Morning rises from the foundations of Pushkar’s cracked and broken desert. The desert that appears to have no beginning and no end, its dunes simply merging into one another in silent waves. Today is different than most mornings, for the sea of sand is disrupted by the ragged humps of camels, of turbans and of tents erected in camps around herds of beasts. The sun hasn’t risen yet. Instead the world is lit by hazy street lights along the roadsides and by candle-light at each gathering. The cool air and quietness make this the best time for the herders to be awake; feeding their camels and preparing a breakfast of spicy chai, rolled bidi and leftover paratha.
It is days before the official fair begins. That is the Pushkar Camel Fair, one of the world’s greatest spectacles which I had come to witness. At this time, the event seems to have a timeless quality; a place for desert tribes to gather and trade in camels, horses and other livestock. I am joined by Ram, a guide and young local who calls himself a street musician but seems to engage in almost every practice that might yield his family a few extra rupees. He learnt English by speaking with backpackers in tea shops over clinking glass cups of chai and plates of sweet pastries and snacks. It is indeed how I met him too, as he hunted for a photographer he might be able to guide around the dunes. His knowledge and language skills become invaluable during that first day out in the market grounds, his kindness and fighting spirit mean he becomes a great friend of mine over my weeks in Pushkar.
A family of nomads invite us into their circle and the mother, with her delicate face and green eyes, begins heating masala herbs with a bag of sweet milk. Chai is on the cards as it is every morning in India. It brews and is served in a clay pot cleaned with sand from the ground where we sit. Grains remain but it tastes as beautiful as the smile that serves it. Like always in India, I am invited in as a family member, and quickly befriended. Ram translates to me the family’s intentions of being at the fair.
‘The sale of one camel can feed this family for maybe 3 to 6 months in their village’, he tells me as the head herder points at the biggest and strongest of his beasts, clearly the one he is most hoping to shift in the next week. ‘But also, this is a great fun for all the family, to see their friends, and for the children to play with others’.
Indeed it is clear from the gatherings of colored turbans that this is a social as well as business affair. I ask the meaning of the different colored turbans, which range from vibrant fuchsia pink to softer whites and browns. Indeed it is not the color which indicates the village or tribe, but the method of tying – although Ram tells me this tradition is slowly dying out. He himself doesn’t wear a turban, instead opting for long hair similar to that he has seen on backpackers who flock to Pushkar at this time of year. He teams it with jeans and a huge jacket which reads ‘Canadian Air Force’ – a gift from another foreign friend, and an item only a local could think is weatherly appropriate.
Turbans are not the only thing changing significantly around this area of Rajasthan. Camels are also becoming less and less useful in modern life, young men preferring cheap motorbikes as a method of transport. Furthermore, a statewide drought has meant that farmers have had to reduce herds as a result of the lack of water. While the herders are still here to trade in camels, salesmen- mostly from Agra, Delhi and other parts of Northern India- have started attending the festival as an opportunity to sell cheap marble and tatty souvenirs to tourists. In these days before the festival begins, tourism seems sparse, but it isn’t long before that dramatically changes.
A few days later Ram meets me on the corner between the fair and the huge ferris wheels which has been erected at the opening to the fairground. It is still dark, the air crisp and cool. Women in brightly colored saris walk with their children under the street lights and a huge tent serving cups of chai and coffee blasts Bollywood music, drowning out the moaning of camels and the crackling of fires. Today is the first day of the Pushkar Camel Fair, as presented when the owner of my guest house hands me a program which included a mustache competition, dance shows and a performance by Indian-German superstar Prem Joshua. It became clear that the next few days were no longer about the camels and the turbans and the green-eyed faces I had come to know the week before. Now the glamour arrived, the ferris wheels spin, the women swirled their red glittering dresses over the dry ground.
Ram hates this part of the fair, but I reluctantly drag him around to the same camps we had shared chai with days before. It never used to be like this, he tells me, gesturing to the tourists who photograph locals through 200mm lenses, with no regard or respect for the herders or their families. What was once a genuine occasion for business and interaction had come to mimic a zoo, and it becomes clear that the decline of this festival as a genuine market for camel trading is not only due to the decline of camels. As the light appears from the dunes and the sky turns a bright pink, the sight of the fair is most beautiful seen from the high dunes above, capturing the seas of camels and balloons flying overhead.
Things are changing, but things will always change. And perhaps these changes – at least for the local people – are for the better. Their lives will improve, and developments in technology, tourism, education will yield them out of the poverty and tribal life which perhaps the camera lens finds the most fascinating. What will never change is the spirit of India; its fierceness, color and, dare I say, that morning magic which can always be found over a pot of brewing chai on the dusty dunes of Pushkar.