The Pushkar Camel Fair had been on my 'to-do' list since I was the editor at Yahoo!7 Travel, when we'd create galleries and blogs about the world's craziest festivals. I'm not sure what attracted me the most at the time. Was it the cinematic elements of dressed up camels in the Rajasthani desert? Or was it the stories of gypsies gathering to trade their animals and enjoy the accompanying festivities? Probably both.
In the six years gone since those gallery-building days, I have turned vegan, and have a completely new outlook on dressing up animals for entertainment. Regardless, as fate would have it I found myself on a bus to Pushkar at the tail-end of the 'Mela', Remy and the kids, and my camera, in tow.
Held each November at the time of the Kartik Purnima full moon, Pushkar Camel Fair is quite the spectacle, attracting thousands of camels and their owners from all over the Indian desert region of Rajasthan, and visited by almost half a million people in just two weeks. Photographers and travel writers have long-documented this cinematic event, but I was intrigued to visit first-hand to witness both the carnival atmosphere and the camel vibes.
The fair is, admittedly, impressive. Seductive even. We arrive at dusk, and the light is a photographer's dream. As I rush around in the sand taking shots of the camels and their owners, I'm drawn to the community atmosphere oozing from the makeshift campsites of the traders. We are joined by a local Rajasthani musician whom we met in the market, who doubles as our guide and informant. He walks us through the hundreds of camels and humans and I'm in awe at the magnitude of this event.
On one side of the fairgrounds are food and trinket stalls; camel decorations hang from shop tents like tinsel from a Christmas tree. Flamboyantly decorated camels stand attached to ruby red wagons, aka camel taxis, waiting for the tourists (mostly domestic) to hop in for a ride around the desert. Camels have a unique personality that I can't quite grasp; solemn, perhaps, proud, perhaps, but I'm quite sure I didn't spot a happy camel among the throngs. I see one camel tied at the knees, screeching as its owners try to force it to the ground. Another is being dressed decorations through the nose, similarly resisting with all its vocal might. One more walks heavily through the sand transporting a 'healthy' family of Indians in the red taxi cab, the camel master whipping the animal's rear to keep her inline. The kids are perplexed; such a wonder to be surrounded by these mystical animals, but why do they look so sad? Empathy builds.
What we know about camels
"The earliest known camel, called Protylopus, lived in North America 40 to 50 million years ago (during the Eocene). It was about the size of a rabbit and lived in the open woodlands of what is now South Dakota. By 35 million years ago, the Poebrotherium was the size of a goat and had many more traits similar to camels and llamas. The hoofed Stenomylus, which walked on the tips of its toes, also existed around this time, and the long-necked Aepycamelus evolved in the Miocene.
The direct ancestor of all modern camels, Procamelus, existed in the upper Miocene and lower Pliocene. Around 3–5 million years ago, the North American Camelidae spread to South America as part of the Great American Interchange via the newly formed Isthmus of Panama, where they gave rise to guanacos and related animals, and to Asia via the Bering land bridge.
The last camel native to North America was Camelops hesternus, which vanished along with horses, short-faced bears, mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths, sabertooth cats, and many other megafauna, coinciding with the migration of humans from Asia.
Like the horse, before their extinction in their native land, camels spread across the Bering land bridge, moving the opposite direction from the Asian immigration to America, to survive in the Old World and eventually be domesticated and spread globally by humans. Most camels surviving today are domesticated. Along with many other megafauna in North America, the original wild camels were wiped out during the spread of Native Americans from Asia into North America, 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. Although feral populations exist in Australia, India and Kazakhstan, the only wild camels left are the wild Bactrian camels of the Gobi Desert." - Source: Wikipedia.
When should we transform tradition?
Years ago I joined my good friend and professional surfer Dave Rastovich to the south of Japan, filming for The Cove, a film that exposes the horrific annual dolphin drives and slaughters in Taiji, Wakayama. The night before our intended peaceful paddle-out ceremony to pay tribute to the dolphins who had lost their lives over the years in this eerie yet stunning bay, my ex-husband, Dave, Hannah Fraser and I found ourselves on a night-mission trip from Osaka to Taiji to meet with local fishermen and surfers to discuss the issue and potential solutions.
It has been clear to the dolphin hunters for many years now that the West does not support its capturing of dolphins for aquarium trade and the subsequent slaughter for meat that has now been well documented globally by the likes of Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd. And whilst Dave presented many alternatives for economic empowerment, including dolphin and whale watching, which would generate much more revenue for the fisherman and require far less physical output, the local consensus was made very clear: killing dolphins was their tradition and they weren't planning on stopping.
The irony of the Taiji saga is this: Japanese people don't eat dolphin. At least, not knowingly. Some eat whale as a delicacy, but those who consume dolphin are mostly unknown to the fact, with the meat sold under the term 'Whale Bacon', or being used for dog food and fertilizers. When The Cove was shown to Japanese citizens, many were shocked that the huntings were happening in Taiji at all and couldn't stomach the footage.
But despite the global attention that the film generated, the killings still continue, even under the watchful eye of the world. Tradition, for now, prevails.
So what fate lies in store for the camels of Rajasthan, with almost half a million festival-goers treading through the sands each year to get up close and personal with these intriguing creatures and their pom-pom adornments? Let's hope more love is offered their way and as with the slow demise of elephant riding in Thailand humans raise their awareness to appreciate these creatures without exploiting them .