A quintessentially Indian affair, the Pushkar Mela (‘festival’), as the event is known locally, attracts semi-nomadic camel drivers, breeders and traders, as well as pilgrims and visitors from all over India and beyond, swelling the population of this usually quiet pilgrimage town by more than 300,000, and giving rise to a unique spectacle that offers superb photographic opportunities.
Consisting of the legendary Pushkar Camel Fair, and the celebrations for the holy festival of Kartik Poornima, one of the most important in the Hindu calendar, the Pushkar Mela is both a trade and a religious fair of epic proportions.
An extravaganza of races, competitions, markets, circuses, and all-night vigils spliced into an exhilarating continuum of innumerable secular and religious activities, the mela unfolds over the course of five days.
To explore in detail this multifaceted event and the incredible array of photographic opportunities that it generates, during the expedition, we remain in Pushkar for the entire duration of the mela – from the Camel Fair that inaugurates it, to Kartik Poornima, the festival’s most important day, which concludes it.
This allows us to immerse ourselves in the joyous atmosphere of this traditional Indian festival and follow its progress from the sandy encampments at the edge of town, where the Camel Fair takes place, to the sacred lake at the heart of town, where, under the full moon of Kartik Poornima, the mela culminates with a mass bathing of Hindu pilgrims.
Rich in customs that echo the traditional way of life of this region of India – of which the Pushkar Mela is an outstanding illustration – Rajasthan is also home to some of the best-preserved examples of Indian architectural heritage, including spectacular palaces, grand desert forts, and intricately carved havelis (mansions).
Embracing some of Rajasthan’s most iconic sites, our photographic exploration of the Pushkar Mela is part of a journey that takes us across the Great Indian Desert, to Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, three of the state’s most colour-saturated, historical cities – each of which presents its own, distinctive photographic opportunities.
As well as drawing the largest gathering of cattle in the world, the Pushkar Mela is of considerable religious importance for Hindus, who believe that the lake at the heart of town was created when a lotus blossom fell from the hand of Lord Brahma, the God of creation, in whose honour the mela is held.
Accordingly, the mela is composed of two interconnected phases, the first secular and the second religious – it opens with the Camel Fair in which camels, horses, and cattle are traded on the desert dunes bordering the town, and culminates with the religious festivities of Kartik Poornima.
Deriving its name from that of the lunar month of ‘Kartik’ (October- November) in which it takes place, and the Hindu word ‘poornima’, meaning ‘full moon’, the holy festival of Kartik Poornima is celebrated by Hindu, Jain, and Sikh communities throughout India.
However, it holds particular significance in Pushkar, where it is believed to mark the anniversary of the divine assembly called by Lord Brahma when he first created the lake, and where it forms the pinnacle of the Pushkar Mela, drawing scores of pilgrims and sadhus, (Hindu holy men) to the banks of the lake, whose sacred waters are considered to purify bathers of all sins.
A non-stop event comprising a multitude of constantly unfolding activities – from horse racing to night-long religious vigils – the mela intensifies as it builds to its finish, providing an inexhaustible array of opportunities that invite progressively longer shoots.
Spanning the town and its environs, the mela transforms Pushkar and the portion of desert that surrounds it into what seems like an enormous revolving stage, where the action carries on uninterrupted across intimate architectural settings and sweeping desert scenery.
If the backdrop to both secular and religious aspects of the mela couldn’t be more striking, even more remarkable is the atmosphere that develops during the festival.
Attracting camel and horse traders, as well as villagers from all over Rajasthan, and pilgrims and sadhus from all over India, the mela brings together miscellaneous communities with diverse material and spiritual concerns.
This combination of earthly and other-worldly affairs creates a very particular atmosphere, with an infinite variety of moods, that makes the Pushkar Mela a joy to experience and photograph.
Gathering with their animals in encampments that seem to stretch to infinity, during the Camel Fair, breeders and traders conduct their transactions in a vast, natural arena, where the north-eastern fringes of the Great Indian Desert meet the green spurs of the Aravalli Hills, one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges.
At the start of the mela, this span of low dunes petering out into the vastness of the Great Indian Desert, which the locals call ‘Mela Ground’, becomes the showground of a grand, age-old spectacle: myriads of camels and thousands of people tending to them – feeding, washing, brushing, clipping, and decorating the animals in preparation for sale.
