Every year, in October or November, just before the full moon, hundreds of camel trains trek to the holy city of Pushkar, where they transform the sandy outskirts into one of India’s most vibrant fairgrounds. Countless camels, cows, and horses change hands in what’s basically the New York Stock Exchange of livestock trading, and tourists from all over the world come to witness the spectacle, supporting their own economy of snake charmers, camel taxis, and beggars. The festival, known as the Pushkar Camel Fair, is charming, majestic, and completely unique—a quintessential experience of India.
But which India? Pushkar exemplifies a dichotomy that has surfaced repeatedly in my travels, the distinction between real and fake. Many of my conversations with tourists have involved the word “authentic,” describing certain indelible encounters that are either serendipitously discovered or actively sought out. If this word is accurate, then some experiences in India must be inauthentic, implying that someone is selling cheap knock-offs of the Indian mystique, right next to bootlegged DVDs and plastic Rolexes. The concept of the Real India has intrigued me for months. What makes a travel experience genuine? There’s no label or guarantee, no certificate of authenticity. So who decides real and fake? What do those words even mean in this context?
Whatever they mean, Pushkar clearly encompasses both. It’s built around a holy lake, which supposedly came into being when the god Brahma, creator of the universe, dropped a lotus petal from the heavens (Pushkar is Sanskrit for “blue lotus”). The lake is one of the holiest Hindu sites in Rajasthan, and every year, numerous pilgrims journey across India to bathe in its sacred waters. A recorded message played over the loudspeaker continually reminds the pilgrims to preserve a minimum layer of clothing, but more than a few ignore this message. Tourists are strictly forbidden from taking photographs. If there’s a real India, Pushkar Lake is the place to find it.
However, a completely different India lies just beyond the water’s edge. A narrow street called Main Market Road curves around the north side of the lake, packed with foreign tourists and lined with shops selling crafts, clothes, and Indian-style portraits of Western icons such as Bob Marley and Clint Eastwood. The restaurants have names like Honey & Spice, Sun-n-Moon, and Pink Floyd Café, and in addition to serving Indian food, most of them offer American, Italian, and Middle Eastern fare. During a typical stroll through the market area, you’ll see shaggy backpackers perusing displays of Ayurvedic oils, clean-cut families clutching their guidebooks, and sari-clad white girls learning to belly dance with shopkeepers. It’s a stark contrast to the fervent devotion seen at the lake.
The Pushkar Fair involves a similarly strange juxtaposition of experiences. The camel herders stay in tents on the fairgrounds, tending to their animals. They live a humble, semi-nomadic lifestyle, but many of them eagerly welcome tourists. They have a whole routine prepared, involving a musical serenade with handmade string instruments, an offer of chai or a small meal, and an inevitable request for money. Other camel owners stake out the most populated areas, hawking rides to anyone within earshot. They quickly pounce on unsuspecting tourists, with their humped ungulates in tow. In Pushkar, to repurpose Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any white person wearing a backpack must be in want of a camel ride. While exploring, I had to reconsider my normal policy of always engaging in conversation and taking photos when asked. Too many people seemed interested only in money. As they approached, I could see the rupee signs in their eyes.
So where was the Real India? Was it swimming at the bottom of the lake, riding on top of a camel, or baked into a pancake at the Pink Floyd Café.
I’ve come to believe that it was in all and none of those places. The Real India, as pursued by tourists, is an unattainable fiction. It contains elements of truth, but on the whole, it doesn’t exist. India has 1.25 billion people, 22 constitutionally recognized languages, and thousands of years of ancient civilization. In the resulting mess, it’s hard to find any unifying trend or spirit. Instead, I’ve learned to appreciate everything for what it is. Some places are set up for tourists, while others are meant for the local crowd. Some sights are gorgeous, fascinating, and spiritually enlightening, while others are dirty and uncomfortable. The real India is stuck in line at the post office and jammed onto crowded train cars. It’s built into forts, palaces, and temples. It lives in people of all shapes and sizes. It hangs out at camel fairs. And I no longer need to look for it, because it finds me wherever I go.
Bonus video from Marwarology’s newly created Youtube account: