Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Pushkar Revisited

Pushkar is a small, ancient city near Ajmer in Rajasthan. It is associated with both Brahma and Shiva, The former has one of the few temples devoted to him despite being the Lord of Creation and it is also believed that the Holy Pushkar Lake was formed by the copious tears shed by Shiva on the death of his consort, Sati. (Another long story, I hope to tell someday!)

The famous Pushkar religious Mela has a very interesting history. It is believed that Brahma found the lake and the area ideal for a mahayagya. But the place was plagued by a demon, Vajranash, whom Brahma had to destroy before performing the puja. However, the Mahayagna needed the presence of his wife Savithri, who happened to be away at the auspicious time. Not to be discouraged by the absence of his Consort Godess Savithri, Brahma found a way out. He married a local Gujjar girl, Gayatri, who stood in for the real consort. It seems, Goddesses are not much different from the present day wives and Savithri took umbrage to this act of filial disloyalty and cursed that there would be no temple built in Brahma’s name outside Pushkar and He would be worshiped only there! This curse has come more or less true as there are very few temples for the creator though lakhs of temples exist where the other two Gods of the Triumvirate (Trimurti) are worshiped. That is the price even a powerful God pays for infidelity!

As an aside, it was pointed out by my driver, a Gujjar from Faridabad that his community even today celebrates the union between the Gujjari Gayatri and the Creator of Earth and Heaven! The folk singer story-tellers (Bhopa) of Gujjar community are still priests in some temples in Pushkar. (For a very informative and gripping account of Bhopas see William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives)

I think I have digressed! But such an interesting story!

Pushkar plays host to a rural fair (mela) culminating on the full moon day of Kartik Poornima. This is also the time for a five day camel trade fair where a large number of camels, some say over a hundred thousand, are traded. Camels are accompanied by Rajasthani rural folk dressed in their traditional, colourful attire. They usually walk from Pali and Jodhpur as far as 150 KM, traveling with family and rations for both people and camels.
Ever since I visited the mela first in 2009, I have become a total fan of this rare pageantry. Except for one or two years, I have been visiting the Pushkar Camel Fair. This year in spite of indifferent health, I planned to spend a few days at the mela. Started off from Faridabad at 4:30 as I always do on long distance road journeys. Trilok my driver had come and slept over so we could start. In normal course, we would have completed the journey to Ajmer in 6 hours, but George riding along with us in his Triumph Thunderbird Storm he was reviewing, rather slowed us down. We made it in seven hours including one stop for topping up on fuel and another short break for breakfast of Aloo Paranthas and dahi at Highway King short of Jaipur. (Now I find more than four of this excellent chain of roadside vegetarian restaurants between Delhi and Ajmer- A review is due!) We reached CRPF GO’s Mess of the Ajmer Group Centre I around 11.30 AM.


The Mess in Ajmer is located in an old heritage building, reportedly designed after some hostel building of the neighbouring Mayo College in 1885 by the Ruler of Alwar as a place of stay for his wards. Later on, the Nawab of Junagarh purchased it, but was sold in 1920 to Rao Vijay Singh Rathore, former ruler of the erstwhile principality, Masuda near Ajmer. It along with about 70 bighas of land around it was, rather arbitrarily, if not outright unfairly acquired by the Government for use of the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) in 1963. CRPF, which I had the privilege to serve, takes good care of its heritage buildings and retired officers.

A quick lunch and a few winks and we were on our way to the mela. We followed the bypass, which was longer but almost deserted. We decided it was not worth doing the extra 20 KM and the badly maintained tarmac.



The whole Pushkar Fair has three different and distinct parts. One is the religious mela at the Brahma Temple. Though the mela proper is on the 14th November (full moon of the month of Kartik of the Hindu Calendar), crowds start arriving at least a week earlier. This time I gave this part a miss. Many shopkeepers and local residents object to what they consider, probably rightly so, as an invasion into their privacy. And the streets are infested with pick-pockets and beggars who harass photographers. 

The second part is the Sarkari (Government) organized section, based around the Stadium (Mela Ground) and the Rural exhibition. The activities start about one week before the Full Moon and ends a day after the Kartik Poornima celebrations! The Rural and agricultural exhibitions were lackluster and even the Animal Dispensaries did not inspire confidence.

