I first stumbled into Pushkar in the year 2000. At that time it was a quaint, easygoing, small-time town tucked away in central Rajasthan, far more laid-back and less hectic a destination than its nearby big-city cousins of Jodhpur and Jaipur. Pushkar lies in between and equidistant from the two larger cities, up in the hills behind Ajmer, and though it was on the backpacker radar at that time, had not quite made it to ‘must see’ status.
The only thing that disappointed me about my first visit to Pushkar—a perfect escape from the busy streets of Jaipur—was the realization that I had just missed the Pushkar ka Mela, the annual five-day camel and livestock fair, which, I was reliably informed, was a most spectacular event to witness.
I didn’t manage to get back to Pushkar for another 10 years, but when I did return it was with the specific intention of experiencing what I had missed the last time around. Since my last visit I’d kept myself busy taking photos for more than 20 international guidebooks, so this time I came armed with cameras, flashes and a tripod. Unfortunately, Pushkar had also been busy in my absence—it was bigger, far busier and less quaint than I remembered, even without taking the huge camel fair into account.
The morning after I arrived, I headed out early—with cameras at the ready—to the far end of town in search of the fair and its 11,000 camels. Though I found the camels, it was obvious that so had a lot of other eager visitors, and it quickly became apparent that 11,000 camels had attracted 11,001 photographers, of all skill levels, from all over the globe. A particularly glamorous animal with a particularly pleasing backdrop would attract hordes of would-be Steve McCurrys, packing all sorts of lenses and photographic paraphernalia. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed; fighting for shots among the camel-chasing paparazzi was not what I’d had in mind for my time in Pushkar.
Looking beyond the camels
My thoughts wandered on my way back to my guesthouse. I had no interest in taking photos of camels if it meant squeezing into a crowd, but then I started to notice a different side of the fair: the heaving backstreets seemed to call to me with their own intense energy.
Thousands of vendors selling their wares on makeshift roadside stalls, side-show circus acts competing to pull in the crowds, cramped restaurants and cafes feverishly feeding the masses behind the scenes. And, of course, thousands upon thousands of people: pilgrims and tourists and touts, seething and sprawling down the alleyways like a colossal tidal wave of humanity, hawkers of cheap treats and plastic toys caught up in the mass of individuals, all going somewhere.
And so my time spent at the Pushkar Camel Fair changed direction. I started to focus more on the crowded streets and the lesser attractions at the fair. I became so engaged in photographing the busy backstreets that I almost forgot about the camels entirely. In the evenings I would be joined by another well-traveled photographer staying at the same guesthouse. He hadn’t photographed many camels either; he was photographing people. And so we would sit, brightening our evenings by lamenting on the ratio of camels to photographers and discussing further travel plans.
My friend invited me to move on with him to a quieter event 125 miles southeast of Pushkar and so we set off in search of the Bundi Utsav Festival. Arriving in Bundi was like a breath of fresh air; the town itself was not really on the tourist trail and immediately reminded me of my better experiences in small, unassuming Indian towns full of friendly residents and genuine greetings. And, yes, it had more than a good serving of the quaint and easygoing atmosphere that I’d enjoyed in Pushkar a decade before.
In Bundi I found the festival experience that I’d been searching for, albeit without the masses of camels—but also without the cameras and the hordes of tourists who carry them. The festival was a cultural event complete with traditional music, folk dancing, floats and a huge parade through town. It led to an invitation to visit another festival taking place the following day in a neighboring village on the outskirts of Bundi, which proved to be an even more colorful and charming experience.
What made the whole adventure more magical for me is that the photographer I met in Pushkar and traveled with to Bundi became a great friend. We traveled together on other occasions and he later served as best man at my wedding—demonstrating firsthand the magic and mystery of India and the power of open-minded travel within this great country.
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