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More camels than cameras at Pushkar’s famous fair

A few essentials always come into play when deciding on a travel destination. When? Where? Who? Why? And What? The How we’ll leave up to the airplane and ground transportation this time. By following a few guidelines in the “W” categories, you’re bound to have a Wonderfully Wild Would Have to Do It Out-of-this-World Experience.

Women at Pushkar Camel Fair

When? In November 2013 a friend and I spent three days in the desert of India. It was Festival Time, and that means Festival Time like no other. In 2014, this annual event will be held October 30th to November 6th. In 2015, the dates will be November 18th to November 25th. It is held during the Kartik Shukal Ekadasi time for five days, though preparation days and shut-down days also hold enchantment.

Who? Thousands of tourists, pilgrims, livestock sellers, guides, artisans, dancers, musicians, athletes, camel decorators and film-makers rub shoulders for the week. However, people tend to hold a backseat position to animals: a rough count of 20,000 camels plus an equal number of horses, goats, sheep, cows and dogs. The tourists join in with the locals for games in the arena. The pilgrims bathe in the lake’s sacred waters. Livestock sellers openly exchange thousands of dollars outside their tents for prized animals while guides pull pedestrians out of the way of camel carts dashing over dusty roads. The artisans try to convince would-be buyers that their families own nearby ruby mines and that their $2 bracelets are, indeed, authentic. Dancers, musicians, and athletes compete, welcoming newcomers into their folds. Stop by Collector’s Paradise Museum to meet its owner, Ashok-Tak, who was presented Life Time Achievement Award for winning the camel decorating contest seven times. He’s a combination of royalty and friendliness. While there, schedule a cooking class under the expert skill and laughter of his wife Shivani. The deliciously prepared food gives new meaning to a pressure-cooker. As far as film-makers go, many make this an annual ritual for the explosion of color and life. In fact, who wouldn’t want to be part of this week-long party?

Where? I promise you, it’s not hard to reach. At least, if you’re in Jaipur, India. It’s about 88 miles away—on fairly decent roads. You’ll leave Amber Fort and the gem shopping sprees of Jaipur and be spellbound by the starkly different sights of the Rajasthan desert. The serene imagery of desert mesas have a way of expelling the crowds and elephants of Jaipur. That is, until you reach your destination. Then colors explode. Sounds cry forth. Smells of manure, marigold and garlic collide. And dunking naan into camel milk just might become a morning ritual.

Why? Because where else can you be the guest to more than 20,000 camels? Where else can you have your guide introduce himself, “Hi, I’m Nandu: Full power, 24 hours. No toilet, no shower. Smell like a flower.” Only here can one fall in love with Moti, the seven year old camel that Jay bought for 55,000 rupees (about $900) from his boss of five years. Nowhere else can one ride Moti, a stoic animal obedient to every command Jay delivers. Where else can one be serenaded by a massive choir of livestock with their fine-pitched tunes of moaning, bleating, and hee-hawing? And permit me to plead with you to cook and eat with Ashok and Shivani Tak at their home’s cooking school. She will share her prized recipes for rice biryani, tea, naan, daal, aalu gobhi, and spinach panir, all ending with “Serve with Love.” Where else can guests soar in a balloon above camels, horses, and visitors or walk among them from sunrise to sunset? Where else will the locals invite newcomers to join them to inspect the teeth of a camel or the gait of a horse? And all the while music fills the air with peddlers hawking jewelry, children fiddling songs on home-made instruments, and horses and camels clopping to and fro. Easily, all immerge themselves into the holiday spirit, go with the flow, try just about anything, and ask, “Why not?”

What? If you haven’t guessed by now, it’s the Pushkar Camel Festival. Riding camels, inspecting livestock for sale, and snapping photos are bound to consume a chunk of the day. But, there’s much more to do in Pushkar. Be sure to visit the Brahma Temple. Legend tells us that while Lord Brahma flew over this desert region, he dropped three lotus petals. They fell on three parts of the sand, and three lakes sprung up. Lord Vishnu reigns prominently in Pushkar, as one would expect. At Varah Temple, an image of Vishnu in the incarnation of a wild boar reminds one that, according to a legend, he visited the earth as this wild boar to kill a demon. Visiting Pushkar Lake is a must. Fifty-two flights of steps, called ghats, surround the lake. Pilgrims bathe in the lake’s sacred waters, beckoning visitors to join them if they wish. During the full moon nights, tiny leaf boats, each carrying flowers and an oil lamp, are set afloat. They sparkle as if stars born upon the water.

Women at Pushkar Camel Fair

From sunrise to sunset, there’s plenty to do at the Pushkar Camel Festival. The agenda of activities for each day is posted, and many events are held at the arena. Games are fun for all, viewers and participants. Women from any and everywhere can participate in a Matka race. All it takes is lining up, holding a large ceramic pot on one’s head or shoulder, waiting for the signal to start, and then running to the finish line without breaking the pot. Spectators will laugh and cheer as players show off their Kabaddi skills. For this, two teams occupy opposite halves of the field and take turns sending a “raider” into the other half. The raider tackles opponents and then tries to return to his own half. As a novice spectator, it seemed to me like a combination of Red Rover-Red Rover, Ring around the Rosy, wrestling and judo. Locals vs. Visitors contend in a football match. Hundreds of school children entertain the crowds with colorful costumes and traditional dances. Hopefully, only men compete in “Longest Moustache Contest,” but who knows—anything’s possible in Pushkar. The Langari Taang Competition calls for holding one leg with one hand and running to the finish line. First one there: the Victor. Tug-of-War between locals and visitors calls for cheers, jeers, and rope burns. And the camels, most appropriately, claim the best games. In one competition, people sit on a camel’s back. Then the camel runs across the field and throws the riders off. Other races and antics follow. In one, the camel wins by accommodating the most number of people on its back without having them fall. And, of course, what would a festival be like without a beauty contest? This one is strictly for camels. They are adorned with jewels and finery, the best decorated one claimed the winner.

I promise you that you’ll come away from Pushkar knowing more about camels than you ever thought possible. For example, did you know that camel milk is low in lactose compared to cow’s milk? And it’s lower in cholesterol and three times higher in vitamin C and ten times higher in iron. But, more importantly, you’ll come to know that the world has sacred places where reverence is not diminished by hosting a festival that demonstrates the struggles of life and making a living. In Pushkar every year hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world join together in joviality and cultural sharing. I never imagined myself thanking camels but after my trip to the Pushkar Festival, I can’t thank them enough.

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