Toward the end of the Pushkar Camel Fair, livestock traders filed out of town, battling their rogue camels; a man in a neon-green turban pulled downward repeatedly on his camel's leash as if ringing a cathedral bell. The beast intertwined its long neck with that of another and stood still as traffic on the main road swerved around them. Nearby, Hindu pilgrims shambled into the holy town, some bare foot, others hidden under vibrant saris. They waded up a river of animals, entering Pushkar as most people departed.
I observed this melee from my car window and wondered how I would avoid choking on the dust or the smell.
I'd arrived in Pushkar, India at the confluence of two annual events: the Camel Fair and the Hindu holy day Kartika Purnima -- a time of spiritual baths and devotional practices when millions commute to the sacred land. Livestock trade began in Pushkar centuries ago in accordance with November's lunar cycle, Kartika. With growing popularity, the fair evolved into a five-day extravaganza, setting the scene for the holy festival to follow. During this time, traders parade camels with pierced noses and other adornments to attract potential buyers (the going rate, I heard, is 50,000 rupees or 920 dollars). Bejeweled headdresses, rainbow-colored embroidery: the desert dunes gleam, dominated by costumed livestock.
The nearby show grounds host a back-to-back roster of entertaining activities like a mustache competition and a locals-versus-tourists women's water pot race. Next door, a fairground boasts the usual carnival accoutrements -- Ferris wheels, cotton candy, games -- in addition to deep-fried pakora, henna tattooing, and Kushti matches (traditional Indian wrestling).
As the fair winds down, it gives way to something more devout. Bells at temples ring, incense fills the air, and Hindus circumambulate Pushkar's Holy Lake by pacing around the surrounding sacred path. As one of five dhams or pilgrimage sites, Pushkar forms an important location for Hindu devotees to achieve salvation. According to legend, the Pushkar Lake was created when the god Brahma dropped a sacred lotus flower to earth; its waters are believed to wash away sins. In addition to bathing in the lake, pilgrims also perform Pujas by the waterside: a ritualistic offering of flower petals and other goods to deities.
"Do not accept flowers from anyone," someone warned me. "Men will offer them to you and describe themselves as priests, but really they just want your money. Don't worry though, God knows the difference."
I wasn't surprised; signs reading, "Beware of touts" are common throughout India. Religious festivals, I suppose, shouldn't be exempt. While I was also warned that the Pushkar Fair would be over by the time I arrived, I found it the ideal time to be in town. Visiting the holy lake on a holy day was unforgettable and I found the fair still lively.
As I stepped barefoot through the lake's sacred gateway, a man drizzled orange flower petals into my palm. The action happened with such ease and good intention, I forgot about the warning. Realizing my error, I returned the flower petals to the "priest" when he demanded money. After repetitive hassling, he finally gave up and ran to the next foreigner.
I approached the shore in peace to observe thousands of locals bathe in the lake's waters and pay their spiritual respects.
As they splashed around, lit candles, and perfumed the air with flowers, I saw not the faces of people who suffered the weathering of a long-distance journey by foot. I saw expressions of celebration. I felt the divine nature of devotion and the importance of ritual. In India, sometimes Zen is chaos, merriment is strife, and pilgrimage is stillness. I would trade my camel for that realization any day.
While in town for the festival, try "camping" at one of many pop-up luxury tents. I stayed at Camp Bliss, which hosted nightly music performances from locals and provided over-the-top amenities like free head massages and warm water bottles for bed. It's a worthwhile investment to escape the chaos of the fair. Luxury tent or budget hotel, book accommodation in advance as prices escalate over time and most places fill up quickly.
Getting to Pushkar depends on budget and deadline. The easiest way is to book a car service that will take you directly there, like Ashok's Taxi Tours. Due to high demand, trains should be booked online in advance, especially during high season. Try www.cleartip.com. Take the 12015 Ajmer Shatabdi Express, which departs New Delhi at 6 a.m. and arrives in nearby Ajmer in almost seven hours (prices range from $11 to $24 depending on the train class). From there, either take a cab for a reasonable fare or opt for an additional train into town later in the afternoon. There are also public buses if you're up for the challenge and the time commitment.
Travelers with international phones should consider purchasing prepaid minutes. Once in Pushkar, locating accommodation can get extremely confusing, so it is helpful to maintain communication. Airtel is a network with extensive network coverage along with Vodafone.