One of our most memorable travel experiences was a weekend spent at the peculiar and beguiling Pushkar Camel Fair, known locally as Kartik Mela. The tiny, normally sleepy, desert town of Pushkar, located 145 kilometres from Jaipur in India’s northwest, transforms into a massive, multi-day livestock exhibition, trading fair and carnival in the sand for five days each year.
Thousands of camels, horses, cattle and their accompanying traders descend onto this Rajasthani village making it one of the largest animal trading fairs of its kind. In recent years, it’s also become a significant tourist attraction which has led to the arrival of carnival games and oddities, hawkers and hippies. The rise of Pushkar as a tourist destination has, though, led to a reduction of the number of camels traded from historic peak numbers at well over 30,000 to an estimated 10,000 traded in recent years. And, the real trading of livestock is happening in the days prior and first few days of the event. Regardless, it seemed to be such an epic gathering and captivating experience that I felt sure we must go see it.
It took only a little convincing on my part to get my two sons on board with this adventure. Animals. Check! Camping. Check! A best pal and his Mum to join the trip. Check! My husband was a bit more skeptical. Aren’t camels smelly? Aren’t they known to spit? Don’t we see enough camels in Delhi during the Republic Day Parade? The boys and I decided not to let his skepticism dampen our enthusiasm. With that, we decided to make a Mums and boys adventure trip of the weekend. The timing was right age-wise to take my two sons, aged 9 and 7 at that point, on this expedition. A dear friend and her 7 year old son teamed up with us and we made a small group of it. It would be the boys first camping experience.
We took a short flight from Delhi to Jaipur, India’s Pink City, and made the three-hour drive by car to Ajmer, one of Rajasthan’s oldest cities, and then onto Pushkar. The picturesque Aravalli Mountain range created a dramatic backdrop in the distance. The landscape as we pushed on becoming scraggier with little vegetation underscoring this region rests on the edge of the Thar Desert. We saw the famous Brahma Temple in Ajmer and Pushkar Lake, an artificial lake created in the 12th century important for religious pilgrimages, along the way. By the time we reached our destination we were happy to have made a provision stop at the onset at the Big Bazaar hypermarket, India’s version of Tesco Lotus just outside of Jaipur, to stock up on provisions. It turned out to be fortuitous. We were grateful to have the extra food, water, SPF and hand sanitisers in the days ahead.
When we finally reached what would be our home base for the next two nights, the Heritage Camps and Safari, we were grateful to be out of the car and on solid ground. The mobile tents were situated near the main Fairgrounds and were billed as “luxury camping” – a marketing term taken with a dash of hyperbole. Our camping accommodations were rather rustic, but our proximity to the Fair was ideal, making it all worthwhile. We had a simple tent with a zipper closure to seal us off from the cold, desert evening air and a bucket and tap to clean up after a dusty day exploring the fair. It was a far cry from “glamping” to be sure! I was surprised at how vastly the temperature fluctuated from day to night. Highs can top out at 40 degrees Celsius and swing all the way down to 15 degrees at night. The first night I realised I drastically under-packed for the cold and we slept in every single item we had while inside our thin sleeping bags! I also found sleep difficult as I contemplated the safety of sleeping alone with two children in an “unlocked” shelter with a simple cloth and zipper keeping any unsavoury types out. I kept my heavy flashlight under the pillow as security. Both my friend and I were up by dawn, a bit tired, but excited for the day ahead.
The history and tradition of the Pushkar Camel Fair is said to go back 150 years. It coincides with the full moon around the Hindu lunar month of Kartik, typically occurring in October or November. For Hindus this timing has deep significance. The two days around the full moon are thought to be the most auspicious of the year. It is said that all the gods and goddesses of the Hindu religion come to Pushkar Lake on the day of the full moon and absolve those who bath in the lake of their sins. It was a temping thought, but I decided to stick to a bucket bath back at the camp with my travel-sized Nivea.
While visitors stay in their camp accommodations or the few traditional hotel options, camel herders stay with their camels huddling around campfires in small groups each evening to eat, stay warm and strategise for the day ahead. Before daybreak, the traders rise, camels kick up the desert sand and all the action begins. All the camels traded in Pushkar are dromedary which have one hump; they, in fact, make up 94% of the world’s camel population. The camels travel to Pushkar from seemingly every corner of Rajasthan. The bushy eye-lashed camels are from Bikaner; the racing camels from Jaisalmer. Traders carefully inspect each animals posture and the teeth. The gait is evaluated. When seated, they pull the camel’s tail to check the reflexes. With so many animals, sellers make every effort for their camels to stand out. They dress them up as if they are attending a red-carpet event, adorning them with bells, pompoms and bright fabrics. They shear their fur and create beautiful designs, grooming them to perfection.
The event is a riot of colour, sights and sounds and quirky exhibitions at every turn. Beyond the trading, there is the famous camel race, an awesome spectacle. Dressed up camels are paraded about. They pull carts giving rides. They are even entered into beauty contests. Then there are the non-camel events which give the event a carnival vibe: The turban and moustache competitions, the snake charmers, acrobats, dancers and magicians. And there are plenty of hawkers, some pushier than others, trying to sell their goods. Mobile street stalls sell classic local treats like chaat, chai and the dreadful paan. There is a pastiche of camel goods to be had – edible camel milk, camel wool shawls, camel dung paper and notebooks. Hot air balloon rides can be booked at dawn and dusk for the deep-pocketed. For those wanting a photograph of a handsome camel and trader expect to pay. The going rate when we were there ranged from 10-50 rupees a photo!
Let’s just say, we learned a lot about camels from this experience. People domesticated camels more than 3,000 years ago. They are exceptional animals designed to thrive in extreme conditions. They famously can go a week without water, and months without food thanks to the fat stored in the hump that gets converted to energy. Double rows of extra-long eyelashes keep sand out of their eyes. They can handily close their nostrils completely to keep sand out during a sandstorm. They can survive temperatures as hot as 49 degrees Celsius. They also are, in fact, loud. They moan, groan, rumble and even make high-pitched bleats. They run surprisingly fast – up to 64 kilometres per hour, the same as the average racehorse. And it’s true, they do smell. The regurgitate food like cows and then chew it again. The process results in smelly breath which on its own would be malodorous. Add to this, their peculiar habit of peeing on their legs. They actually do it on purpose to cool themselves down! I hoped the boys wouldn’t get any pranking ideas from this trick!
For the record, camels don’t actually spit. It’s more like throwing up. The bring up the contents of their stomachs, along with saliva, and project it out. For anyone with toddlers, dealing with unexpected bodily fluids is part of the ordinary terrain anyway. The camels do this not because they are sick, but to surprise or distract whatever the camel feels is threatening it. Hint: If you see a camel’s cheeks fill up and bulge; step back, it is about to expel a projectile of smelly, saliva. We returned home after a few days happy for this mesmerising and surreal experience. For those who plan a trip, it’s well worth going early, during the first few days of the Fair. That’s when much of the action is happening. The 2019 Pushkar Camel Fair was held on November 4-12. The 2020 Pushkar Camel Fair will be held on November 22-30.