We had been traveling with our trusted Indian driver for more than a week on our 17-day odyssey through India and Nepal. He weaved expertly through the Pushkar Pass (Ghati), a twisty 30-mile road that connected the city of Ajmer to our destination, Pushkar, on the edge of the Thar Desert in the state of Rajasthan. This would be my wife Mary and my last destination on the trip and you would think that after experiencing the overwhelming wonders of India and Nepal for two weeks that a trip to a small town in the desert would be an anti-climax.
[Our trusted Indian driver expertly navigated the twisty road taking us toward the ultimate destination on our 17-day fall odyssey through India and Nepal. After experiencing such wonders as the Himalayas at dawn and the Taj Mahal, our stop in the small town of Pushkar on the edge of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan would likely be anti-climatic.]
During any other time of the year, that may have been the case. But in November, when the moon is just right, Pushkar hosts an unusual, but notable fair – one that celebrates camels – lots of them. Some 200,000 festival goers from around the world flock here, along with 50,000 groomed and decorated Indian camels sporting an equal number of humps since this is dromedary country.
Before leaving the nearby city of Ajmer, we stopped for a few supplies, including a small bottle of vodka. Pushkar is a sacred Hindu town and booze is technically prohibited. The lack of affordable and palatable wine in India had changed our evening happy hour into martini time, a mandatory antidote to India’s insane traffic, noise and scenes of poverty and suffering.
The drive from Ajmer through the Pushkar Pass was by most standards scary. We took it in stride. Nothing competed with nightmarish rides up Nepal’s one-lane mountain roads or through Mumbai’s narrow streets a three-wheeled deathtrap called a tuk tuk. We were relieved as the road flattened out the outskirts of Pushkar.
Just when you think things are going fine in India, you should know better. A barricade manned by a dozen young men stopped us from entering the town. Our driver argued with the grim young leader and then handed over a small wad of rupees. The barricade was lifted, and we continued on our way. Welcome to Pushkar.
Pushkar’s population explodes during the camel fair and prices increase accordingly. Accommodations include simple guest houses, desert tents, some tiny and very scruffy looking hotels in the town center, a few heritage hotels, and farm stays. If you plan to go, it’s best to line up reservations lined up months in advance or risk paying a high tariff for less than stellar accommodations. We didn’t book until a couple of months before the festival and paid the consequences.
We skirted the festival grounds, gaining a preview of coming attractions before turning down a dirt road that passed brightly painted concrete buildings before depositing us into a dirt driveway. Ahead we glimpsed tents amid a grove of small trees.
We had arrived at Royal Rajasthan Camp where we would spend the next three days in a deluxe tent with its own bathroom facilities and dine at the camp restaurant, The Wild Rose (which would prove that a rose is not always a rose). The “front desk” was in an open large tent, where an unsmiling guy handled check-in and perfunctorily presented Mary with a lei of fragrant marigolds.
Roughing it in a tent was appealing after two weeks of luxury hotel stays. Pushkar has several of these camps set up just for the festival, but all came with a caveat from our tour master Sabu Ram of Icon Tours: “About Pushkar accommodation, it’s not so highly praised and just known as an OK accommodation.” “OK” ended up quite a stretch.
Despite beautiful 80-degree days during our stay, the desert nights are chilly. Even with a small portable electric heater Sabu had arranged, we froze on both nights. Festival and campground noise kept us awake, as did our uncomfortable, short, hard-as-rocks bed with a thin blanket and scratchy, what seemed like a 12-count pig bristle sheet. Capping off our restless night, we had a perfectly awful breakfast at the Rose which sported food-stained vinyl tablecloths coated with grit.
You might think our accommodations at Camp Royal Gotcha-stan ruined our time in Pushkar—but they didn’t. In fact, Pushkar was a highlight of our trip.
