“Camel ride sir? Great camel”
“Why nahi ji sir?”
What could I say? There’s only so much camel I can take, and I’d been catching myself staring at these strange, disdainful beasts all day. I can’t think of any other animal that carries off such studied insouciance, even when doing nothing more demonstrative than chewing cud. But I definitely had no intention of riding one.
I had never been to Pushkar before, and at the risk of sounding gauche, I have to admit that nothing had prepared me for this. Despite being one of India’s prime tourist magnets, Pushkar has a strange feeling of isolation. This may be purely geographic- the town is situated in a valley between parallel rows of the Aravalli range, cut off from it’s larger neighbour, Ajmer, and indeed from the rest of the world. The Aravalli are, of course far older than the Himalaya, and it’s fascinating to imagine how these mountains must have looked in their pomp in the depths of geologic time. Secluded in the desert, Pushkar and its cosmic lake are indeed timeless.
This is in part due to a self-reinforcing alliance between the medieval architecture of the town and an even older religio-cultural tradition. Pushkar has to be one of the oldest holy towns in the country, second only to Varanasi. Yet it’s different too. Bramha is worshipped here, as is well known, but his wives also get precedence. The Bramhin Savitri and the tribal Gayatri, both boon-granting goddesses, occupy two prominent hill-top shrines on either side of the lake, keeping a watchful eye on their husband. Even in the context of the pantheon, this is Hinduism at its most basic: Bramha and the holy cow- rather, the cow’s purifying mouth- get the two main ghats by Pushkar lake.
The 52 white
Photography is understandably banned here, considering the number of people in states of casual nudity as they dip themselves repeatedly in the lake’s sacred waters. Every day brings more anxious pilgrims, clutching single carry-bags, the women with the ends of their saris firmly tucked into their mouth, and looking for a dharamshala to stay. Of these there are plenty, some of which specify caste affiliations, providing their patrons ‘full service’ – lodging, food and ease of worship. When the waxing moon reaches its zenith on the night of Kartik Purnima, in a re-enactment of Bramha’s mythical yagna attended by all the gods of the pantheon, thousands of people from around the country jostle here for just that one, cathartic dip in the lake’s sacred waters.
Apart from the pilgrims who come here to wash off their sins, there are as many reasons to visit Pushkar as there are people. Take Marie, a fifty-something Frenchwoman I met in a charming old haveli next to the lake. Now a converted guest-house and restaurant, its frayed grandeur matches Marie, who looks like an evacuee from one of Lou Reed’s songs of the fading demi-monde. Once an actress, Marie has been making an annual trip to India for the past three years, and she invariably finds herself in Pushkar. Did she ever visit when she was younger? “No, I used to think my hippie friends were stupid, babbling on about spiritual India.” She pauses to take a deep drag on her cigarette before spreading her spidery fingers open as if she’s trying to grasp some elusive thing. “But now,” she says, exhaling, “I get it.”
It’s easy to see how the intensity of an exotic faith and the sheer physical splendour of a landscape can combine to such effect on a jaded, urban mind. But while those like Marie are in search of the ineffable, others are here for more tangible reasons. I’d been noticing a young man in a keffiyeh all day, wandering about town, his sharp eyes darting; his bulging arsenal of lenses on the ready to capture the colourful and the serendipitous. I finally corner him at one of the large dining tents for camel-herders, while he’s shoving his camera into the impressive moustache of a peanut vendor. His name is Vikram, and he’s from Mumbai.
“Are you on an assignment?”
“No man, I’m here to shoot my portfolio.”
“Yeah man. Your portfolio is incomplete without Pushkar. Look around man, isn’t this place great?”
Yes it is, I agree, and he lopes off towards the make
–shift tent city that sprouts up every year in the wilderness just outside town. It houses the camels, horses and cows, as well as their grooms, minders and sellers. Its carnival time for the local tribal people; busily chewing sugarcane, buying farm implements, hukkas and kitchen utensils while an army of photographers shadow their every move, shooting fifteen frames a second. If you discount the camels and the holy city vibe, Pushkar is curiously like Shantiniketan’s Poush Mela– essentially an annual local fair that politely ignores its well-heeled city patrons.
In another category are the ‘Pushkarites’- decidedly more urban than their nomadic brethren- who go about their day in the cheerful knowledge that it’s one long holiday. When the slanting sun paints everything gold late in the afternoon, they emerge in finery to ride the ferris wheels, eat whatever junk they can get their hands on, visit the temples and the ghats and generally have a good time.
However, to many jaded Pushkar hands, there aren’t any real ‘Pushkarites’, just nomads and tourists. It’s a highly reductive world-view. Walking through the surging throng of pilgrims down the Badi Basti road next to the lake, I bump into a tall young American Hare Krishna proselytiser. He grabs my hand and says, “Hey there my man, where’re you from?”
“Um, here,” I say.
“Oh cool, a genuine Pushkarite! There aren’t many left you know!”
“Um, no, I meant I’m Indian.”
“Oh, from where?” says he, while trying to push a Bhagwad Gita into my hand.
“Calcutta, and I don’t want this.”
“Really? Cool, I live in Mayapur. You must take it.”
“I’ve been there a few times. I really don’t want it, I have one at home.”
“You must visit again, ciao.”
The serious business is transacted at the camel fair. The camel is to the Rajasthani nomad what the yak is to a Tibetan- support system, a source of sustenance as well as a principal mode of transport. So buying a good camel makes everyone happy. Everywhere I stop for a cup of tea or a smoke, there’s invariably a gaggle of wiry, weather-beaten men in dusty white shirts and large colourful pagdis conspiratorially discussing camels. And in this regard, the notorious Rajasthani preference for all things male seems to fall through. “A female camel or a male, what difference does it make? I want a good camel,” admonishes a bidi-smoking elder to a harried flunkey, who rushes off to seal the deal.
But if camels constitute the bulk of the business, horses fetch the higher prices. Pushkar Mela is the place to buy and sell thoroughbreds, especially the Sindhi and Marwari varieties. The horse enclosures are usually peopled by minor Rajput potentates or their agents dressed sharply in riding breeches, jodhpurs and sporting royal crests on their stylish jeeps. A hub for both race and polo horses, some desirable animals can fetch really high prices, going up to anywhere between Rs 3 and 5 lakhs. Mohar Singh of Kherla village was busy brushing the coat of his dashing brown horse, Badal. Is it true, I asked him, that apparently a horse had sold the previous day for 95 lakh rupees? He hadn’t heard of such a thing, but he asked me to beware the sellers of non-Marwari horses. They were spreading misinformation. How much was Badal for? He studied my face a full five seconds and said, “four lakh.”
Later as I walked towards the car-park, I thrilled to the mystical charge of an almost-full moon in this oasis under eldritch stars, surrounded by hills over 200 million years old. Who knows maybe on kartik purnima the Old Ones themselves might descend? Pushkar would probably take it in its stride.
– Bibek Bhattacharya
You can find a shorter version of this in Outlook Traveller magazine.