Pushkar: Gypsies, Gods & Dromedaries

Pushkar: Gypsies, Gods & Dromedaries

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I hopped off my camel cart on the outskirts of the fairground, opting instead to walk the sandy corridors between tents and animals where thousands of India’s desert nomads were welcoming a new day. From a distance, it looked like a Rajput-era military encampment with hundreds of tents erected in endless rows. The movement of animals, carts and countless people dressed in traditional tribal colors created a bustle of activity. The once-barren dunes were swollen with livestock, traders, gypsies, and pilgrims from different tribes and castes who descend upon this sleepy lakeside city each year from all over India.

In the distance, a group of men huddled around a small campfire as women gathered camel dung and children slowly emerged from their canvas shelters. On the hillsides surrounding the ancient city of Pushkar, thousands of camels kicked up the desert sands. Cattle and goat herders watered their animals at large communal troughs, and the air began to swirl with a suffocating dust under the heat of the rising sun.

Through the gritty haze, I caught the attention of a woman who approached me slowly but with purpose in her stride. Her long red scarf flowed and danced along the sand behind her as she walked. We made eye contact, and I stopped to await her advance. In anticipation of the request I knew would soon follow, I causally reached into my pocket to see if I still had a few small bills tucked away. She was bangled and bejeweled with an exotic beauty unlike any beggar I have ever encountered. Her captivating gaze was intensified by a few precise strokes of black eyeliner. Her hair was restrained with matching red pins, and her nose was pierced and strung with a cherished adornment. In a soft, heavily accented voice, she smiled at me and whispered, “Photo?”

It was no doubt one of the few English words she knew, but she was clearly aware of her striking beauty and its value as a photographic souvenir, and she fully expected to be compensated for the snapshots. I rarely pay for photographs of people I meet through a chance encounter on the streets of a foreign land, but I found her graceful self-confidence and exotic charm irresistible. As I continued towards the heart of the city, she was the first and most interesting of the onslaught of beggars, hawkers and performers that approached me, each looking to begin their day by earning or otherwise acquiring a few easy rupees from the first foreigner who crossed their path.

I eventually made my way through the persistent young men vigorously pursuing a sale of postcards, beads, trinkets or toys to the winding streets of the Sadar Bazaar and the markets near the Brahma Temple. Storefront shops selling jewelry, handbags, fabrics and carpets captured the attention of women, while fruits and vegetables were sold in ad hoc markets. Hundreds of brightly dressed pilgrims formed a long line leading up the marble steps to the temple. I was consumed by the riot of colour and fascinating mix of aggressive commerce and uninhibited piety that defines the Pushkar experience.

The Brahma Temple is the most famous and most significant of Pushkar’s 400 temples and one of the few dedicated to Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe, found anywhere in the world. Easily identified by its distinctive 210-metre-high red spire, the temple is a one of the most sacred pilgrimage destinations for Hindus. For many, pilgrimage is also their preferred form of tourism. They flock to the ghats and temples of cities like Pushkar and Varanasi, travelling with their families and community groups for an enjoyable and spiritual vacation. Festivals and fairs often develop during auspicious times of the year, adding a lively atmosphere and holiday spirit to the lure of these important sites.

In the Beginning

There are many legends associated with the origin of Pushkar, but they all involve Lord Brahma. Lord Brahma is one god of the holy Hindu trinity of gods known as Trimurtis. They are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva: the creator, the preserver and the destroyer. As the legend goes, Pushkar Lake was created when a lotus petal (pushpa) fell from the hand (kar) of Brahma and dropped into the valley surrounded by the Aravali Hills. When Brahma came down to earth, he named the place where the flower landed Pushkar, and water soon sprouted from the desert to form the lake.

Most Hindu devotees are polytheists, choosing to worship a small group of deities with whom they feel a personal connection from millions of Hindu gods. Since his work of creating the universe is long completed, Brahma is only worshiped during the eighth lunar month of the Hindu calendar known as Kartik, which usually occurs in late October or November.

