Where 50,000 Camels, 300,000 People, and 33 Million Gods Come Together
Tucked between the worn down ranges of the Aravalli Hills, in a valley lapped by the sands of the Great Indian Desert, the sacred town of Pushkar is a bright ellipse of white-washed temples curling around the pink-blue waters of a lake that Hindus believe was formed when a lotus flower petal (‘pushpa’) slipped from the hand (‘kar’) of Lord Brahma, the god of creation.
Once a year, this ancient pilgrimage site becomes the stage of a unique show where, in the words of a local source, ‘faith and commerce come together and gyrate in festive spirits’. An event of considerable religious and economic significance that combines the secular with the spiritual as perhaps only India can, the Pushkar mela is attended yearly by up to 50,000 camels, 300,000 people and, according to Hindu belief, 33 million gods – the entire Hindu pantheon.
The mela (‘festival’) comprises two distinctly separate aspects; the camel fair, where camels, horses, and cattle are traded in the vast amphitheatre of the desert at the edge of town, and the religious festivities, which see scores of pilgrims and sadhus – Hindu ascetics – stream into town to bathe in the waters of Pushkar Lake on the auspicious day of Kartik Poornima.
The livestock trading kicks off the mela and intensifies during the first few days of the festival but, as the full moon of Kartik Poornima approaches, the religious celebrations gather momentum, gradually shifting the focus of the event from the camel-strewn dunes to the over 400 temples that ring the sacred lake at the centre of town. Linking the two sides of the event, is an almost non-stop carnival of camel races, traditional dances, beauty contests, bizarre competitions (such as the moustache competition), puppet shows, and night-time vigils where traders, pilgrims, performers, villagers, and visitors from all over the world mingle with hawkers, musicians, acrobats, snake-charmers, and seemingly, the rest of humanity.
The mela culminates in a mass bathing in the early hours of the day of the full moon (Poornima), in the Hindu lunar month of Kartik (October-November) – the festival’s most important day. According to Hindu tradition, bathing in the holy Pushkar Lake on Kartik Poornima washes away all sins – a spiritual benefit that extends to the husband of any Hindu woman who bathes here on this day – and is the equivalent of performing yajna (fire-offering ritual worship) for several hundred years.
While Kartik Poornima is a holy day in the Hindu calendar that is celebrated all over India, it is of special significance in Pushkar, where it marks the anniversary of the gathering of celestial beings called by Lord Brahma when he first performed yajna on the banks of the lake that he had created at Pushkar.
To understand what makes this small town at the edge of the Thar Desert bulge at the seams with people and camels every year, we must look to its origins. The religious aspect of the mela predates the camel fair by many thousands of years. Pushkar is one of the oldest towns in India and its lake can be dated with certainty to at least the 4th century BC. Described in Hindu scriptures as ‘Tirtha-Raj’, the king of the sacred places to the Hindus, Pushkar Lake is one of the five dhams, which devout Hindus must visit at least once in their lifetime. As such, it has been a place of worship for centuries – long before, as a means of generating taxes, the British instituted the cattle fair to attract camel and cattle traders to do business during the holy Kartik Poornima festival.
Hindus are not alone in considering Pushkar sacred. For the followers of Jainism, who refer to Pushkar as Padmavati Pilgrimage, the Jain city of Pattan and numerous Jain temples lie buried in the Pushkar sand dunes; archaeological remains excavated here support this belief. Pushkar is also significant to the Sikhs, whose 10th guru came to the banks of the lake to recite the sacred Sikh text Guru Granth Sahib, while for Vaishnavites – devotees of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu god of protection, sustenance and maintenance – Pushkar is a Divya Desam, one of the 108 places where Lord Vishnu came to the world, to slay the demon Hirnayaksha. Of these, Pushkar is one of only eight believed to have ‘self-manifested’, that is to say ‘not created by human hand’ – divine.
Clustered around the sacred Pushkar Lake there are between 400 and 500 temples (there is no consensus on the exact number) linked to each other and the water by 52 ghats, many of which are listed Monuments of National Importance. These stone steps descending to the water’s edge, where pilgrims congregate to bathe and perform other religious rituals, are the heart of Pushkar. Different ghats and the waters that reach them are believed to have different curative powers – some are thought to restore fertility while others are reputed to cure leprosy, confer beauty and charm, and grant wisdom.