Since this entails a great deal of work, most breeders come to the fair with their immediate family; whilst the make-up of the family units that tend the flocks at the mela varies according to tradition – (only in some nomadic communities do men customarily migrate with women) – it normally comprises of men, women, and children.
This lends the Mela Ground a very hectic and yet somewhat archaic atmosphere, as if the character of the location and activities converged so naturally as to suggest a sense of timelessness.
Though smaller in numbers than it was in its heyday, the Pushkar Camel Fair remains an event so vast and alive with customs, it continues amply to fill the observer with awe and surprise.
During the workshop, we return to the Mela Ground numerous times, to explore the changing moods that accompany its daily cycle of activities – from daybreak, when the animals and their keepers stir to life in the glow of campfires, through the grooming, parading and raucous bartering that follows, until dusk, when the sun drops behind the dunes and everyone clusters around the campfires once more.
This process produces a degree of familiarity with the environment that is of great benefit to picture-making. Soon, what first registered as a sea of animals and people, becomes a recognisable mosaic, whose potential can comfortably be explored.
If the Camel Fair presents many enticing aspects, much of its character is set by its awkwardly-shaped, disobliging stars: the camels. The official state animal of Rajasthan (home to nearly 70% of the camels in India), the hardy camel provides a range of vital resources and forms an integral part of Rajasthan’s life and lore.
Used as a source of milk, wool and leather, as well as for a wide variety of purposes, including riding, transport and ploughing, camels have been central to the survival of Rajasthan’s nomadic desert-dwellers.
Though traditionally bread by the Raika, an indigenous community of pastoral nomads who believe that the Hindu god Shiva created them to fulfill this purpose, in modern times, camels are bred and traded by a variety of castes within Rajasthan, each of which has its own distinct costume and ornaments.
Joining these diverse communities, the Roma people, or gypsies – a nomadic tribe who originated in Rajasthan – also come to the Pushkar Camel Fair in considerable numbers, setting up camp with their families and their dogs between the flocks of camels.
All this, renders the Mela Ground an incredibly rich hunting ground for images, one where a constant flow of activities and interactions – some pastoral, other commercial, some intense, others playful – unfurls in a magnificent setting, producing limitless opportunities for photographing people in their environment.
Accompanying the secular festivities of this first phase of the mela, which include the Pushkar Camel Race as well as horse races and livestock competitions, there are circuses and magic shows, alongside jugglers, acrobats, snake-charmers and folk dancers performing day and night.
During the workshop, we explore the opportunities presented by these events extensively. As the number of individual events grows and the pace of the festivities quickens, our shoots become increasingly longer, enabling us to witness the mela in its all its kaleidoscopic facets.
Whilst some of the entertainments, such as the livestock contests, are tied to the Camel Fair, others, which cater to the pilgrims coming to town for Kartik Poornima, expand as the religious festivities approach.
Amongst them, the circuses and the so-called ‘Well of Death’ draw the biggest crowds and provide excellent opportunities for people, performance, and action photography.
As the moon waxes across the desert sky, and and the auspicious bathing time approaches, pilgrims congregate in ever larger numbers in Pushkar’s dharamshalas (rest houses) and the focal point of the festivities moves from the Mela Ground to the town.
Amongst the oldest continuously inhabited towns in India, Pushkar is one of the five sacred dhams, the holy sites that devout Hindus must visit at least once in their life, and is often called ‘Tirtha-Raj’- the ‘king of pilgrimage sites’.
According to Hindu tradition, bathing in Pushkar Lake on Kartik Poornima purifies all sins, including those of the husband of any Hindu woman who bathes here on this day.
The striking architecture of the over 400 temples that ring Pushkar’s holy lake is the backdrop to the mela’s magnificent religious finale.
In the small hours of the fifth day, the Pushkar Mela celebrations reach their zenith during the full moon of Kartik Poornima, when crowds of pilgrims descend on the bathing ghats leading to the lake and enter its waters.
During this part of the workshop, in the build-up to the mass bathing of Kartik Poornima, we follow the pilgrims on their path, a religious circuit that encompasses the main lake and other holy sites in and around town, which the devout are expected to complete prior to the day of Kartik Poornima.
