The Hindu pilgrimage town of Pushkar in Rajasthan, (about 3 hours from Jaipur by train or private taxi), is an all year round destination, as it is one of the holiest towns in India. The town is centred around the lake fabled to have been created by the god Brahma, and is home to a Brahma temple, numerous bathing ghats (that is steps leading to the bank of a lake or a river), and temples. Add to that busy bazaars and an annual camel festival and it makes for quite a chaotic but fascinating scene.
The Camel Fair
We were especially motivated to visit for the annual Camel Fair which coincides with the holiest lunar month during October/November. The fair is actually an aside to this auspicious time of year, when thousands of pilgrims descend on the town to bathe in the holy waters. The chaos is difficult to imagine or describe, it’s such a sensory whirlwind of colours, traditions and people that it was exhausting, but a delight for us to visit – India at its most colourful!
The Camel Fair consists of an events arena, around which there are stalls selling all manner of camel and horse owning goods like reins, bells, decorations and driving sticks. There is also a large fun fair and massive market selling food, snacks, the unavoidable chai tea and goods like traditional jewellery and fabrics and other cheap imported goods. Not to be missed if you like your camel to be up to date with the latest camelid fashion accessories.
At the arena you can join for parts of the programme which includes an Indian chasing game named Kho Kho in which grown man chase each other for no apparent reason, best moustache competition (and boy did we see outstanding moustaches) and most beautifully dressed camel (there were even some sexy ones!) along with night-time entertainment, not necessarily from camels. We didn’t see much of the programme due to the daytime heat, but rest assured that you will see wonderfully dressed camels and carts all over the place at any time of the day. Here are our best portraits, and contrary to popular belief, Alex did not try to swap Jess for one of them!
Further away from the area you can find the horse-fair where there is a stud farm display and many very well preened specimens taking part in competitions. All the horses have strange pointy ears and we also saw a whole row of strange white beasts with blue eyes, perfect if you like your horse spooky. Maybe the Night King from Game of Thrones comes shopping here!
Of course the main attraction is the camels, but the main trading seemed to have already happened before the fair. We did however see baby camels and a young camel having its nose pierced for its first reins. Quite a sight… and also sound as it was understandably not very happy!
An unmissable activity is a sunset camel ride. You can ride the camel directly or rent a camel and cart (with its driver of course!). We did the latter, which took about an hour and led us through the fair grounds and into the desert for some Arabian Nights sunset pictures. Alex was brave enough to ride our mellow camel named Rama, Jess chickened out!
The town of Pushkar is small enough to walk around, but do beware of the motorcycles zooming through the narrow bazaar streets. The area around the lake is considered holy, so you must dress appropriately, take your shoes off, not drink (the whole town is strictly alcohol free), smoke or show affection.
The Flower Scam
It’s very likely that you will immediately fall prey to a flower scam, that is, someone will give you a flower and say, “it’s to put in the lake, enjoy Pushkar”. Wow, you will think, how kind, these Indians are so welcoming! Five minutes later however you’ll magically find yourself guided to a ghat where you will be pressured into doing a puja (prayer) with a priest for a hefty donation. We fell for it, and it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, it was in fact rather interesting, but you don’t have to do it, and the donation doesn’t have to be hefty! Accessing the ghats is free, and you can make small donations in the boxes available. Just remember to refuse that flower, or say you have already done it!
So, the main part of Pushkar is the lakeside ghats which you can access from various points. You’ll see many pilgrims taking a bath in the water (taking pictures of bathers is not acceptable) and some people do also bring the ashes of their dead to be scattered in the waters.
There is one ghat named Ghandi Ghat where Ghandi’s ashes were scattered. On the day we tried to visit it, it was a particularly auspicious day and we couldn’t get through the mob of visiting tribe people with their distinctive dresses, tattoos and jewellery.
We also failed to visit the rare Brahmin temple, the most famous in Pushkar, again because the hoards had descended, and it was incredibly difficult to even move in the streets.
Pushkar is also full of many of the famous Indian Sadhus, that is wandering holy men, typically identified by their long dreadlocked hair, beards and orange clothing. These men have renounced all earthly possessions and live a life of almost complete asceticism in the search of communion with God. They are largely revered in India and the country alone has between 4 – 5 million of them. They work on a donation basis so pictures will cost you a few rupees. We got greatly fascinated by them and we even started a fund to pay for pictures of them.
The main drag in Pushkar is ram-packed with bazaars selling Rajastani silver and fabrics. Not everything is high quality (Chinese), but it’s quite easy to identify the genuine shops. Silver is sold by weight so it’s pretty straight forward, otherwise haggle hard! Walking around, we experienced a huge amount of hawking and hassling and it can be quite exhausting to be followed around, asked where you are from 100 times and pressured hard for a sale.
There will also be rather relentless children asking for a few rupees for chapatis (the local bread) and they are perfectly capable of following you for a long time until they get what they want. We did what we could to help them, but sometime all you can do is to firmly say NO and then they might leave you alone.
Oddly, Pushkar’s other culture is Middle Eastern! You can eat falafel and visit a psytrance glow-in-the dark T-shirt stall! In fact, at times the bazaars of Pushkar felt a bit like Camden in London if anyone can relate to that! The problem being that everything has become globalised and sort of made into a tourist/consumerist operation. It appeared to us that Pushkar was another destination similar to Goa, where young “spiritual” travels come for the alternative hippie atmosphere of the town and the psychedelic music and substances. We felt that the original purpose of the holy city was sort of lost, at least to an outsider, but you could certainly see that the Indian pilgrims were very serious and devout.
Up to this point in our India Odyssey we can safely say that, after the Taj Mahal, the Pushkar experience has probably been our favourite few days in the country. Despite the inevitable globalisation spreading to remote desert areas like this, you can still sense that you are taking part into something that retains a basis of truth, where people come for real trade and real worship, as they have done so for many years, and will continue to do so for many years to come. Aside from this, the town is such a pretty little gem and melting pot of ethnicities and cultures (at least for the days of the festival) that it offers a unique opportunity to peep into the lives of Indians that don’t live in city, and that proudly continue living the way their ancestors did. The grubby hands of globalisation may have reached the bazaars, but they have not got hold of the people yet, and hopefully they won’t for many years to come.