Pushkar is a small and peaceful town, one of the most sacred in India. It’s the site of one of the only temples devoted to Brahma. There are millions of temples devoted to Shiva and Vishnu -- the other two gods that form the Trimurti, the three main gods of Hinduism -- but only a couple devoted to Brahma. The town surrounds a serene lake, where people congregate at dawn and dusk to perform religious rituals.

The annual Pushkar Camel Fair is an agricultural fair, where camel herders meet to buy, sell, and trade camels, and also celebrate the festive season. It coincides with the Kartik Purnima (full moon), so the dates vary each year, but it usually takes place in late October or early November and lasts for eight days. The first few days are devoted to camel trading, and then the event shifts to celebrating Kartik Purnima. At this time, Hindu pilgrims flock to Pushkar to take a dip in the sacred waters of the lake, which they believe will cleanse them of their sins.

Pushkar-2

Nowadays there are probably more tourists and photographers at the fair than camel traders and pilgrims. People love to visit because it’s a colourful festival, replete with tradition and located in a charming, peaceful town in Rajasthan.

The mela (festival) now includes a huge carnival with an amusement park for children, a bazaar selling local handicrafts, musical evenings, walking tours, and a programme of popular events held in the on-site stadium. These events include camel races, a moustache competition, a competition to judge the best-dressed camel and much more.

Personal experience

I arrived a few days early at the festival so that I could meet some of the camel traders. The days before the festival were relatively peaceful, but when the festival started, it became crowded and chaotic.

During the five days leading up to Kartik Purnima, the small town of 15,000 swells to about 400,000. Because of all the people, the narrow market lanes, ghats and fairgrounds swarm with people, and the town’s usual serenity is lost in the melee. It’s still fun and interesting to be in Pushkar at this time, but the hotel rates go up (in some cases, way up), there are way more than the usual assortment of beggars, street kids and conmen and the authenticity factor of the fair is seriously lacking. Tourists will also be elbow-to-elbow with photographers, who are likewise jostling for advantageous positions.

But there’s a darker side to the Pushkar Camel Fair than simply crowds and exorbitant fees. There are environmental concerns due to water shortages and development on the mela grounds to build a helipad and resorts.

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Decorated camel at the Pushkar Camel Fair

Camels: A way of life

And there’s the camel herders themselves. Their way of life is dying, and it’s very hard for them to make a living with the ongoing drought in Rajasthan, the redundancy of camels in agriculture due to mechanisation, and some government policies that make life hard for the herders (such as restrictions on grazing lands).

The truth is, camels in Rajasthan are in trouble. Camel numbers are severely declining – from about a million in the 1990s to 200,000 today – and the way of life of the raika (camel herders), is dying.

There was a time when camels were an integral part of the culture of Rajasthan. They supplied milk, leather, and other products, they were elaborately decorated for weddings and other rituals, and they were an agricultural mainstay. Unfortunately, this way of life is dying out as mechanisation, water shortages, and government policies against camel grazing are taking their toll.

A European veterinarian named Dr Ilse Kohler-Rollefson -- sometimes called Our Lady of the Camels – started working with the raika about 20 years ago. She set up a foundation, LPPS, and a camel milk dairy. She believes that the camel fair is no longer what it was.

“Rural people came here to celebrate the Kartik Purnima and since large numbers of people congregated, it was also an ideal opportunity for trading livestock, the backbone of Rajasthan's rural economy. The camel was the most treasured of all livestock, and the raika camel breeders sold all their male young stock here, realising a whole year's income in a few days at Pushkar.

“But now the demand for camels as work animals is much reduced. The situation became worse when the government of Rajasthan declared the camel a state animal and, in order to protect it, banned the movement of camels across state borders.

"It seems like the government has given up on Pushkar as a camel fair, since the famous hill that was once covered with thousands of camels has been cut up, with two resorts being built, and two helipads having been constructed. In 2019, the camel herders staged a protest rally because of this situation -- but no-one knows what the future holds."

Saving Pushkar's historic camels

By Mariellen Ward

Mariellen is a professional travel journalist who publishes the award-winning travel site Breathedreamgo.com, inspired by her extensive travels in India. Though Canadian by birth, Mariellen considers India to be her "soul culture” and she lives up in the clouds in Rishikesh.

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