Finding India at the Pushkar Camel Fair

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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.

The Fair from Above

Over the course of the fair, tens of thousands of camels pass through Pushkar.

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.

The Pushkar Lake is said to have formed from a lotus petal dropped to earth by Brahma.

Pushkar Lake is said to have formed from a lotus petal dropped to earth by Brahma.

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.

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Camel herders live in tents on the fairgrounds. Many expect money from tourists.

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.

Camel Fair

Hot air balloons float over the fair.

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This camel is either dead, flexible, or demonically possessed. I’d put my money on the last one. Unfortunately, it’s tough to get a good exorcist in India.

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There’s no better way to show you care than to send a card made of camel feces.

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Because you can never have enough camel pictures.

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Forget everything I wrote above. The Real India is located inside of this penguin thing. I found it next to a mountaintop temple. Why was it there? It looked like a trashcan, but that job was clearly taken by the ground next to it. Maybe someone was protesting India’s lack of recycling. And why put flowers on its head? This wonderful object combines all the mysteries of India into a single penguin-shaped enigma.

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The monkeys are obviously as fascinated with the penguin as I am.

Bonus video from Marwarology’s newly created Youtube account:

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Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Finding India at the Pushkar Camel Fair

  1. gary soltoff (still no relationship)

    October or November? They must follow the Hebrew calendar in India. Pushcar is so close to Thanksgiving this rear.

    • bensoltoff

      It’s not the Hebrew calendar, but it is lunar. The month of the camel fair is called Kartika.

  2. Wendy

    Great posting. You continue to let readers get real sense of being there. The penguin had me laughing out loud, even BEFORE the monkey picture. Thanks for making my morning.

  3. Madu Narahari

    Ben, Good read. Rajhasthan is foreign to me too, being from South India. – Madu [from Northeastern]

  4. Mark Mondschein,

    Ben, This was my first visit to your blog, (your mom posted the link.) Thank you for giving me a taste of a place I am unlikely to ever visit. Your insight into the real India is probably spot on, and I look forward to visiting more of India through your eyes. Send your folks a post card, then wash your hands.

  5. Stephen Paul

    Ben: Quite interesting and perceptive. One could also ask about finding the “real” United States. Is it the links to earlier US history that one finds in older cities dating from colonial times; is it the workforce pouring into Wall Street and other financial centers that drive the economies of the US and other nations; is it theme parks in Florida, especially one that has a parade down Main Street; or is it the 15% poverty rate (more than 45 million people) here. We all decide what is real for us, and it may be unattainable fiction in India (as you suggest) and elsewhere. Keep searching and writing about your search!

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