The Stadium was a hub of activities. During the days, there were a number of programmes like horse races, exhibition tent-pegging, Camel Decoration Competition, Camel Dance, Rangoli, Rural and Folk Dances and Kite Flying.
Many light entertainments like moustache competition, Ball Games between Foreigners and Locals and Turban-tying and performance of folk artists and mendicants keep the visitors engaged.
A number of adventure activities like Hot-Air Balloon rides, Paragliding, Desert Safari are also on offer the adventure-minded folks.
With nearly a week to go for the end of the mela (14th November), the Camel trade should have been at full swing on the 8th when we arrived. The weather was still warm and not windy. The usual camel accessory shops selling, bells, chains, necklaces, ankle-bells, nose studs and trinkets for decorating cattle were crowded as usual. Madaris and Nats were preparing for their acrobatics road shows by sounding drums and Tambourines. Smaller entertainers like magicians, etc. were either announcing their shows shouting on top of their voices or by playing a cruder version of Shiva’s Damru and already gathering small crowds. Village women dressed in their fineries with kids tagging along were gaping at the roadside utensil shops while their children were lustily eyeing the sweets shops and colourful balloons on sale. Another very interesting item on sale on the main road is bamboo stick. Shops displayed an amazing array of decorated bamboo sticks of a large range of sizes. While some were traditional Officers  swagger stick of the Imperial uniformed forces, some were formidable stout Lathis of the Rural Haryanavi Jats. Some were plain or marked in simple ink patterns, others had intricate designs with metals chains, caps and, surprisingly brass upholstery tack nails pinned in patterns. I do not think such stuff can be seen outside Pushkar; at least not so many designs and so much quantities. 

But one could not fail to notice some changes. For one thing, the younger rural girls and women had increasingly abandoned the traditional dresses for more modern and convenient or fashionable costumes. The ubiquitous Salwar and Kameez, the original Punjabi dress which has conquered most of India including the South was making inroads into rural Rajasthan also and doing so with much gusto. 

Another thing witch one cannot avoid noticing is the growth of photographers. Earlier in the earlier years of the 21st Century, one would bump into a dozen photographers in a day. Most of them with Film Cameras and discretely taking artistic photographs with careful planning and consideration. The advent of Digital Cameras and affordable DSLRs and Prosumer point-and-shoots changed everything. By 2012 one could see nearly 50 Indian and equal number of foreign photographers in the course of the day’s shooting, but most of them restricting themselves to the early morning and late evening and avoiding the harsh light of the mid day! And most were polite and considerate of other photographers and even respectful to the subjects. The Kalbelia and other tribal women had become smarter and were demanding compensation and posing well like trained artists. Following the fame achieved by the likes of Padmashree Gulabo, Kalbelia dancer, pretty women like Papu had become popular commanding good fees for posing for tourists. 

Now, however, every dark-skinned tribal or Bhopa woman with grey or blue eyes fancies themselves to be prospective Gulabos and can be found roaming around aggressively marketing themselves. Even the numbers of urchins thrusting a begging hand under your nose the moment they see a camera in your hand has become very annoying. The loss of good manners and consideration for one another and lack of patience displayed by some photographers made one balk, to say the least. It was difficult to frame a camel without a photographer in the same frame! That was the numbers like.
Till one visits Pushkar Camel Fair one does not realize what it takes to sell a camel.  Camels are well fed and exercised from as early as six months before the mela. Young well fed but agile camels command the best prices. I saw at least one came which, according to his owner would fetch him a hundred and fifty thousand Indian Rupees. The owner Bhawar Lal from Sikar told me there are some which will fetch more money, but I could not see any. Grooming of camels include cropping of hair and cleaning hooves, tails, etc. Trimming of hair is perfected to an art form in Pushkar. While some cut patterns much like the punks of USA, some colour them and draw designs on the different parts. ‘786’ The Arabic short name of God is a common pattern one sees. The sellers and prospective buyers would of course, be Muslims.