On the day of the autumn full moon, this small city of whitewashed buildings along the banks of a miraculous lake becomes the holiest place on earth for Hindus. It is also believed that during this extraordinary period of time, all of the 330 million Hindu gods join bathers in Pushkar Lake in celebration of the creator. Pilgrims from all over India come by train, bus and camel cart to bathe with the gods. The permanent population of just 15,000 residents is overwhelmed by tens of thousands of devout Hindus who come to Pushkar looking for enlightenment and salvation at the edge of the holy lake. But they also come to shop the local markets and to be entertained by camel races, amusement rides and tribal performers from the deserts of Rajasthan at the largest fair of its kind anywhere in the world.

The first five days of the Pushkar Camel Fair are a time of carnival and camel, before the focus shifts to the religious festival of Kartik Purnima. In this tale of two cities, the peaceful pilgrim town explodes into a spectacle of local culture, layered and intertwined with myth, history and spirituality resulting in a bewildering bazaar of gypsies, gods and dromedaries. There are snake charmers – whose hypnotic music entices cobras to rise out of wicker baskets and dance, elaborately dressed street performers, ash-covered Sadhus lost in a spiritual trance – and six-legged cows, whose owners highlight their deformities to elicit money from the curious. Most of all, there are tribal women in their brightly coloured saris and thousands of amazing faces that reflect the long and fascinating history of an ancient culture that continues to live in the heart and soul of Rajasthan.

The Camel Caste

“Come meet Marilyn,” hollered a young, aspiring camel driver as I wandered the always-dusty fairgrounds on my last morning in Pushkar. “She will win the race today. Do you want to ride?” he continued.

“Not a chance,” I replied without hesitation.

While I am not afraid or totally unwilling to ride an unfamiliar camel in an unfamiliar country, there was something that didn’t quite smell right about this invitation. Plus, besides the blonde hair and shapely silhouette, I didn’t see much of a resemblance to her iconic American namesake. I had also seen more than one ornery dromedary in my days at Pushkar, and the camels that race are among the most belligerent. This Rajasthani beauty could be dangerous.

“Okay,” he said, shifting tactics after noticing the professional camera in my hand. “Photo?” he inquired. “200 rupees.” He agreed to my offer of 50 and I proceeded to snap my portrait of Ms. Marilyn as she posed in all her glory.

I was a bit surprised to meet such a young boy among the seasoned camel herders who travelled days across the desert to buy and sell their livestock at Pushkar. Even more so, I suppose, to encounter one who spoke respectable English—although it is quite doubtful he knew much about the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. He belongs to the semi-nomadic caste called Raika who are the historic camel breeders of Rajasthan and one of an estimated 500 nomadic groups in India.

For poor and marginal communities of the Raika caste, this dependable animal is the foundation of their livelihood. In the desert, the docile creator is used as a beast of burden and mode of transportation; its dung is used for fuel; its milk is used for food; and upon its death, its hide is used for leather. For centuries, the camel was their currency and this annual fair was important family business. Owning camels was once a sign of wealth and status.

Their tribal creation story claims that their ancestors were brought into existence by Lord Shiva in order to tend for the first camel, which was been created for the amusement of the Hindu goddess Parvati. The Raika have historically taken this divine charge seriously, developing a unique bond with their camels. Their culture is also a product of the environment in Rajasthan, an arid state in northwest India where wealthy maharajahs built opulent palaces and spectacular fortresses. For thousands of years, the camel served many purposes including as the preferred ride of a wartime cavalry, which continues to patrol the remote desert border with Pakistan.

Increasing pressure on pasture lands and the increasing ability of farmers to afford modern equipment are turning younger generations of Raika away from their hereditary occupation in search of menial work in India’s major cities. As a result, the “ship of the desert” is now sold for slaughter and the future of this noble trade is in doubt. As few as 15 years ago, selling camels for meat and leather at the Pushkar Camel Fair would have been unheard of, but the camel business is becoming more difficult and less profitable. Fewer young camels are bought and sold, and the Raika who are still involved in animal husbandry also raise sheep and goats. Times are changing for the camel breeders of antiquity.

