Published on April 9th, 2015 | by Jane Tilley0
A Different India
A visit to India is an assault on one’s senses. It is endless noise, vibrant colour, exotic spices, obscene opulence, and teeming masses. Its history includes the epochs of the great shahs and maharajas, their bloody battles, their superb architecture, the era of British colonial domination, the modern social revolution under Gandhi, and the current global ascendancy. All of this is featured in any traditional tourist itinerary.
However, there is a little known Indian destination that harkens back to the fourth century and today offers the visitor an experience like none other. The PUSHKAR FAIR is unique in the world. My husband and I have been privileged to visit bazaars and markets in strange and sometimes, dangerous places throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia but never have we experienced the thrill of the fair in PUSHKAR
Pushkar is a small town of only 10,000 people, situated in the desert, a 3 hour drive west from the famous city of Jaipur, in Rajasthan. It is a pilgrimage site that has been revered by Hindus for centuries. For one week each year, the population swells to a million! There are a few basic hotels but most visitors are traditional tribes people who set up camp ,far and wide , in the sand dunes surrounding the town.
Why PUSHKAR, you might ask? There are two distinct reasons why throngs of Indians annually descend on this small town.
The first is that Pushkar is one of the five holy places mentioned in Hindu scripture and has the only temple in all of India dedicated to Lord Brahma. The town is built around a small “holy lake” into which, Hindu tradition believes, Lord Brahma descended to meditate. Popular belief holds that all 330 million Hindu gods and goddesses, together, visit this lake once a year. They gather for 5 days, during the full moon, just before the onset of winter, to bless the devout who have travelled to bathe in the holy water. Because the lake is believed to have miraculous healing and purifying powers, 52 “ghats” (a flight of stairs descending into the water) have been built. The water around each of these ghats is bestowed with special healing powers, such as fertility, beauty, wisdom, cures, etc. During our visit, we witnessed many couples, particularly emerged in the Naga Kund ghat, cleansing themselves, in the hope of being blessed with a child. The ghat offering cures for ailments seemed to be equally as popular. After bathing, the devout then visit one of the 400 (yes, 400) temples in the town. As observers to the bathing ritual, we were humbled and very moved by the reverence and simplicity of this ancient rite. On the third evening of the 5 days, a dazzling fire tribute is performed on the steps of the most central ghat. A Brahmin, with the strength and endurance of a samurai warrior, (wearing the smallest of loin cloths, I might add) performs a gruelling hour of prowess with fire torches. At the end of this
ritual, the devout light small lamps from the ashes and set them adrift in the lake. The effect is mesmerizing. All of this is accompanied with hundreds of people chanting prayers amidst the deafening clash of cymbals and ringing bells. A better show could not be produced in all of Hollywood!!!!
There is a second reason for the popularity of PUSHKAR. Over the centuries, it evolved into the largest camel/cattle/horse fair in the world. While people came for cleansing, it was also a good business opportunity for trading. These days, the PUSHKAR FAIR is often mistakenly referred to as the PUSHKAR CAMEL FAIR. This is because it is the world’s largest camel fair, hosting 50,000 camels which are decorated, raced, and sold. A frantic carnival atmosphere prevails. Rows of makeshift stalls appear with vendors selling goods ranging from jewellery, fabrics, instruments, pots and pans, food, and religious iconography. Amidst all of this, of course, are the ongoing negotiations for the animals. The fair is a cultural and lively spectacle of Rajasthani men and women in their colourful, traditional attire. Sadhus (holy men) appear, saffron robed and smeared in ash. Bands of young women roam about like moving rainbows in their brilliant coloured saris. There is a “stadium “, (loose term for a dusty, open space) where we watched camel races, a competition for traditionally dressed brides, cock fighting, street urchins performing gymnastics and various colourful parades An enormous tent city appears in all directions, with cooking fires, camels, wooden carts, and more excited villagers than one could imagine. One custom that we found strange is that all the “tent” people tended to rise before sunrise to cook their main meal of the day around the communal campfires. The “party” started at dawn!!!!
While all of this was great fun for us, the PUSHKAR FAIR is not necessarily for the faint of heart.
We stayed in tents on the edge of town and rode each day over the sand dunes in “camel taxis”. This is a loose term for a crude wooden cart pulled by a camel. The tents were “tourist” tents, pitched on the sand, with not a tree in sight. They were spacious and clean, similar to tents on safaris and absolutely luxurious compared with the tents of the locals. We were delighted, but others might prefer more of the hotel experience. We were disappointed to see three large ferris wheels erected for the fair, which we felt, destroyed the traditional spirit of the event. I am sure that as more tourists discover the wonder of this place, more modern circus paraphernalia will sprout up. So, if you want a thousand year old, authentic, tribal, Indian experience, then take a pilgrimage to PUSHKAR sometime soon.
Our lasting impression will always be of humanity at its best. We saw very poor people, with simple needs, showing the merits of fending for themselves. They were in a celebratory mood, whether they were there for religious reasons or simply to sell their wares and camels. A spirit of graciousness and inclusivity was in the air. They were, all in all, happy and supportive of each other. Long gone are the maharajas but the traditional tribal people are still prevailing. It was our privilege to mingle with them and to experience their joy.