For years, I’d heard India’s century-old Pushkar Camel Fair, the largest in the world, described as a photographic cornucopia. So when some friends announced they were heading to Rajasthan at fair time a few years ago, I urged them to add Pushkar to their itinerary. I pointed out that in addition to the fair, Pushkar is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites, a tranquil city surrounding a pristine lake that attracts pilgrims and tourists from all over the subcontinent and beyond. My friends were skeptical, but they agreed to go. Mistake.
Not long before they arrived, in an effort to crack down on corruption and illegal cash holdings, India’s government announced the elimination of two small denominations of currency. As consumers raced to exchange their banned bills for legal tender, banks were overwhelmed, ATMs emptied and commerce ground to a halt; even the sale of staples such as milk and bread plummeted.
As a result, the 2016 camel fair was reduced to heat and dust. My despairing friends described the scene as a few bedraggled camels tended by even fewer disgruntled sellers. And virtually no buyers. So when my wife Jane and I scheduled a return trip to India a year later, contrition obliged us to include Pushkar on our own itinerary. I’m glad we did.
We had been told to visit the fair a day or two before it officially opened and before it got overrun with photographers as well as fairgoers. Good advice as it turned out. We indeed arrived two days early, after a five-hour drive from Jodhpur (the blue-toned city that gave it’s name to Britain’s distinctive riding breeches), and hurried to the fairgrounds just as the sun began tilting toward the horizon.
What a scene! Camels, camels and more camels. (Not to mention the cattle and horses also up for barter.) I had seen these curious, beguiling beasts before, of course—in zoos and other venues, in singles and pairs. But I had never seen camels in such profusion—virtual herds as far as the eye could see. Camels eating, camels drinking, camels horsing around, baying, defecating, looking bemused, becalmed and anything but bewildered.
In addition to more camels than I had ever even contemplated, there were crowds of men, women and children relishing a camel-themed amusement park that included beauty contests (for camels), balloon rides (for fairgoers), turban tying and longest moustache competitions (for men only), tug of war contests (for women) and two ferris wheels (not for the feint of heart).
And everywhere I turned, it seemed, there were photographs to be taken. I sometimes felt I couldn’t press the shutter fast enough.
As the days progressed, the fairground, spread over several dozen acres, also swelled with people, as many as 200,000 over the five-day event, including an ever increasing battalion of photographers getting in each other’s pictures of turbaned men—and women in all their finery—feeding camels, grooming camels, decorating camels in pom-poms and flowers, appraising camels, haggling over camels, buying camels and herding camels. (Some, undoubtedly, were even smoking Camels.)
Men and women were selling everything from trinkets to Triscuits and, odd though it struck me, some women were collecting pellets of camel manure to dry in the sun and sell as fuel. Children ran loose, chasing drones, riding in camel carts and making dromedary mischief.
In total we were there—sunrise and sunset—for four glorious, photo-filled days. By the time we left, I felt I’d seen enough camels to last lifetime, a conviction that persisted for several days.