The Wanderers 

It is estimated that seven per cent of the population of India is made up of nomadic tribal groups. The remote desert state of Rajasthan has more than double the national average, and they have a long history. A thousand years ago, a group of nomads left the Thar Desert travelling through the Middle East reaching Europe late in the 13th century. Eventually this migration spread across the entire world. They are the Romani and they have been called “gypsies” in one language or another in nations on every continent. It is a word that has come to define the fictional way of life of a travelling population that uses their wits and talents to earn a living, often outside the boundaries of the law.

But the realities of so-called gypsies are always more complex. In modern times, these descendants of early Rajput clans from western India have been persecuted and discriminated against everywhere they have called home. Their brethren who remained in Rajasthan have not fared much better, sharing the bad reputation and suspicion that follows the world’s wandering tribes.

In 1871, British colonial authorities imposed the Criminal Tribes Act, which classified dozens of nomadic castes in India as “habitually criminal,” restricting their movement and forcing them to register and report to local police. Originally written to combat and control wandering groups of thieves and murderers, known as “Thugs,” who victimised unprotected travellers in India’s northwest frontier, the Act also disparaged small communities of misunderstood, low-caste nomadic traders, skilled craftsmen, entertainers and pastoralists who didn’t conform to the colonial model of a civilised society. Through this legislation, India’s nomadic communities were marginalised, impoverished, and criminalised. They were branded “born criminals,” and effectively became a government classified hereditary underclass.

The newly independent Indian government withdrew the Act in 1952, only to replace it with the Habitual Offenders Act, which categorises many of these same nomadic tribes as “habitual offenders who pose a threat to society.” The legacy of 140 years of statutory discrimination continues to alienate, stigmatise and stereotype the estimated 60 million people who belong to these communities.

While India continues to fight the remnants of the caste system, it remains a stratified society that has little use for the people who continue to wander the sub continent. India’s nomads, gypsies and travelling craftsmen who serviced and performed for princes and maharajas now largely depend on begging to survive, or literally singing and dancing for their supper. Today, the once-considered honourable castes of fortunetellers, healers, jugglers, snake charmers, dancers and storytellers have settled near tourist cities like Pushkar and gather at the many seasonal festivals, entertaining pilgrims and tourists for small donations.

A Gypsy Affair

The beautiful and exotic woman I met and photographed in the fairgrounds belongs to one of the lowest castes in India, the Kalbeliya. They are known as the snake charmer caste. Their women are skilled dancers, beggars and singers who follow fairs and festivals performing traditional songs and dance, many of which have gone viral, entertaining curious YouTube travellers who will never find their way to Pushkar. Other wanderers of the desert include the Bhils, who account for a reported 39 percent of Rajasthan’s tribal population; the Bhopa, the Kuna, the Banjara, and the Nat, who are acrobats, magicians, and tightrope walkers.

During the Pushkar Camel Fair, these service castes of India’s western desert mingle with higher-caste pilgrims who have come to visit Pushkar’s ghats and temples during this auspicious time. The intensity created by the crush of 200,000 people and well over 20,000 camels is palpable for foreigners who are hounded for a tiny token of their wealth. But the Pushkar Camel Festival is also an opportunity for tourists to catch a glimpse of India’s cultural past, a thrilling immersion into the lives of marginalised people who live at the fringes of a high-speed, high-tech modern economy.

Although not entirely accepted, as a tourist and photographer, I was welcomed and tolerated as a potential source of income as I wandered through their encampments. The annual gathering at Pushkar is not a tourist extravaganza. It is their party, their fair and their festival. Smiles and laughter add to the air of festivity at the camel races and beauty contests. Girlish giggles suggest the lightness of the moment while scores of young women wait in line at the Ferris wheels that tower above the desert horizon. The Fair is a chance for Rajasthan’s nomadic tribes to meet old friends and enjoy a welcomed break from the harshness of their daily lives. It is a chance for families to indulge in music, dances, games and shopping after the business of the day is completed. For five days in Pushkar I witnessed the vestiges of an ancient culture and felt compelled to capture and record this often scorned and vanishing way of life, whatever the price for beauty I needed to pay.

See more of David’s photography from India at: India

© David Noyes, 2011. All rights reserved. Please con­tact David at david@​noyestravels.​com if you would like to use or reprint this article.