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Moo Along With the Herd at Pushkar’s Cattle Festival

50000 camels, thousands of cattle herds, hundreds of thousands of visitors and participants, well-oiled mustaches on display, quirky make-up for animals, colorful stalls, frenzied music and dance, racing camels, dancing camels, snake charmers and turban tying competitions; there’s all this and much more at the annual cattle fair, nowadays referred to as the camel fair at Pushkar.

What had first started as a meeting place for cattle market has now emerged to become one of the biggest fairs in India; this is also one of the largest camel fairs in the world. At least 200,000 people participate in this fair as dealers, buyers, visitors or tourists, and there are plenty of tourists from abroad; in fact, there are so many that the fair nowadays organizes separate contests for foreign tourists.

Where is this held?
Pushkar, a small town to the east of the Thar Desert is where the annual camel fair takes place; this is one of the oldest existing cities in India and is known for much more than its cattle fair. Pushkar is believed to have been created by Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of creation himself; that, along with the fact that it houses one of the very few Brahma temples in the world has made it a very sacred place to visit among Hindus. Though he is believed to be the creator of the world, Brahma doesn’t have many temples where he could be worshiped because of a curse; Pushkar is the most important temple for this deity.

The closest airport to Pushkar is at Jaipur which is well connected to major cities in India. Pushkar is connected by road and rail to Ajmer which is easily accessible by train from other cities. The Pushkar Lake and the Brahma Temple are the most important pilgrimage spots in this town; the month of Kartika, when the cattle fair also takes place, is believed to be the most auspicious time to worship in this temple and lake.

The town is centered around Pushkar Lake, which has 52 bathing ghats and is surrounded by hundreds of temples. There are plenty of hotels, guesthouses, safari camps and homestays where you can get decent, though maybe not luxurious accommodation. If you’re visiting for the fair, be prepared to pay rates that are much higher than what’s normally charged, not just for hotels, but also for transport and sightseeing.

When is the Cattle Fair?
The full moon day of the lunar month of Kartik is considered very auspicious in this part of the country and since ages thousands of people gather at the Pushkar Lake for a holy dip. The swell of crowd and the propitious timing made this a good time for dealers to sell their cattle to interested visitors. This was the beginning of the cattle fair; with time, the crowd of cattle buyers attracted other sellers and soon there were bangle stalls, sweet stalls and shows that kept increasing the crowd. Now it’s a full-fledged fair that makes the Pushkar population of 14000 swell to 200,000.

Since this occurs in October – November, when the weather is much more agreeable as compared to hot summer months, the timing for the fair was fixed to coincide with the Kartik Poornima (full moon). The fair is held for a full week during this time. Since this is based on the lunar calendar, the dates change every year; in 2015, the fair will be held from November 18th to 25th.

What Happens?

  • First things first – the fair was started for business, and a lot of trading still takes place in the midst of fanfare and chaos. Cattle and camels are decorated and dressed up by sellers and assessed and purchased by buyers after some friendly haggling. So if you want to buy a camel, here’s your best chance.
  • The movement of animals starts almost a week before the fair begins; camels and cattle are transported to Pushkar through the desert ahead of the festival and often, the trading takes place even before the fair starts and some camel dealers head back home before the third or fourth day of the fair.
  • The animals get to participate in plenty of events like races and dance shows, awards are given to cattle based on different categories and there are milking competitions and even beauty contests for camels and cattle. Most camels get their noses pierced in a ritual that also takes place in this fair.
  • People from nearby villages flock into Pushkar, dressed in their festive best; there’s constant live music, dances accompanied by a catchy dhol (drum) beat. There are snake charmers, tight rope walkers, fire blowers, sadhus and gypsies selling colorful hand-made jewelry. Jewelry rules the entire show; there are several stalls selling silver jewelry and fashion pieces, most women (and men) come fully decked with dozens of bangles and every piece of jewel one could think of. Camels and cows are adorned with interesting pieces of jewelry.
  • People from all over the world visit Pushkar for this fair; to boost their participation, several events are held for visitors. There is turban tying competition for foreign visitors as well as local; and games like kabbadi and tug of war where they are invited to join.
  • For the women, there are Matka races where they have to balance arrays of earthen pot on their head. Apart from this, there are acrobatic shows, body tattooing and bridal competitions.
  • If women flaunt their jewelry, men flaunt their facial hair; the war of the mustaches is cheered on by huge crowds. Men fan out their well-oiled mustache in the contest and the man with the best looking mustache wins the event. There have been men with mustaches measuring more than 3-4 feet each side.
  • Plenty of stalls that sell everything from quick bites to apparel are setup to cater to the crowds. Local crafts are sold at the Shilp Gram at the fair.
  • Devotees throng the Pushkar Lake for a dip in its cool waters which is said to help them attain salvation. Clay lamps are lit and set afloat on the lake’s water.
  • Towards evening, especially on the full moon day, the fair takes on a feverish pitch when devotion and excitement mingle to frenzy; the music, dance, drum beat and temple bells increase in intensity and the entire scene is fascinating to watch.
  • The food served during the fair and mostly even otherwise, is predominantly vegetarian. Alcohol is also prohibited since it’s a religious place. However, the local cuisine is delicious and the city does have places that serve international dishes too. There are shops serving tasty Israeli and Lebanese cuisine as well as Pizzerias and German bakeries.

