Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Time Warp: Pushkar Camel Fair

You can step back in time. You can rub shoulders with the ages, with a thousand or more cultures, races, and religious beliefs, be transported to a place between temporal planes. So far as I know, no book makes reference of this time warp, although it opens once a year on the scrub-covered, cone-shaped Arvali hills of Rajasthan during Kartik Purnima, a high, holy Hindu celebration. Not even the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” with its catalog of the rare and the brilliant, touches on this point on Earth where a broken macadam road makes a sharp curve, where the verges are lined with a few trees and many vendor’s stalls. If you pay attention here, you will spot an opening through tent walls, one just wide enough to admit a camel taxi. Pass through and into the timeless.

People come by train, horse, camel, and truck from Delhi, Ajmer, Jaipur, or desert oasis. Nomads from the pre-Christian centuries arrive by watering stages driving their herds. Passport-carrying, twenty-first century denizens, smelling of suntan oil, dressed by Sierra Trading, descend from lines of tour busses. Holy men garbed in spiritualism if not cleanliness, beards reaching for the ground, arrive on feet callused and grilled by desert sands. Villagers and warriors, royalty and casteless merchants approach on mules or camels, in the backs of trucks or hanging from the sides of motor rickshaws. Styles span the centuries – here a gown Jesus of Nazarus might have worn, there a dress Scheherazade would have envied, over there a toga, on that head a Mongol helmet. I wore jeans.

Tent cities rise among the scrub-pocked hills, neighborhoods developing, the babble of a hundred languages and a thousand dialects creating a mat of sound, underpinning the wail of flutes, the punctuating demanding wail of a curved horn, the bawl of camels, the barking of dogs. Horses whinny and scream, people shout their wares, and beggars really do whine. “Momma. A rupee, Momma.”

Three hundred thousand people come. Many sleep with only a blanket to protect them from the freezing desert night, are surrounded by their animals strung out in orderly lines. These, like the threads of a spider’s web, cover the scrub hills in intricate patterns, running past tents, paralleling high walls created from yards of patterned cotton, bordering freshly created tracks that will be soon dug into deep trenches by the volume of traffic.

The hobbling system comes from remote history. One rope goes down; is pegged. Short ropes attach to it, two spaced one foot apart for each animal’s hind legs. A second long rope parallels the first, neck ropes snaking up from it. In between, animals stand, side by side, prevented by their restraints from moving out of place or harming each other. Recalcitrant beasts earn the extra joy of a doubled-up front leg. Truly difficult cases are on the ground, learning their lessons the hard way.

Manure is not a problem. At the lift of a tail, a boy appears to scoop up the offering and carry it to squatting dung workers who pound the balls together into pancake-sized patties that are laid out in the sun to dry. When evening comes, the dust of the day is augmented by smoke from fifty thousand fires or more, pungent, smoky fires made from the patties.

It is evening, and visitors flock to the hilltops by camel cart and horseback, talking and smoking and watching the sun set. Watching the sun go down is a literal possibility. Smoke, dust, and other air pollution render the sun a weak globe of light, a star of dubious power, harmless to the eye.

Torches, firelight, lanterns spot the night, warm glitters across the land. But on one high hill a great glow reflects against the sky. Electricity reaches there, turning the grounds of a stadium to day, giving racing horses and camels a visible track to run on, roars of the crowds seeping through the night. Beside the stadium, Ferris Wheels circle – reds, blues, and greens swooping around and around in a brilliant light display.

A main camp street spins out from the town, lined day and night by vendors. Colorful cotton walls, provide privacy. Behind this wall the screen of a television flickers. For five rupees, men, women, and children of all centuries can see the Moghul invasion of India or watch Alexander the Great conquer the known world. Next door, a folding chair invites passersby in for a hair cut. Beyond, an old man sits cross-legged on a table rolling out unleavened bread, the cook fire at his elbow, pots of simmering food minded by his veiled wives lined up buffet style along the street.

Everything you could want is for sale – animals, jewelry, swords and knives, lutes and flutes, piles of clothing, and good luck.

It’s the Brahmin festival of Kartik Purnima in the holy city of Pushtar, the Tirth Raj or king of pilgrim centers and home to the only temple dedicated to Lord Brahma in India – Brahma, the creator of all. Here, legend says, Brahma dropped a lotus petal. Where it landed, water sprang up, creating a sacred lake.

“You will learn everything,” our guide, Lotus, explains. He is a lovely man dressed in flowing white with shoulder length hair so black it shows blue highlights and with skin the color and consistency of mocha chocolate. We are on a Hindu spiritual walk, following the way of holiness, the way taken by daily processions of the faithful and their most sacred symbols. We follow it to a ghat – steps descending to one of the 52 bathing areas on the lake, each possessed of special powers. On all sides buildings drop into the water, the whiteness of the walls punctuated by the other ghats.

We already have good luck yarn wrapped around our wrists and spots of red between our eyes, symbols provided by our twenty-first century guides to protect us from shills out of the past who will try to separate us from our rupees with the offer of spurious blessings. Our charms don’t work. We sit on the steps above the holy water and are conned out of amounts up to twenty dollars each by Hindu acolytes. Caught in the moment, I consider us cheap when my daughter holds out and only offers twelve. Then, the acolytes come around to take back the flower petals and coconuts we’d been given, and I remember the warnings. Oh, well. Experience costs.

Noise follows. There are the timpani of bells, each clang signifying a prayer. There is the singing as the processions go by, each dedicated to its own manifestation of Brahma, to one of his thousand names and attributes, filling the narrow streets. There is shouting and praying and calling of person to person. Overall, the loudspeakers blare music and announcements and more prayers, and notice that the camel judging is over or the horse racing about to begin.

Some things don’t exist. Privacy, for one. Meat dishes for another. Bland food for a third. Cleanliness for a fourth. Some things aren’t missed. Schedules and deadlines head the list. Many things are enjoyed – color, sound, smells. The Pushkar Camel Fair. It’s like a deep well, waters rising, bringing up shards of old pottery, bits of hair and bone and thought, mingling with air and smoke and sound, fizzing and boiling, creating a froth of life, a separate moment in time where everything under the sun meets and mingles. Pushkar. The camel fair.

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