In the soft light of early morning the colours sparkle; a beautiful rainbow of saris, red and yellow being the dominant colours of a majestic display of designs. The heady aroma of incense wafts through the air, the smoke of thousands of slowing burning incense sticks creating a light haze.
When the children of the great lord Brahma, Creator of the World, one of the sacred Hindu trinity, were murdered by the demon Vajra Nabha, the deity struck the demon down with a lotus flower, one of its petals falling to earth in Pushkar, creating a lake, now seen as one of the most hallowed sites in India and one of the five holiest centres of pilgrimage for Hindus. The city has the only shrine in the world dedicated to the Lord Brahma, and his lotus flower lake is believed to have great healing and purifying powers, to the point where up to one million pilgrims each year come to bathe in its waters.
Around the lake fifty-two bathing ghats, tiers of steps, lead directly into the water. While a dip in the sacred lake is believed to cleanse sins and cure skin diseases, many of the ghats are said to have specific healing powers; Kapil Vyapi Kund helps in curing leprosy, Roop Tirth enhances beauty and charm, Mrikand Muni Kund is believed to grant wisdom, Naga Kund helps with fertility. While all the ghats see pilgrims in large numbers, these ghats experience a huge turnout, especially during the Pushkar Fair, held during the holy Kartik Purnima festival, around the full moon in the Hindu lunar month of Kartika, usually over the cusp of October/November in the Gregorian calendar.
The ghats are a fascinating sight. Ladies of all ages in brightly coloured saris tentatively lower themselves down the first step into the water, the elderly holding the hands of younger for support, immersing themselves neck deep in the sacred waters, splashing their face and hair, which is often plaited into a long braid down their back. Younger people, some wearing swimming trunks, and bathing costumes, splash each other and lark about like any group playing on the beach.
I become an unintentional voyeur as I sit making notes on the steps of Narsingh Ghat. Ladies have a way of changing from wet to dry in stages, removing and replacing each layer, protecting themselves from the male gaze with a long shawl covering the body from head to knee. These shawls are gossamer thin and with the morning sun glaring across the water from the opposite shore of the lake I’m rewarded with the sometimes pleasing and tantalising silhouette of fair maid’s form, although equally as often of an aged shape, plump with years.
As I walk along the ghats I’m approached by a man with a small tray of flowers. He points to the white cord around his chest that indicates he is a Brahmin. I’d been warned about this scam. He puts flowers in my hand and begins to explain the procedure. You throw the flowers into the water and pray and then make a donation, but he doesn’t tell you that these scammers expect a pretty hefty donation and then get offended if you don’t pay, going as far a threatening to call the police. I say that I’m not of his religion and it would be disrespectful of me to do it, a get-out I’ve used with both Catholics and Buddhists in the past. He puts the flowers back in his bowl and turns away in disgust. It happens a couple of times and I always give the same answer, replied to by a surly shake of the head as they realise they’ve lost a punter.
I wander away from the ghats into the main street, bright, colourful – and surprisingly clean – done up in its holiday best for the annual Pushkar Camel Fair, one of the biggest tourist events in India, the origins of which can be laid at the door of British rule for combining the ancient religious pilgrimage with a cattle fair to generate taxes for improving the lake and its surroundings.
The streets are starting to fill; food shops selling vegetarian breakfast, basically the same menu as lunch; flute sellers with their inverted trees of bamboo flutes and plastic wares, play tuneless ditties to publicise their wares; stalls selling ornate daggers and sabres in red and gold scabbards have a crowd but it’s the vicious-looking flick knives and daggers with serrated edges that attract most attention.
As I work my way through the crowds I discover that cows and sadhus in orange robes and turbans have one thing in common – they don’t give way to anyone, just plow on regardless. Whereas the cows move placidly forward, many of the sadhus rattle a can under your nose saying, “chai,” basically tea money, but aren’t impressed when you only drop in five rupees, the price of a small cup of tea at a chai stall. At times the crowd appears as a sea of yellow, there are so many sadhus on the move, with small inlets of those who sit on doorsteps or squat on the dusty ground, chai cans in front of them.
I barter the price to take a photo of a couple displaying their deformed cow, which has a fifth leg hanging from its shoulder. This isn’t any form of prurience on my part but because I saw a different ‘owner’ touting the animal yesterday, or at least I thought I did. I later discover that there must be a lot of deformities in Pushkar when I count four other cows with the extra leg in the same position, either a recognised deformity or someone who can stitch a neat hand but without much sense of adventure. I even see two animals and their owners together and can only assume that they were deformed calves from the same mother or erstwhile tailor.
I’ve arrived mid-way through the Camel Fair, only to find that there aren’t any camels, or at least not that many to speak of. The tourist information tells me
The sand dunes appear infested with camels as far as the eyes can see. The camels are dressed up, paraded, shaved, entered into beauty contests, raced, made to dance, and traded. A huge carnival is held, with an array of musicians, magicians, dancers, acrobats, snake charmers. The camel races are definitely a highlight, although the comical beauty contests featuring elaborately adorned and shaved camels are also amusing. And, of course, the fair would be incomplete without a moustache competition!
What they don’t tell you is that the ‘camel’ part of Pushkar Camel Fair takes place on the first three days, the rest of the week being taken up with folks having a jolly good time at the fairground. But while I may have missed the ‘comical beauty contests’ I enjoy watching the few camels that remain, dressed to the nines pulling beautifully decorated carts, parading amongst the blaring horns of cars and trucks, oblivious to the long queues of traffic forming behind them. And the gaudy glitz of the fairground with its flashing big wheel, candy floss on a stick, cheap plastic baubles as prizes on the shooting ranges, a glass of freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice to satisfy the thirst, and the sparkle of happiness in the air is entertainment enough.