The Pushkar camel festival

Spin the legs and accelerate past the idling moped and lean in right round the turn alongside a tuk-tuk a cow ambles round the corner in the opposite direction leftward jerk of the handlebars and it fractionally passes between me and the tuktuk attention forward as unlit cyclist approaches against the traffic horn blaring is incessant but one right behind me means someone is overtaking look round and see another moped coming up fast but now playing cat and mouse with the oncoming cyclist shall we both go right or left or different directions and collide he goes left so I go right and move into the middle of the lane meanwhile the moped behind me swerved further right and brakes to avoid me more horns reverberate around the narrow streets and the cats cradle ceiling of cables tangled over my head this is do or die do and dare winner takes all and loser gets nowhere or gets dead. This is India. This is Delhi.

One might rightly question the sanity of attempting to navigate central Delhi on a bicycle but on this occasion, I had no choice. I was heading for the bus station to meet four local friends I had met on couchsurfing (an online platform for meeting and staying with local people).

I had been in Delhi for three days and it was time to leave. I had loved Delhi; the pace of life there is ferocious. To explore Delhi is a far cry from getting dreamily lost among the sun kissed canals of Venice. Travel by foot, bicycle or moped, all of which I experimented with, require absolute concentration.

I found it almost impossible to get anything done. I would set out of a morning with a list of jobs and sights to see. Hours later I would find myself with a samosa in my hand watching thirty cattle being herded through the chaos of a bazaar, having failed to see a single ‘sight’ or accomplish any tasks. Delhi itself was a sight, or a smell perhaps.

I was staying with Avi, a Delhi University student. An avid traveller himself, Avi suggested that we visit an annual
camel festival in the city of Pushkar along with three of his friends. I had not cycled since arriving in Sary-Tash, Kyrgyzstan, three weeks earlier. Since then I had travelled over 2000 kilometres by public transport. A camel festival seemed like a perfectly eccentric place to restart the ride to New Zealand. I would join Avi and his friends on the sleeper bus and start riding from Pushkar.

My second city of India, Pushkar, was a world apart from the first. We snaked through narrow lanes lined with houses of cut stone which glowed golden in the midday sun. Exuberantly coloured shop fronts offered an eclectic jumble of tourist tit-tat, from tye-dye t-shirts to Nepalese hemp sandals. Mixed throughout was local produce including a range of artisan bags and hats, all hand made in Pushkar from camel leather.

Water in a braided river meanders through many different courses but all channels ultimately lead downstream. So it was that the crowd in Pushkar flowed independently through its many twisting alleys, but ebbed generally towards Brahma temple.

The importance of Lord Brahma in Pushka, and therefore Pushka in Hinduism generally, cannot be overstated. One of my companions, Arpit, explained how the three most important Hindu Gods were Lord Brahma the Generator (G), Lord Vishnu the Overseer (O) and Lord Shiva the Destroyer (D). While there are many thousands of temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu throughout India, Pushka is home to the only temple of Lord Brahma in the world.

Fifty meters shy of the temple we removed our shoes and continued barefoot through crowds of tourists and pilgrims. As the only of its kind, Brahma temple attracts Hindu pilgrims from all over India who are expected to pay tribute at least once in a lifetime to attain salvation.

Visiting an Indian temple is incomparable to the austere grandeur and self-conscious hush of Paris’ Sacre-Coeur or London’s St Paul’s. The air in Brahma’s temple hums a tune of prayer, gongs and declarations of devotion. Women in dazzling coloured robes kneel and kiss the steps leading to the four faced idol of Brahma as the throng flows around them. Above the red spire of the temple contrasts sharply with the blue pillars beneath, and below the floor is littered with brightly coloured lotus flowers.

Pushka had clearly not been notified that it was now winter. The days were hot and dry so we joined the locals in one of the 400 bathing ghats circling the Holy Lake, which is said to have been created when Brahma dropped a lotus flower to the ground. As the only tourist I drew a fair amount of attention from both the locals and several enormous Langur monkeys who were relaxing nearby.

The fair was originally organised to facilitate the cattle trade. It has since evolved into a celebration of both the camel and general Rajasthan culture.

The humble camel became living art. Patterns were intricately shaved into the camels hair and they were adorned with an ecstatic array of coloured and mirrored tapestries which, when catching the sun, gave the illusion of a shimmering flank of scales. We spent a morning exploring the fair, locally known as the ‘Pushka mela’ on the backs of two steeds, Dohlu and Salim.

In the evenings attention was turned from the camels to a vibrant festival style nightlife. Ferris wheels lifted revellers high above ‘the land of kings’, as Rajasthan is known, and elsewhere a circus kicked off. The evenings finale was live music on a Glastonbury-esq stage, including a Rajasthan band with a frontman who danced for ten minutes with  a stack of four shot glasses and a ten litre clay cauldron of water balanced on his head.

Drinking in public is outlawed in India but I was informed by my responsible friends that I must try proper Indian rum. Happily consenting, we set up tents alongside some travelling herdsman and proceeded to work our way through two bottles of the stuff.

We got progressively drunker and eventually shed the confines of the tent. In the spirit of breaking down cultural barriers, Avi’s friends taught me a large vocabulary of Indian cuss words and also Hindu dancing. Returning the favour, I demonstrated how I dance back in Britain, that is to say, badly. Luckily enough Indian rum and darkness conceals all manner of sinful dancing, and we stomped under a star speckled sky until tiredness finally overtook us and drew the curtains on our weekend at the Pushkar camel festival.