Detours: Pushkar Fair

Philip Game

The world's largest camel fair is an explosion of colour and life, a visual paradise for the more intrepid traveller to northern India.

In centuries past, Pushkar, in the state of Rajasthan in northeast India, represented a crossroads on the great caravan trade routes of Asia. By the 16th century, the camel market had grown into an annual event held during the Hindu month of Kartika (in November).

Over four days, the small town on the edge of the Thar Desert hosts thousands of villagers, merchants and camel traders who set up camp to buy, sell and barter livestock, and to celebrate the fair with camel races and street theatre. More than 25,000 camels and several thousand head of cattle change hands, and buskers, snake charmers and stallholders do a roaring trade.

For more than 2,000 years, Hindus travelled to Pushkar to worship at what is considered the last remaining temple dedicated to Lord Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, and to seek absolution by bathing in sacred waters.

According to Hindu belief, as Brahma searched for his earthly residence, he flew his heavenly mount - a white swan - over the earth, holding a divine lotus flower. The lotus fell from his hand and bounced on the earth three times, causing water to gush out from each place. Those sacred waters draw pilgrims to the city.

None of Pushkar's hundreds of temples are particularly old, since many of the early buildings were destroyed by the 17th-century Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Many of the 52 pavilions at the bathing steps, or ghats, bear the names of sponsoring maharajas from across India.

Activity begins well before dawn in Pushkar, as hundreds of pilgrims follow the holy path around the sacred lake. Sadhus - the holy men who dedicate their lives to achieving moksha, or liberation, through yoga and meditation - camp overnight just above the ghats. They apply traditional tantric makeup, daubing swathes of cream and orange colour across their foreheads, carefully monitoring the results in hand mirrors.

Even in the early morning the narrow, bustling streets have a carnival atmosphere. Tribal women adorn themselves with their wealth: from bangles and beads to gold and silver nose-rings, earrings and anklets.

As always in India, the women's saris enrich the colour of street life. Men show off loose, bulky turbans in hues of electric orange, canary yellow, royal purple and coral pink. Even the camels are branded with intricate patterns.

The Brahma Temple commands the western end of Pushkar's main street. Teeming with devotees, the site remains surprisingly accessible to non-Hindus.

Beyond the fairground, thousands of rural people make camp, their possessions little more than charpoy rope beds, a few padded quilts, cooking pots and biscuit tins. Many pose happily, keen to glimpse a digital image of themselves. Snake charmers, sadhus, dancers and buskers roam the grounds in search of an easy mark. One man selling peacock feathers solemnly presents me with his business card.

In good-natured fashion I decline offers of camel rides, haircuts and trinkets a dozen times over. Pandas or professional priests - not always genuine - often press marigold blooms on tourists, then demand donations. A henna stamp applied enthusiastically to my forearm, incorporating the Hindu prayer chant 'Om', leaves a stinging sensation and an imprint that will last more than a week: Pushkar has left its mark on me.

This year's Pushkar Fair takes place from Nov 10-13