Every day of the year, pilgrims and locals come here to bathe, as they have done for centuries. But on Kartik Poornima and the five days preceding this propitious bathing day, the crowds of bathers swell as pilgrims pour into town and begin the clockwise circumambulation of the lake. A religious practice known as Parikrama (‘the path surrounding something’) that is central to Hindu worship, the circumambulation recommended in Pushkar is a 16km-long circuit that embraces the main Pushkar Lake as well as the two smaller lakes of Madya Pushkar and Kanishta Pushkar, which are also believed to have been created by Lord Brahma.
The path takes pilgrims from Pushkar Lake to the town’s most important shrine, the famed Brahma Temple, the most important of the very few temples consecrated to Lord Brahma in India, and up to two of the surrounding hills which, according to tradition, Lord Brahma created as sentinels so that he could perform yajna peacefully, without interference from demons.
During the mela, the caves in the hills become the home of sadhus, who come to meditate in the five days leading up to the full moon of Kartik Poornima. Commonly referred to as ‘Babas’, sadhus are renunciates, holy men and women who have forsaken all material attachments, including ties to their families. They live in forests, caves and temples all over India and spend lengthy periods of time alone in meditation. On occasions such as the Pushkar mela, when sadhus congregate from all over the subcontinent, the atmosphere of their gatherings is intensely joyous and they share it generously with outsiders.
The Pushkar mela is therefore, much more than the Pushkar camel fair and attending the latter for a couple of days, as most visitors do, is akin to leaving not just before the grand finale but before the first act has even come to a close. In recent years, a number of articles in the travel media have focused on the increased appeal of the Pushkar camel fair to international visitors. But that’s just it, tourists come for the camel fair – not the mela; they stay on average less than two days, and rarely stray from the camel fair ground, where most are transferred, mid-morning, directly from the bus that carried them from their tended accommodation in the desert (well away from the town), onto a camel cart, for a ride.
The marketing effort on the part of tour operators to move the emphasis from the Pushkar mela to the Pushkar camel fair has been so successful that most tour groups are now brought to Pushkar before the official start of the mela, on a promise that they will see a greater number of camels and a smaller number of other tourists. What few outside of the travel industry realise is that, during the Pushkar mela, as the number of visitors to Pushkar skyrockets, the price of accommodation in town soars accordingly, driving operators’ profits down and fuelling interest in bringing people early, accommodating them in the desert, and moving them on quickly.
The Pushkar mela officially begins on Prabodhini Ekadashi – that is the 11th lunar day (ekadashi) in the bright fortnight of the Hindu month of Kartik – and ends on the full moon day of Kartik Poornima. It therefore lasts for a total of five days. Yet, ironically, the vast majority of itineraries titled ‘Pushkar fair’ breeze through town before the mela has even begun.
From a photographer’s perspective, this marketing trend has produced a useful folly; a parallel ‘International Pushkar fair’ that is relatively easy to eschew. Since most groups have come and gone by the time the actual mela begins, if what you have come here to photograph is a traditional Indian festival, you have a simple choice: stay longer, lodge in town, and be prepared to get very little sleep as the mother of all parties unfolds before your eyes.
From start to finish, the Pushkar mela presents innumerable opportunities for photography 24 hours a day. As it fills with camels, horses, and traders, the desert fringing the southern edge of town comes alive with sounds, smells and sights from another era. Here, in what the locals call the Mela Groud, there are no cars and no artificial lights – the only noises are those of the animals and their keepers. Hooves pounding the sand as young men canter bareback on their Merwari horses past interested buyers amid a cacophony of camels’ groans, moans and bellows.
Seemingly averse to doing anything except chewing and looking comically aloof, camels are petulant divas needing persuasion even to drink water, forcing their handlers to produce a range of peculiar vocalizations with which to cajole them into being washed, brushed and sheared in preparation for sale.