The Pushkar Camel Fair was organized many years ago for local camel and cattle traders to do business during the holy Kartik Purnima festival, held around the full moon during the Hindu lunar month of Kartika. In the last decade or so, the event has become a major tourist attraction — a kaleidoscopic camel–filled extravaganza that boggles the mind and assaults the senses.
For us, the traditional Indian event was like an exotic country fair with brightly painted people in colorful robes, vendors hawking strange looking food and drink, and dusty fields roamed by camels, regal race horses and motorcycles. Amusement rides and evening entertainment competed for attention with hundreds of booths that lined the streets, selling everything from straw brooms in use for thousand years to colorful horse and camel gear, rhinestone-studded bangles, traditional Indian dress and housewares. Music blared above it all.
In the surging crowds, different clans could be identified by their dress. Men wore turbans in fluorescent greens, oranges and other hues that linked them to a religion or geographical area. Women strolled by in elegant, rainbow-colored saris—a look I love.
Like country fairs everywhere, the festival shows off the region’s agriculture and husbandry. Here camels are painted, dressed in colorful fringed gear and decorated with geometric designs shaved into their fur. Then paraded in beauty contests, raced around an arena, and traded. Interspersed are exotic acts out of Indiana Jones movies including snake charmers, dancing monkeys, magicians and acrobats. Anywhere a crowd circles, some street entertainment is underway.
Rolling sand dunes abutting the fairgrounds dotted with tents and an assortment of RVs where herders, traders and their families camp during the fair. For some the journey there has taken over three weeks. Kids play while women tend campfires and cook or wash clothes in large pots of water filled at the troughs for livestock. In addition to camels and a few sheep and goats, the fair is a showcase for the stunning white and black Merwari horses native to India. These hardy creatures can be identified by the distinctive curve of their ears.
As we strolled the fairgrounds, we were assaulted with offers for camel rides on one of the extravagantly outfitted dromedaries – a bargain at less than 10 dollars for a 30-minute escorted walk. Contrary to popular belief, camels – especially females – are pretty docile beasts. Mary and I settled on our saddles with the camels in the kneeling position. The hardest part of riding a camel is getting on and off. As the camel rises or kneels on their front legs, the passenger is jerked back or forward; but with a firm grip on the saddle horn we did just fine, taking in the sights as the camels gently swayed walking into the dunes and back
After the camel ride, we made our way through narrow crowded streets to the adjacent town center, the commercial and religious hub of the festival. With exception of horn-honking motorcyclists dangerously zooming through the throngs of people, the scene was exciting and stimulating to senses… about as foreign and exotic as travel abroad gets. Brightly dressed and painted “holy men” seemed to compete with each other for the most outlandish look hoping to attract photographers and the money they would pay for the privilege of taking their picture.
A river of pilgrims in their best dress streamed through the streets to the temples and to bathe in the holy waters of Pushkar Lake which borders the town. Bathing in the lake during the days around the full moon would absolve their sins. Street vendors sold religious trinkets and flowers to honor the gods. A young man who spoke English eagerly tried to involve us in the religious goings on and led us through the streets to steps to the lake. He was a little too eager and got agitated when we told him we wanted to get something to eat. We escaped not knowing his motive, but it probably included a fist full of rupees for something.
We were honestly hungry, so we began searching the streets for a likely place to grab a bite. One thing you learn quickly in India is to be selective about dining. We settled on a small outdoor café with four or five tables. It was clean and three tables were filled with western tourists who seemed very happy with the offerings, including pizza which looked good to us after weeks of Indian food. We ordered the pepperoni pizza, surprised to see if offered since most dining spots in town are vegetarian.
The young man who took our order smiled when I wistfully mentioned my wish to wash it down with a beer. We settled for a bottle of water. About 15 minutes later our cheese pizza arrived topped not by circles of pepperoni, but round slices of green peppers. Two large coffee mugs followed. I was about to object when our server smiled again and pointed into the mugs. The contents were cold, refreshing and tasted very much like beer.
The pizza was terrific, and after another round of “coffee,” things were looking up at the Pushkar Fair.