As the religious activities intensify, we photograph the vigils and prayer rituals that precede Kartik Poornima until the hours leading up to the moonrise on the mela’s last night, when the crowds of pilgrims trying to reach the ghats at the most propitious time for bathing fill the town’s streets to capacity.
After the initial rush, the devout continue to throng the ghats until the sun is high in the sky before starting their return journey home. Yet, as visitors depart, the town’s inhabitants – most of whom have been busy tending to business during the mela – come out with their families to celebrate the religious holiday and partake in the mela’s closing festivities.
For us, therefore, the mela’s last night and day are a particularly intense time involving long, tiring but extremely rewarding shoots, which form a fitting conclusion to our photographic exploration of this remarkable event.
Whilst access and proximity to shooting locations are always central to our choice of accommodation, in Pushkar, during the mela, this principle becomes essential because of the need to navigate the crowds.
During our stay in Pushkar, therefore, our base in town is within walking distance of both the Mela Ground and the lake; this ensures that we have immediate, unrestricted access to all facets of the mela throughout its duration.
Beyond Pushkar, our journey through the ‘Land of the Rajas’ takes us to Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Jaipur, to capture the life and architecture of these vibrant, historical towns, which testify to the power of the Rajput princely states that flourished in Rajasthan between the 8th and 18th centuries.
Known as the ‘Golden City’, the ‘Blue City’, and the ‘Pink City’, respectively, each of these ancient trade-centres enjoys its own, unique atmosphere and provides excellent photographic opportunities.
A World Heritage Site famous for its amber-coloured sandstone bastions and lavishly carved merchants havelis, the desert town of Jaisalmer, in the westernmost corner of Rajasthan, grew wealthy on the taxation of goods that once passed through here on camel back.
Its setting, high on a ridge rising out of the Great Indian Desert, and the medieval architecture of its walled citadel, lend the ‘Golden City’ a particular character that sets it apart from other cities in Rajasthan.
280 km to the south-east, near the geographic centre of the state, Jodhpur is a lively market town sprawling at the base of the imposing Meherangarh Fort – Rajasthan’s finest and one of the largest buildings of its kind in India.
Described by Rudyard Kipling as “the work of angels, fairies, and giants, built by Titans and coloured by the morning sun”, the fort towers 120 metres above the former capital of the Kingdom of Marwar and houses some of the most beautiful historic buildings in the state.
During our time in Jodhpur, we explore both its magnificent fort and the bustle of the narrow lanes that run between the deep cobalt-blue houses that lend the ‘Blue City’ its title.
Strategically located between Delhi and Gujarat, in its origins, Jodhpur flourished from the passing trade in opium, copper, silk, coffee and sandal wood, amongst other valuable goods.
Today, its skilled artisans have made handicraft the city’s main industry, turning Jodhpur, in the process, into the second largest city in Rajasthan and one of the most dynamic and colour-saturated a photographer could wish to explore.
Our journey concludes in Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan. The first planned city of its time in India, Jaipur is laid out in accordance with the principles of Hindu architectural manuals, which call for strict geometrical planning.
While in Jaipur, we photograph its red-tinted architecture and the flurry of activities characteristic of its busy streets, including the grids of its brilliant, arcaded bazaars and the yellow geometries of its famous astronomical observatory, Jantar Mantar, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The workshop’s final shoot, takes us to the summit of a ridge in the Aravalli Hills, for a superb view of the ‘Pink City’ at dusk, from the vantage point of one of its three royal forts.
Although this Expedition is open to photographers of all levels, participants should note that it is an intense journey marked by extremes – from the animals and vast crowds of the Pushkar Mela, to the emptiness of the Thar Desert, and the chaotic atmosphere of its fort cities.
It is a journey that brings us face to face with one of the largest gatherings of people and animals in the world, and offers outstanding opportunities for photographing religious ritual and people in their environment in what is broadly considered the most colourful state in India.
As such, this Expedition is ideal for photographers who relish adventure and want to experience a typical, yet unique Indian festival in its many different facets. As is the case for all our workshops, the Expedition is designed to enable participants to develop a consistent visual narrative and assemble a complete photographic story.
Whilst the workshop includes numerous possibilities for both urban and natural landscape photography, it is particularly well-suited for photographers who are interested in street photography and people photography, with a particular emphasis on environmental portrait photography, opportunities for which, abound throughout the Expedition.