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And the Winner Is? Pushkar's legendary camel fair

It’s said Lord Brahma created Pushkar’s sacred lake by dropping a lotus flower into the middle of India’s Thar desert not long after the universe was formed. Later, Hindu pilgrims began building temples at the water’s edge and a city emerged from the Rajasthani hills that’s beckoned the faithful for countless generations—hundreds of thousands come to the ancient city each year, to make offerings and wash away sin.


A sadhu greets visitors to Pushkar. Photo: Noel Van Raes
Pilgrims bathe in holy water to wash away their sins. Photo: Noel Van Raes
Worshipping at one of the more than 400 temples in Pushkar. Photo: Noel Van Raes
Pilgrims warm up by a fire. Nights are cold in the desert.

But for a few weeks each fall, people come to Pushkar for something else entirely, something far more earthly.

Camels.


A trader checks out some camels.
Love at the Pushkar Camel Fair. Photo: Noel Van Raes

Every November, thousands of them—along with horses, sheep, goats and watchful herders—trek to Pushkar for the city’s legendary camel fair. An event that’s changed little over the centuries; visiting herders still camp under the cloudless desert sky, pitching homemade tents as they roll in.



Horses also feature at the Pushkar Camel Fair.

We arrive a week before the official start to the fair—as do the camel traders. Most buying and selling takes place in the days leading up to the main events of the annual celebration. Tired and hungry after their long desert sojourns, turbaned men watch their herds while shaking dust off camp supplies and woman work nimbly over newly lit cooking fires. Camels are fed and watered as dung drying areas established. Children run through camp exploring the improvised community to the tunes of unseen travelling musicians.


Time to just hang out when the tent is up and chores done.
Children play as camels drink.
Young girls carry water back to their camp. Photo: Noel Van Raes
A family relaxes after their evening meal. Photo: Noel Van Raes
Herdsmen enjoy tea as they gossip around the campfire.
A one pot meal cooks over an open fire. Photo: Noel Van Rae
Music is in the air.
Musicians treat passers by with singing and melodies played on traditional handmade instruments

It feels like another world; one that’s existed—unbeknownst to me—for a millennia.


Life as these herdsmen have always known it, is threatened by an uncertain camel trading future.
Something struck this herdsmen as very funny.

Many men enjoy a smoke with their metal or clay pipes. Photo: Noel Van Raes

Once settled, herders begin the process of beautifying their camels for sale, hoping to turn eyes and up sale prices. They are trimmed, brushed, painted, scrubbed and, sometimes, bedecked with pom-poms. Traders simultaneously examine, assess, appraise and haggle. Camels are made to strut as buyers stand behind, checking their gait for irregularities. Ears and teeth are examined, hooves assessed. Tails are lifted and peered under—although, for what I’m not sure.


Checking under the hood.
A final combing before negotiations.
Attention is paid to the smallest details prior to sales.
A trader checks for any problems with a camel before negotiating a price. Photo: Noel Van Raes
This camel's owner has gone all out.
Traders haggle over prices.
The final touches.
No detail is too small.

Grooming standards are even higher at the much anticipated camel decorating contest, where camels bat their long, luxurious eyelashes coyly at the judges, unaware they’ve been transformed from beasts of burden into four-legged runway stars; coarse hair shorn into intricate geometric patterns, bodies draped with flower garlands and vibrant fabrics. Silver bells tinkle above their hooves, not that we can hear them above the roar of the crowd.

These men proudly pose with their decorated camels.
Camels are the stars of this contest.
The camel decorating competition is the most popular event at the fair.
Each camel is so beautifully decorated. A tough decision for the judges.

Ashok Tak, a prolific connoisseur of camel decoration, makes bold fashion statements by incorporating antique mirrorwork, embroidery and macramé into his camel ensembles. He’s retired from competition to give a younger generation a chance to win, but remains dedicated to his art by giving demonstrations aimed at protecting both Rajasthani culture and the region’s camels.


Ashok Tak, a well-known connoisseur of camel decoration. Photo: Noel Van Raes
Ashok Tok uses only authentic antique decorations for his camel as he promotes the preservation of camel culture.

Traditionally, these even-toed ungulates have been an invaluable resource, providing labour, leather, cooking fuel, milk and meat. However, new farming and animal welfare regulations—combined with increased mechanization—have led to a decline in camel numbers in recent years. As historic as camel trading seems, its future could be uncertain.


A woman gathers camel dung to be dried and used as fuel.
Camel drying area are set up when the herders arrive.

As camel trading winds down, a carnival gears up. Ferris wheels and other hazardous looking midway rides appear along with some 200,000 Indian tourists. Every day brings new vendors; peanut sellers, Chai Wallahs, souvenir hawkers, clothing stalls and restaurateurs who build clay ovens as needed. No alcohol or meat though—as a holy town, food is strictly vegetarian and alcohol is prohibited.

The ferris wheel had a constant line. We pass due to safety concerns. Photo: Noel Van Raes
A Chai Wallah does a does a booming business.
Clay ovens are built on the spot at makeshift restaurants.
What to choose? A delightful array of food is cooked fresh throughout the day.

Our accommodation—the incongruously named Rock Star Hotel—is only a half-hour walk from the fair grounds as the crow flies. But our journey gets progressively longer every day as we stop to examine the newest shops and restaurants, elbowing our way through the rapid influx of tourists.

Not a rock star in sight.

An improvised restaurant serving deep fried hot peppers stuffed with lentils becomes our favourite lunch spot. Curiously, getting spicy food in India has been a struggle for us. At restaurants we’re invariable asked if we want spicy food and despite saying yes, we receive muted flavours—perhaps it’s a deep-seated belief that foreigners can’t handle the heat.


We just missed the stuffed peppers. It's time now for french fries.

On our last day in Puskar we give into one of the many touts offering transport to the fair via camel cart. Bumping along the dusty streets, we take-in the chaotic sights of the fair one more time. In a few days, the people, the rides, restaurants and camels will all disappear—but for us, the memories will live on forever.



Our last view of the Pushkar Fair.



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