{ } Desert Cur­rency

FOR THE RABARI PEO­PLE IN RA­JASTHAN, CAMEL TRAD­ING IS A WAY OF LIFE. AT­TEND­ING THE PUSHKAR CAMEL FAIR – THE LARGEST OF ITS KIND IN THE WORLD – OF­FERS A WIN­DOW INTO THIS UNIQUE DESERT CUL­TURE

Asian Geographic - - Southeast Asia - Www.pushkar­camelfair.com

in­dia

Ev­ery

year at the time of the Kar­tik Purn­ima full moon in November, the sleepy Indian town of Pushkar comes roar­ing to life as the Pushkar Camel Fair – or Pushkar Camel Mela as it is known lo­cally – rolls into town, as it has done for cen­turies. Billed as the largest camel fair in the world, it at­tracts an es­ti­mated 200,000 vis­i­tors each year – an eclec­tic mix of Hindu pil­grims, live­stock traders and wideeyed tourists, cre­at­ing a car­ni­val-like at­mos­phere where re­li­gion, tourism and com­merce come to­gether, yield­ing an en­chant­ing and chaotic scene on the bor­der of Ra­jasthan’s Thar Desert.

Camel keep­ers and up to 20,000 camels de­scend on the sand dunes sur­round­ing the city prior to the fair to set up camp and min­gle with traders, de­vis­ing strate­gies to buy and sell their camels. Fol­low­ing the of­fi­cial open­ing of the fair, an itinerary of cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties and com­pe­ti­tions are thrown into the mix. The at­mos­phere is hard to de­scribe, but it’s some­thing of a chaotic com­bi­na­tion of a fre­netic auc­tion and fun fair – on steroids.

An em­blem of In­dia’s Ra­jasthan state, the camel sym­bol­ises love in lo­cal folk­lore, and own­ing one once sig­nalled great sta­tus and wealth. The camel was used in war­fare by the ma­hara­jahs, and played an im­por­tant role in their desert com­mu­ni­ca­tion, trans­porta­tion and trade.

Al­though the fair may some­times feel like noth­ing more than a gaudy car­ni­val, a deeper look re­veals the fas­ci­nat­ing story and plight of the Rabari, a tribal group of Ra­jasthani camel keep­ers who were, his­tor­i­cally, the guardians of the camel.

“My an­ces­tors were re­spon­si­ble for trans­porta­tion for the rul­ing princes. They re­lied on us and it was a great source of pride,” ex­plains 53-year-old Hukuma Ram, who walked nine days

with his 15 camels through the desert from a small vil­lage near Bikaner in north­ern Ra­jasthan to at­tend the fair. Ram has been com­ing to the fair for 20 years to buy and sell camels that he uses to help plough his fields. The camels also pro­vide him and his fam­ily with milk, an im­por­tant part of the Rabari diet and a highly nu­tri­tious source of vi­ta­mins and min­er­als that can sus­tain no­madic herders on long desert treks for weeks. “I love my camels like I love my son,” Ram con­fesses. “The camel has been a part of the Rabari fam­ily since the be­gin­ning of time.”

Sto­ries passed down gen­er­a­tions shine a light on the Rabari cre­ation myth which re­veals a fas­ci­nat­ing con­nec­tion with the camel, re­vealed in Rabari Myth of Ori­gin, Cen­sus of Ra­j­mar­war, pub­lished in 1896: “Shiva was med­i­tat­ing. Wait­ing for him to be fin­ished and try­ing to pass the time, his con­sort, Par­vati, started shap­ing an­i­mals out of clay. She cre­ated one par­tic­u­larly strange an­i­mal with five legs. Then, she asked Shiva to blow some life into it. He re­fused, say­ing that such a mis­shaped an­i­mal would be be­set by a host of prob­lems. But Par­vati per­sisted in beg­ging him. Fi­nally, Shiva gave in. He folded the fifth leg over the an­i­mal’s back and then said uth – get up! The camel got up and walked away. Af­ter some time, it started mak­ing a lot of trou­ble and cre­at­ing a big nui­sance. Par­vati once again came to Shiva and asked for his help. She re­quested him to make a man that could look af­ter the camel. Shiva then rolled a lit­tle bit of skin and dust from his arm and out of this he made the first Rabari.”

For a poor farmer like Ram, pur­chas­ing a camel can be a huge in­vest­ment. Traders can be seen ex­am­in­ing the health of camels,

pry­ing open their mouths to in­spect their teeth, a tell­tale sign of good (or bad) health. Ne­go­ti­a­tion on a price can be a long, ar­du­ous process with back­wards and for­wards hag­gling over the course of weeks. The go­ing av­er­age price for a camel these days is ap­prox­i­mately 30,000 INR (USD500).

In­dia has the world’s third-largest camel pop­u­la­tion and camels tend to dif­fer ac­cord­ing to the re­gion in which they’re found: Bikaneri camels sport long hair and tufted ears, whereas camels from Jaisalmer near the Pak­istani bor­der are long-legged and fast; those orig­i­nat­ing from Kutch are well known for their high milk yields.

Wan­der­ing around the fair grounds in the early morn­ing and at dusk is the ideal time for tak­ing pho­tos, and for min­gling with Rabari traders, all of whom sport colour­ful tur­bans as they sit on the dunes around camp­fires, sip­ping chai made frothy with camel milk, of­ten smok­ing to­bacco us­ing tra­di­tional clay chillum pipes. Rabari women adorned in or­nate jew­ellery and bright clothes cir­cle the grounds col­lect­ing camel dung, which is then laid out to dry and later used as fuel

For an au­then­tic Ra­jasthani ex­pe­ri­ence stay at one of the lux­ury tents at Camp Bliss and en­joy nightly per­for­mances of mu­sic, gypsy dancers and tra­di­tional pup­pet shows.

A camel trader sport­ing a lurid or­ange tur­ban poses for a photo at the Pushkar Camel Fair

Be­low A mark used to iden­tify a camel’s ori­gin is dis­played on its fur right Camels wear­ing colour­ful neck pieces feed in the desert

Top left Camel traders pre­pare camel milk tea over a fire bot­tom left A boy walks one of his camels, caught in a win­dow re­flec­tion right A trader counts his money fol­low­ing a camel sale be­low A por­trait of a camel trader, sil­hou­et­ted against the evening s

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