A Fort and a Fair

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Pushkar Camel Fair

The camels used in this part of the world are dromedary camels, each with a single hump. A camel develops one tooth a year (which is how you can age them) and can pull 2000 kilograms of weight. That's 4,400 pounds. A camel holds water in three sacks in its throat; the hump is fat. 

Pushkar, which is the site of a shrine to Brahma and has a holy lake in which pilgrims immerse themselves, is the scene of the annual camel fair. 

Located on the eastern edge of the Thar desert, Pushkar is a town famous for growing roses when it's not hosting thousands of camels, cattle and horses and traders for 10 days of bartering and bantering each year. Farmers from nearby villages bring their animals here, to trade or sell them, and purchase household goods from the hundreds of sellers who line the streets. Many set up tents beside their tethered animals and cook outdoors, filling the air with a smoky aroma that drifts over the area. 

The women are dressed in brilliantly colored saris-- mustard, cerise, scarlet, and blue for widows -- because the desert is so devoid of color. The men wear red, yellow, orange and multi-colored turbans. The whole place swims in color and people and decorated camel carts toting tourists. Even the camels have geometric designs either shaved into their coats or drawn on their rumps. 

Not every one loves the fair. The camels, in particular, may be treated badly, and at night the pitiable cries of mother camels ring out in the dark as baby camels are sold and taken from them. 

However, Sunday was an auspicious time for bathing in the holy lake, and early in the morning a parade of various saints and sects, gods and goddesses, school kids and pilgrims moved  as a single organism through the narrow streets to the bleating of brass bands. All along the way, people in the parade carts tossed red, orange and yellow marigolds in the air, millions of them, so the streets -- if you could see them-- were blanketed with flower blossoms as were the dancing people. 

Candies, breads cooked in open fire pits, sugar cane syrup, chai in tall tureens, all kinds of foods were being made and eaten in the streets, while everything from shoes to saris, toys, balloons, ankle bracelets and plastic necklaces, turbans, elaborate swords to plain kitchen knives and metal pots, camel harnesses and decorations...the color and commotion, the noise and the dust, the incessant honking of horns by people on motorbikes pushing through the crowds...Never have I been caught up in such a torrent of humanity. 

Tired and nearly numbed by the intensity, we returned to our tent set up in the desert, where the doors sip shut and the carpet is laid on sand. 


Things I've learned along the way. 

* Pietre dure is the inlay of semi-precious stone into marble. The Taj Mahal's pietre dure is one of the most beautiful examples of this kind of work anywhere. You can, of course, watch the traditional cutting of stone and marble in a shop not far away, and the owners will mail your table or vase to your home, all included in the price.  

* Maharaja means bigger king. Maha is bigger and raja is king. It's better to be bigger.  

* In Jaipur (pur means city), there's a hotel called the Raj Palace. Its presidential suite is 4 stories high and has golden fixtures, private sauna and just about everything else you could want for $15,000 a night. 

*  The Amber Fort sits above the city of Jaipurand was begun in the 11th Century. The kings who lived here built walls around the surrounding mountains, palaces and artificial lakes and gardens. In 1727, so many people lived in the fort that the king of that time created the city of Jaipurin what used to be a jungle.  

* On the ceilings of some royal bedrooms in the Amber Fort there are flowers made of mica, which is mined nearby, to resemble the sparkle of water.  

* To make stucco that shines brilliantly (even in dark corridors) combine limestone and marble powder, a little oil, egg yolks and burned sand. (Burning sand removes impurities.) Add molasses and spread on the wall or columns of your choice. Then polish with agate. The stucco will last at least 450 years and still feel smooth to the touch.  

* Ganesha is the god of good luck, the remover of all obstacles, a god who repels evil. So his image is often painted or carved over the main door to a home, a palace or a fort.  

* Devara is a special planter for holy basil. Queens in ages past used to bathe and then offer water to the sun god and to the holy basil, which is used as an antiseptic, tonic, rubbed on the temples for headaches, and used to ease childbirth. The fragrance of the flowers keeps away flies.