When evening descends, plumes of smoke begin to rise from the desert as traders and their families gather around small pits dug into the sand to cook dahl baati – balls of semolina, baked on an open fire, served with a spicy vegetable broth – filling the air with the aroma of bread and spices.
But as daylight fades on the dunes, the neon lights of the fairground buffering the area between the desert and the town crackle into life, attracting people like moths. In a land where camels are a common sight, this is the excitingly unusual – where families, pilgrims, traders and, on occasion, even sadhus, come to enjoy the thrill of a magic show, ride on the Ferris wheel, and climb to the top of the Well of Death to marvel at the roaring recklessness of the riders of the maut ka kuan.
Bridging the fairground to the desert and the town, hundreds of market stalls vie for customers’ attention; stands selling camel finery – everything from embossed saddles to pom-poms and silver bells – line the way from the Mela Ground to the amusement park and beyond, slowly giving way to town stalls selling every conceivable item from blankets and lamps, to crockery, bangles, and swords.
A large proportion of the people attending the mela have travelled for days to reach Pushkar; for many villagers who have come on pilgrimage from remote corners of the desert, this is the closest thing they have seen to the bling and bright lights of Bollywood movies. Late into the night, as they have done on and off all day, they crowd around TV screens showing re-enactments of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the epics of ancient India, sipping chai, with children asleep on their shoulders, soaking up the worldly atmosphere.
At dusk and dawn, when hot air balloons (a recent addition to the mela) rise into the still, dry air, people and animals alike watch with bewilderment as the glowing spheres drift above the desert and the town.
In the 24 hours leading to Kartik Poornima, commerce bows to religion and the action moves progressively closer to the lake. Bracing itself for the peak influx of pilgrims, the municipality erects wooden barriers along the main street, creating one-way crowd channels. One by one, the shops in town shut, leaving only chai wallahs and stalls selling religious offerings – flowers, fruit, sugar, rice, betel leaves, and sandalwood paste, amongst other things.
The last few hours before the full moon reaches the most propitious position in the sky are a maelstrom of turbans and saris as people making their way to the ghats fill the streets to capacity. The air is thick with incense and the sound of temple bells, when men women and children – many holding hands, to avoid becoming separated – spill onto the ghats, and enter the waters of the lake.
By daybreak, when the devout return from bathing, the flow of the crowd starts to reverse and the town erupts into one final burst of colour. Market stalls unfold, and the shopping begins in earnest – hawkers bid loudly for the attention of the streaming crowd; women flock to bangle vendors; villagers grab one last chance to interrogate the horoscope machine before beginning their long journey home. Slowly, the town empties of its visitors, but not of people; just as the pilgrims make their way out of town, the residents of Pushkar come out to enjoy their share of the party, gradually supplanting the throngs of visitors.
Dressed in their finest for the holy day of Kartik Poornima, local families now fill the streets, perusing the goods that come to town but once a year – textiles from the cities of Jodhpur and Ajmer, brassware from the capital, Jaipur, and bead necklaces from Nagaur, amongst countless other local imports sold in Pushkar only during the mela.
As the sun sets behind the low-slung hills, the entire town’s population seems to converge on the fairground, where the merry-go-rounds are swirling brightly once again. Leaving hardly a trace on the yellow dunes, the camels and their traders have long vanished into the sandy horizon to make their way to Jhalawad, 315 km south-east of Pushkar, for the Chandrabhaga Fair. But that, as they say, is another story.
The Pushkar mela is the focus of our Pushkar Fair Photography Expedition, one of our most popular and longest-running, specialist photography workshops in India. During the Expedition, we arrive in Pushkar as the camel trading gets under way and remain until the sun sets on Kartik Poornima. This gives us the opportunity to explore the many facets of the mela and assemble a coherent body of images documenting what is certainly one of the greatest spectacles in Asia.
The mela is a 24-hours-a-day affair; to make the most of the photographic opportunities that it offers, we consider it essential to be able to rest, download, and recharge – or, as we call it, ‘RDR’ – between shoots. Our accommodation in Pushkar is in town, mid-way between the camel fair ground and the lake, giving us easy and independent access to all key events and photographic locations for 6 days: the duration of the mela, plus one day for orientation and easing ourselves into the atmosphere of the festival.
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