If you wish to get an aerial view of what’s happening and enjoy the colorful scene from above, book a flight in a hot air balloon and watch the beauty of the fair with the full moon as its backdrop.

Where to Stay?
Expect to pay at least twice of the normal going rate for accommodation during the fair and even then, make sure you book early to get a confirmed room.

The Aroma guesthouse near the fair-grounds offers inexpensive, yet qualitative accommodation with good food. This hotel is also close to the Brahma Temple and the markets; the terrace is a good place to relax in and watch what’s happening.

Inn Seventh Heaven is right in the middle of the city, yet away from the noise and chaos. So if you want a quiet place to relax in after the frenzy of the fair, this is a good option. The food is good and rates are affordable.

Atithi Guesthouse, a family-run B&B is yet another option for cheap accommodation with good food and location. Hospitality is taken seriously in Rajasthan; so the service will be sincere at all places.

If you’re looking for luxury in the desert, away from the sounds of the camel fair, book a comfortable deluxe tent at the Orchard Retreat. The luxury tents are beautifully designed with modern amenities and the resort offers plenty of activities for its guests. Though a little expensive when compared to other options here, the experience of staying in luxury tents in natural surroundings is worth the price.

Pushkar Palace, conveniently located along the ghats, is another place that offers a magical experience during the fair. A 400 year old Palace, now converted to a hotel, is full of atmosphere and offers an authentic Rajasthani experience.

Higher up in the ladder of luxury is the Ananta Resort & Spa, located between Pushkar and Ajmer. This could be further away from the fair grounds and much more expensive, but the picturesque location of the resort with the Aravallis as its backdrop and the best in class service and amenities make the extra journey and the money worth it.

What else to see?

The most popular landmark of Pushkar is its Brahma Temple, the reason behind the town’s status as an important pilgrimage destination. Though it can get crowded, the temple is beautiful to visit and should definitely be seen. The Pushkar Lake with its 52 ghats forms the heart of the town; the markets and main temples of Pushkar are located near the lake. Visit the lake in the evening when the Arti ritual takes place and linger on till night when you can see hundreds of lamp being set afloat in the calm waters of the lake.

A short distance from Pushkar is Ajmer, another popular town in Rajasthan. Travel 15 kms to Ajmer to visit Dargah Sharif, the tomb of the renowned Sufi Saint, Khwaja Moin Ud din Chisti; this is the most revered Islamic shrine in India. A short drive from Ajmer will take you to Kishan Garh, the miniature paintings of this town is a favorite with art lovers and known for their clear features and style of art.

Other places to visit here include the Savitri Temple, Varaha Temple and Temple of Shri Vaikunthnathji. Camel Safaris are very popular among tourists. Explore the scenic Aravalli hills, small villages and dunes on the back of a camel and behold beautiful sun sets in your route.

The Pushkar Fair is sure to transport you to a completely different world, an unbelievably colorful world that’s sure to stay in your mind for long after you leave the place.

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