Capturing the Wandering Souls of Pushkar
Dheeraj’s images reflect the thoughts of Confucius, ‘Wherever you go, go with all your heart.’ These photographs, shot by dusk at glistening nightfall, display, that the uniqueness of any given place is an amalgam of not only its indigenous practices and borrowed customs, but also of its past and its present, writes Uma Nair.
Dheeraj Paul enthusiastically treads on the sands in the desert state of Rajasthan, where thousands of people, traders and their camels travel to the small town of Pushkar for the annual Pushkar Mela, or the Pushkar Camel Fair, which is divined by the waxing and waning of the moon.
An astonishing 30,000 camels converge on the tiny desert town of Pushkar, for the annual fair. While fascinating, it is a peculiar sight, and a great opportunity to witness an age-old, traditional Indian festival. The original intention behind the Pushkar Camel Fair was to attract local camel and cattle traders to engage in business during the holy Kartik Purnima festival, held here, around the time of full moon in the Hindu lunar month of Kartika.
Cow dung cakes and camels
One of the oldest and largest camel fairs in the world, Pushkar has grown to become a desired attraction for foreign tourists in recent years. Cow dung cake fires with dry rotis roasting, or even lentils cooking, camels waiting for new masters to own them, nomadic travellers setting-up stalls that resemble a flea market– together they culminate the energies of this popular fair.
When the shades of night fall on the Pushkar Fair, lensman and mentor Dheeraj Paul, turns his shutter on to the traders who flock the fair in the northern desert of Rajasthan.
Interaction of the people
"Camels, other livestock sellers and buyers come here and interact ," says Dheeraj, "It is the interaction between people and the dark sihouettes of the night sky that have always fascinated me."
A trader opens his thick chaddar to banish the dust within his camel stand, quietly waiting for their master to recline. To catch the silhouette of a pair of camels against the shades of nightfall, is a moment of tensile tactility. Watching women buy bangles and trinklets at the night stall is just as fetching as watching an albino horse dancing in rhythmic twirls.
Camel and Cacti
"The nomadic traders consider the camel as God's blessing," states Dheeraj. "It browses, eats vegetation that others don't, like the arid thorny bushes and cactii. The camel doesn't compete for food, but for these nomads, the camel is the vehicle of sustenance-it is the plough, car, and tractor."
Dheeraj's images reflect the thoughts of Confucius, who said: "Wherever you go, go with all your heart." These photographs, shot by dusk at glistening nightfall, display, that the uniqueness of any given place is an amalgam of not only its indigenous practices and borrowed customs, but also of its past and its present.
Lake Pushkar and Pilgrims
Any given photograph transcends the section of place and time withheld within its borders. This suite of photographs, taken over more than a decade, reveal a window into the Pushkar Fair, which may not last even more than a decade, as young traders do not want to be stuck with an animal like the camel, instead, they aspire for motorised vehicles like the tractor. In that aftermath, we will be left with the lake and its numerous bathing ghats, where thousands of pilgrims would gather to take their holy dip in the sacred waters of Lake Pushkar, as religious chanting and pealing bells resound.
According to Dheeraj, camel numbers have dropped considerably from the earlier years. Unofficial estimates state that the number of camels in Rajasthan has plummeted from about 10 lakh in the mid-1990s to fewer than 2 lakh today.
The animals have been beset with other problems too. The extension of the Indira Gandhi Canal has led to the destruction of some prime grazing areas for camels. By the end of the 1990s, the market for draft camels (those used for transportation) was also declining. The use of motorised transport has become common even in remote areas. The Border Security Force too, no longer buys as many camels.
In 2001, it came to light that camels at the famous Pushkar Animal Fair were being sold for slaughter and were even being smuggled to the Gulf countries and Bangladesh, where there is a high demand for camel meat. Female camels, never put up for sale before, are also being sold now, leading to a further fall in the state's camel population. It is estimated that about 80 per cent of the camels sold at the Pushkar fair today, are sent for slaughter.
The Raikas and the Rebaris, Rajasthan's traditional camel breeding communities, have been campaigning for years to save these animals.
Experts at the National Research Centre on Camel in Bikaner too have supported the cause. Despite their efforts, however, districts like Churu, Sikar, Bharatpur, Alwar and Udaipur have emerged as centres of camel trade. Here, the animals are slaughtered for their meat and their skin is used for leather products like bags and shoes.
The law, which states that the camel is an integral part of the desert ecosystem and a mainstay of the state's rural economy, stipulates a five-year jail term and a fine for the slaughter of camels. Causing injury to the animals is also a punishable offence.
Only time will tell how long this pageant of livestock, people, lights and fires will last. For Dheeraj Paul, Pushkar is about the present day authenticity and the allure of customs; and without camels, Pushkar will never be the same.