Surviving the Pushkar camel festival

Pushkar Camel Fair
Pushkar Camel Fair

We waded through a grasping mass of people flowing towards the center of town. We didn’t particularly know where the center was but as soon as we set foot from our hotel we were gathered up by the crowds and swept away. There was no chance to stop, no way to turn around. Exasperated, I followed a crowd of children forwards. The ground was sandy and surprisingly clean, there was no evidence yet of the huge piles of half-burnt rubbish which normally line Indian streets like grotesque statues. After what seemed like an age we finally washed up at the entrance to a huge stadium. Vendors milled around selling popcorn, Indian sweets and, more bizarrely, huge war axes. Wandering holy men were everywhere and many had painted themselves for the occasion, several hefted axes and short handled ceremonial spears. The colours were intoxicating. Tattooed camels amble around whilst hordes of bidders vie for the best purchases. Middle aged tourists take it in turns to ride in a camel drawn carriage and children shout with excitement and fear as they ride the animals at breakneck speed. We miss being knocked over by a pair of racing camels and stumble backwards. Dust fills the air and the sun turns everything crimson. There seem to be hundreds of events, thousands of mini-dramas all unfurling at once. There is no order here, no logic. Competitions spring to life and die out when the crowds lose interest. I see a turban tying competition, multiple tugs of war, a mustache competition and camel milking race. Skinny boys with huge iron kettles circle the crowd keeping them supplied with white plastic thimbles of chai.

We wandered out of the stadium and past the inevitable piles of rubbish where children, monkeys, pigs, cows and dogs grazed for the choicest cuts. It looked like the town council had made a good effort at cleaning up the town for the fair but had just dumped all the rubbish fifty meters outside of the main tourist zone. The walls were stained a vivid red with betel juice and Hindi music blasted from the many stalls selling fruit, handicrafts and weapons. The weapon shops sold axes, swords, knives and baseball bats as well as hockey sticks which one vendor informed me was a club. We explored lanes crammed with groups of men holding hands and drinking chai, dodging cows and crowds of beggars we eventually reached the holy lake. Sitting in the shade we watched groups of sun baked Sadhus laugh with the locals and hassle tourists for donations. To my horror I saw a couple of fresh faced Americans hand over two thousand rupees when faced with a particularly aggressive looking Sadhu who had painted his entire body blue and pierced his, still bleeding, lip with a mini replica of Shiva’s trident. His wild eyes and tangled hair gave him a fierce look and sensing us staring he lurched towards with me with his hand outstretched. Masa instinctively went to give him some money but I stopped him. “Bakseesh, bakseesh” grunted the Sadhu, I held up my empty hands and with a smile shook my head whilst trying to push past him. He blocked our path “Money, I want money”. His rudeness suddenly got to me, he had just been given the equivalent of two weeks of wages and here he was, within sight of a holy lake, haranguing well meaning backpackers for cash donations. Why should we give him anything, his whole approach was to try and bully people into donating. “Bakseesh, give me money”, he clawed at my arm as we edged past. I whirled around “Fuck off you piece of shit” I yelled into his face. For a second he looked defiant, then shocked. He turned away grumbling and retreated into the shadows. The other Sadhus glanced at us as we walked on, some looked amused, others looked indignant, none of them asked us for money; mission accomplished. The Brahmins were just as bad, as the most important group in India’s caste system they feel entitled to respect and offerings from all those they come into contact with. They wander around religious sites with sacred strings wound around their flabby middles hassling people for donations.

I had met many Brahmins already and found that although they often spoke perfect English they were usually the worst for trying to rip you off. They demanded respect but gave none back and would often try to put marigold necklaces over traveler heads directly before demanding a huge donation of twenty quid or more. Every time they tried this on me I would turn the tables on them and ask them for a donation, this left them puzzled and they would usually leave me alone once they realised I was serious and would not be giving them a penny. There are people who really do need help in India, there is a huge amount of people living in poverty, the Brahmins are not within this group and do not deserve to be given alms. It disturbs me that the highest members of Indian society are basically just bullying beggars who have worked out how to get the poorer members of society to financially support them. Most Brahmins do not hold an actual job and simply wander around temples claiming to be priests and taking money from pilgrims. The caste system is one of India’s biggest problems. If you are born into a lowly caste, the best known being the Dalit untouchables, or are born with any kind of mental or physical handicap it is simply assumed that you are being punished for sins in your past life. If you are born into a low caste your chances of making a decent life for yourself are extremely slim as the caste system is still extremely rigid and from birth you are shunned and segregated from the rest of society. Untouchables cannot raise themselves above their station and effectively live in a servile state where their economic condition is pre-set from birth; effectively they are born into poverty and will die in poverty. Occasionally untouchables have tried to rise up against the overwhelming unfairness of the caste system; many attempts at organisation have been brutally and violently quashed by the Brahmin caste. From what I could tell this is still largely ongoing today and acts of violence, including rape, against untouchable communities are still widespread.

The next day we hiked up a small hill overlooking the lake and sought refuge from the sun in the small temple on top. Here I made friends with a white robed, silver bearded Sadhu with appalling teeth and charming manners who gesticulated to me that we should stay for the sunset. We sat together as the sounds of the fair below, distorted by the wind, swept over us. Shortly later a man with a particularly curly mustache and a bright red turban joined us and motioned that I should smoke some of his beedis (Indian cigarettes). I’m not a smoker at all but he was very insistent so I cupped my hand, to make up for the lack of a filter, and attempted to smoke. Masa was somewhat better at smoking than I was but we still spent most of our time coughing our guts out. I tried to ask the turbaned dude some questions but he answered every one with a typical Indian head waggle which pretty much resembles a nodding dog and can mean yes, no or maybe. To the locals amusement I spent most of my time on that hill coughing like an idiot and being too polite to decline a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap Indian tobacco. It was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon and as we watched the sun dip beneath the horizon I felt supremely happy relaxing in a country I love with some good mates made on the road. Pushkar is a wonderful place and beneath the crazed activity of the Pushkar camel festival there is a small religious town filled with crumbling temples and mysterious alleyways. The only problem is the people, I had been in India nearly a month now and I already wanted to get away from the majority of Indians I met.

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