Many of the sellers are professional breeders of camels bringing several young animals for sale. The camels are walked all the way from their homes in small quasbahs like Nagaur and Pali more than  seventy KM away, marching for three to seven days. Usually the owner rides a cart pulled by one of the camels, not necessarily for sale. The cart also carries the women and children accompanying the trader and the ration for the onward trip. After the sales are over, fresh rations for man and animals are stocked from Pushkar and the return journey starts. Most people put together a make-shift mobile home for their night stay. Sheets are spread under a static camel cart to accommodate the sleepers. If there are more than one woman or children, they get to sleep under the carts while men sleep on durees spread in the sand and a quilt covering them to protect from the elements. Luckily, this year the Poornima arrived rather early in November and the winter has not yet bared its biting fangs and men spend rather comfortable nights keeping a lookout for the camel, all the time. Sunset is busy time for the women and some men who cook for themselves. Most cooking is done on dried camel dung pellets. There is a regular business of selling dried fuel pellets by some locals. 

Nightfall and Day One ends.

At least that is what would have one expected to happen. No sooner did we reached the Mess, than I got a phone call from Delhi asking me to switch on the Television and watch the news. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister was on line, addressing the nation and announcing the sudden cancellation of the high denomination currency notes of Rupees of 500 and 1000 face value. While the news was shocking enough, we never realize how it was going to affect us personally. 

I had planned to withdraw some money from ATM at Ajmer. With that intention, I carried minimal cash, just what happened to be in my purse on a normal day. Having reached Ajmer, we were in a hurry to do at least the afternoon session at Pushkar. From Pushkar we rushed to the Mess for food and watched the announcement. A quick trip to the nearby ATMs revealed huge crowd and no money. We took stock. I had Rs.3500 in one thousand and rest five hundred Rupee notes. My driver had 1500 in 500 Rupee note. George, ever dependant on plastic had about 1700 or so. We might manage to return to Faridabad if we were careful about our spending.

Set out for Pushkar early planning to reach well before sunrise. This time took the regular route through the town and reached in less than half hour.  Early morning is anyway one of the best times to do any outdoor photography, but for Pushkar Meal, the time when the sun rises is certainly the right time to be at the Fair Grounds. The three yellow-Green hot air balloons take off from the Stadium before Sunrise with prebooked passengers. Since the booking is done through the Web, I could not manage a ride despite trying. 

The Ground where camels and their owners camp is a veritable township of sorts spread over five or six square KM area. Early morning the shanty town wakes up with the sun. 

Daily chores like cleaning and cooking are performed by women as well as men, children play without a worry, the fodder seller starts selling hay or green fodder well before sunrise and the ubiquitous chaiwalla home delivers hot tea. The halwai and the panwla set up shop early and so do the barbers, some in shops, some under trees or against a convenient wall. Early morning light is also golden and flattering. Sleepy cops who were on night patrolling duties slowly make their ways to the weary beds. New ones for day duty might be in place later. Loud, often garish and out-of-tune music is blared from several temples.
By afternoon one noticed a slowness of activities in the mela area. Slowly we gathered the reason. As the news and implications of the ban of high denominations notes sank in, sale of camels came to an abrupt standstill. All sales are transacted strictly in cash and mostly in the now demonetized high denomination currency notes. In the early hours of the ban, the exact nature of exceptions to or the rules themselves were unclear even to the educated. Imagine the condition of the hardly educated rural guy who has acquired the information through hearsay! The spread of TV and Internet has all but killed Radio and during our travel around the mela area, not even one was seen, unlike a few years ago. Not one to take chances, the average trader refused to strike any deal, for cash or even barter. Many of them were banking on sales on the basis of ongoing bargains to bring in the cash needed for the rations and the return journey. In one stroke, thousands of farmers and traders with cattle worth lakhs were reduced to the status of penury, with no means of putting a bread in their mouths or fodder for the cattle. Some stories were heart-rending. Many had already decided to leave by 9th evening. 

We quickly decided to pack and leave too, after a short session of photography of the bike in the ghat area. Had the usual Mess breakfast of Paranthas and achar, paid our dues using the now banned Rs 500 notes and said bye to Ajmer by 10 AM. Lunch break at Highway King as usual and we were back in Faridabad by 5. Filled fuel also using the 500 Rupee notes at Dharuhera, exhausting our stock of useless pieces of paper.