Monday, November 15, 2010

Pushkar Camel Festival

The dream is over. The dream that is, of purchasing a camel, taking a picture of said camel, and quickly selling that same camel. Luckily, that was the only disappointment of a weekend in Pushkar, which ironically, also included pushing a car.
The Pushkar Camel Festival was one of the top "things" we wanted to experience in India. Officially, it's an eight day dual-purpose festival set in Rajasthan, about a six hour train journey from Gurgaon. It's part state fair and part functional camel trade show. The earlier you arrive, the more it resembles a camel trade show. Gradually through the week, the camels start to leave and supposedly it becomes more about the cultural festival. We were there for opening weekend. When you have a wife that has an inexplicable love of camels, that's a good thing.
The somewhat contentious relationship between Lindsay and the camel
Traveling with us for the weekend were our friends Jodi and Ben. They had experienced the festival last year but went to the second weekend (i.e., nearly all festival, nearly no camels). Making the trip all the easier, Jodi had planned everything (train tickets and the tent) and Ben really wanted to negotiate to take an Ambassador from the station, so there really wasn't much for either Lindsay or I to do besides show up. Quickly finding a car, we started the thirty minute journey in a 1989 Ambassador, which could have been produced in 1969 for all we knew.
Pushkar? Push car.
We arrived at camp (around Pushkar a number of full-service camps pop up each year at festival time) relatively unscathed. Other than the driver having never heard of our camp, apparently getting into some sort of argument on the phone when asking for directions (which is more common than you'd think), and the car completely stalling out (requiring Ben and I to give it a push start), it was an enjoyable ride. After a quick lunch, we hopped on a camel cart for the slow forty minute ride back to the festival. As a means of actual transportation, a camel cart leaves a little to be desired. However, it's seemed the proper way to approach and initially explore the mela grounds ("mela" basically means gathering or fair; it's also commonly used for craft or handicraft shows organized for charitable purposes to sell stuff to expats).
The camp
The grounds seemed to be unofficially divided by type of animal. Upon entering, we passed through the cattle, then on to the horses, before finally coming to the main event: the camels. By some estimates, 20,000 to 25,000 camels. I can neither confirm nor deny those estimates, but I have no room to argue. We stayed fairly close to the village and main mela grounds; however, there were ridges in the distance littered with camels as far as one could see.

In addition to the actual camels, it really was a working trade show. Stalls were set up with any number of camel accessories, including harnesses, colorful beads, saddles, and anything else with which a self-respecting camel herder might want to decorate his or her (actually "his", I didn't see any female herders) camel.
Decorative camel beads
After walking through the festival, riding through the festival, and spending a little time in the village (which, to be honest, resembled any other village in Rajasthan with the same nameless handicraft stalls), we found our camel cart. The camel cart ride seemed extraordinarily long on the way back, especially given the fact that it got dark. It's scary enough to be on an Indian road at night; even scarier when your legs are dangling off the back end of an unlit camel cart, only illuminated by the approaching headlights from behind.

After a nice evening at camp, we were ready for day two. Ben called his driver to pick us up for the slightly more modern though less quaint ten minute car ride back to the grounds. Ben somehow managed to convince the driver to let him get behind the wheel. As a result, Ben realized his dream of driving an Ambassador. I also realized my dream of being driven by a German in an Ambassador on an Indian country road.
Ben realizes a dream
After getting our bearings on the first day, it seemed more comfortable in the mela grounds on the second day. We walked into the festival, gradually making our way back to the camels. Still wanting a camel ride but having been hounded non-stop by people to ride their camels or take a camel cart ride through the festival, Lindsay did the fun thing. She found a herder that didn't approach us but still had a camel with a saddle. I mean, sure, she interrupted the camel's lunch, but the genuine look of surprise (and delight, since it required no work on his part) on the herder's face was well worth it. When he learned that she only wanted a ten minute ride (rather than a tour of the entire grounds), it was all the better. After agreeing on the always enjoyable variable price of "as you wish", she was on her way. Easy, quick money.
If you want to see a person smile, I highly recommend finding Lindsay a camel to ride.
On one end of the grounds stood a blue stadium that played host to the official opening of the festival on Sunday. With open admission and a fairly lax policy to walk around on the field of the stadium, we had a close-up view to the camel races that mark the festival's start. Pushkar is a holy city where non-vegetarian food and alcohol is forbidden; however, they seemed to relax any restrictions on gambling for the festival's opening. I didn't get the chance to participate, but before each race on the field, you could have just as easily been in a pit on the New York Stock Exchange with the buy tickets being hand written as the books were being made for the next race.

Starting line for the camel race
Other than the gambling and camel races, the highlight of the stadium was a section with local Rajasthani women in colorful and traditional dress. Like tourists that get surrounded and constantly hounded by hawkers, these women were the object of every photographer's shutter. Thankfully, this seemed to be one of their roles at the festival, though I can only assume they were there for some sort of performance (we didn't stick around that long).
Something seems out of place here...
Pushkar was exactly as hoped, though we're glad we decided to go the first weekend. A camel festival without camels would just be another festival. As we experienced it, it was touristy enough that we didn't seem THAT out of place but local enough that you could literally walk off the beaten path. An unbeaten path surrounded by camels.
And in case you were wondering, you can get a camel for a cool Rs. 20,000 (about $450).


  1. Very cool! For many reasons, this will likely not be on our list of things to do, but am glad to read about your experiences!! Love the photo with all of the Rajasthani women!!

  2. Thanks for "taking me along" on your rousing Camel Fair excursion...always wanted to go there. This essay is the next best I could wish for therefore!!


  3. Naomi, the Rajasthani women in the stadium were great - so colorful. I was surprised at the number of locals walking the fair that were openly asking to get their photo taken (for a price, of course, which I'm sure some people do). Seems like I should have expected but it's the first time I've seen photo solicitation to that degree.

    Anonymous, glad you enjoyed the picture I painted; it was truly a great experience.

  4. I wish you would have bought a camel to bring home. I think he'd love the grazing grounds behind your townhouse! We'd come over for rides. Think about it...there is always next year...

  5. I'm sure there's codes (both legal and ethical) against camels in shipping containers, but worth looking into....

  6. i recently added attending this fair to something i want to do when i'm in delhi - i'm moving there in the new year for a year to work/volunteer. i enjoyed reading about your experience and suggestions (to attend early if you want to actually see the camels) - sounds like a great place to take photos.

    & that pic with all the women in the beautiful!

    glad to have discovered your blog. looking forward to going through your archives!

  7. Hope you have as great an experience in India as my wife and I are having. Certainly takes some adjustment and there are definitely some frustrations, but it's one of the best decisions we've ever made.

  8. Rajasthan is a beautiful place situated in the North Western part of India and shares geographical boundaries with Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in India. It also has a long international boundary with Pakistan. Rajasthan tours and travel packages.

  9. sir very nice your profile bikaner in camel festival ..15 jan to 17 jan 2014

  10. Hi..Nice post. Pushkar is the site of one of the handful of Brahma temples in the world and the 5-day Camel Festival held during November, attracts various traders and tourists alike. Also, check out these places to visit in Pushkar.