakfast before returning to town via a different route.
Pushkar, particularly during the Camel Fair, is a major destination for pilgrims and Saddhus, although many of these saffron robed holy-men are no more than beggars.
This is where we encountered the bizarre spectacle of the five-legged cow, deformed by an extra leg growing eerily from its back. The cow seemed quite content being paraded around in multicoloured layers of ‘sacred’ cloth and red and gold tinsel on its head. For 20 rupees one can shake the hoof, for 50 rupees, take a photo! Wandering further down the road we were surprised to see more of these 5 legged Holy cows. In a country reputed to have 300 million cows, I suppose, a few are destined to be born with an extra appendage or two.
As we walked further through the narrow lanes and paths, passing more beggars, these ones dressed as blue-skinned Hindu gods, Bollywood music blared from loudspeakers enticing us towards the Fairground with its Ferris Wheels, Sideshow Alley and ‘fairy floss’.’
In the centre of town is the very sacred Pushkar Lake, believed to be as old as the creation of life itself. We were told by our local guide, also a Brahmin priest, that the waters have special healing powers as he performed for us a ‘puja’ – a sacred ceremony – designed to bestow a long, healthy and fruitful life on our families. Afterwards, feeling a sense of peace and energised with the beauty and spirituality of the place, our foreheads were daubed with a spot of vermillion and our wrists wrapped with a ‘Pushkar Passport’ a band of red thread.
As we wandered the town, the afternoon sky was filled with hot air balloons floating across the camel ground, the town and lake. What an amazing way to see the fair. Next visit perhaps I’ll be the one looking down from above.
The sunsets here are fantastic. Down by the lake, which was thronged with traditionally dressed pilgrims performing their ancient ceremonial bathing rituals, backpackers and tourists made their way to the famous ‘Sunset Café’ to watch the spectacle, listen to the tribal beating of drums performed each afternoon and sip spicy masala chai (tea).
We found street stalls teeming with Indian delicacies, delicious pakoras, tantalising samosas and sweets dripping in syrup. Nearby roof-top restaurants offered an ‘all you can eat’ dinner buffet for as little as 60 rupees or about $1.30 Australian, you can’t get much better than that!
One day was barely enough time to sift through the friendly shops in the markets, jammed with some of the best jewellery, fabric and traditional handicrafts in India. Also on sale a myriad of religious paraphernalia for the thousands of Hindu pilgrims thronging the streets, along with items as diverse as traditional ceremonial spears and shields.
Pushkar is a rare gem of a destination that will challenge all of your senses. The town, its people and camels are a visual feast, quite spectacular indeed! 400km southwest of Delhi, Pushkar is easily reached by bus, train, or private vehicle from the nearby cities of Ajmer or Jaipur.