Two days ago I went on a day trip to Pushkar, a Hindu pilgrimage site, from Jaipur. It has what is said to be the only temple to Lord Brahma in the world. Bathing ghats encircle Pushkar Lake, which, like the umpteen other polluted lakes and rivers in India, is believed to have miraculous healing and purifying power. Though alcohol and meat are banned in this holy town, soft drugs are tolerated (Lord Shiva partakes of it himself!) and are a major draw for Westerners. Pushkar’s history goes back a long way but all its temples date from modern times; the earlier buildings were summarily razed by the bad guy Aurangzeb.
This was my second visit, occasioned by the annual, weeklong Pushkar camel fair that attracts over 250,000 visitors from India and abroad. Villagers turn up for both business and pleasure. In the animal market, amid women gathering camel dung for fire and children frolicking in tanks that hold drinking water for the camels, I felt transported back by decades, save for the large telecom company ads and the camcorder-toting tourists.
Besides the trade in camels, horses, livestock, and farm items, the fair—held on the outskirts of town at the edge of the desert—also offers lots of entertainment and a street market. The former includes tightrope walkers, performing monkeys, snake charmers, acrobats, dare-devil bikers, spherical mirror illusions, circus acts, and shows promising ‘melting girls’ and ‘women who turn into serpents as they wish’. Competitions focus on moustaches and bridal wear, as well as events like camel and horse races, matka phod, and a cattle beauty contest. Brightly dressed women shop for fashion jewelry, pots and pans, and clothes. Food stalls abound, as do merry-go-rounds and similar rides. All in all, it seems like the biggest fun event of the season for the hinterland population.
It struck me afresh that these Rajasthani villagers are a proud and handsome lot, weathered by the sun and the desert, though they don't exactly shine on the UN Human Development Index. They have high rates of illiteracy, underage marriages, and selective abortions. Westerners visit aplenty; perhaps Rajasthan, old world and loudly demonstrative, represents a fairly safe and exotic foil to their own modernity. And since a picture says a thousand words, check out some I took that afternoon.