If you want to see the most spectacular cattle and bathing mela in the world, fly to Jaipur or catch a train to Ajmer and cover 11 kms to Pushkar
Back in a legendary time, Lord Brahma was flying over the Rajasthan desert on his swan, when some petals fell from his hand and drifted down. Miraculously, blue lakes sprang up where the flowers had touched the soft sands. Just then, Lord Brahma realised that this was the auspicious moment to perform a fire sacrifice or yagna. He landed near one of the lakes, completed the powerful ritual and, thus, laid the groundwork for the first Pushkar Fair.
Ever since then, when the full moon shines on Purnima during the autumn period of kartik, the desert tribes meet to commemorate this epic event.
We could have lived in the comfort of a hotel in Ajmer but we preferred to stay in one of the romantic tented camps that our tourism entrepreneurs erect for visitors. Most of them are within strolling distance of the campfires which wink like scattered constellations across the desert of Pushkar.
Lohars, itinerant blacksmiths, rested with their families under their nail-studded carts: they never sleep under a roof. Raiker camel herders with their smouldering saffron turbans sat around another campfire, their bright-eyed women in odini stoles and swaying skirts in burnt rose, viridian green, cerulean blue... They offered us draughts of fresh camelís milk which tasted like reconstituted baby-food. Caravan sounds came through sharp and clear: bangles clinking, camel bells clonking, jewellery jangling, cart wheels creaking, camels gurgling, donkeys braying, horses whinnying and sheep bleating. And laughter and voices and songs. For, when the sun sinks into the desert, blazing like a celestial bonfire before snuffing out and leaving the night to the moon and the stars and the open-air hearths of the camps, it is time for the dancers and singers to bloom. Finger-snapping folk tunes were played on short, squat, viols with bells on their bows; and drums; and tambourines; and the curious double-flute whose notes fall like cascading silver; and the mouth-harp mor-chank twanging with insistent, nasal, resonance; and the terracotta pitcher spun in the palms and blown whoomp-whoomp.
They danced to flickering torches and leaping shadows and clashing cymbals that rang and clanked on calf and shoulder and back while the veiled women dancers sat and swayed like marionettes-possessed, holding bared swords between their teeth. We slept then, satiated with sound and spectacle, through the moon-drenched Pushkar night till the watch-fires paled in the brightening dawn.
Then we flowed with the crowds in a great stream of moving people through the narrow streets and out into the ghats where the water stretched like beaten steel. And the people waited. Dawn burst radiant over the water and was greeted by a tumultuous ululation torn from a myriad throats as the men and the women plunged into the shimmering lake and the cameras clicked and the priests waded waist-deep dispensing flowers and counsel.
Back to the camps then, bobbing in the stream of humanity, and then the long day stretched before us in eating and trading: cattle and horses and camel-trappings and pitchforks and carved doors. And sport: grunting camels competing to carry clinging men; and horses galloping; and women in eye-catching skirts heaving on tug-of-war ropes.
The day gentled with the sweet, green, grassy flavour of sugarcane chewed; and draughts of buttermilk; and nutritious whole-meal breads baked on charcoal fires. The sun sank into the desert again, the campfires flickered alive, the moon rose and spread quicksilver on the sacred waters. Tiny lamp-boats were launched to commemorate those who have gone before and may return in another life, or so a guide explained softly.
All night long the oil-lamps bobbed on their gilded reflections and then, when the cool breeze of dawn extinguished their dying flames, the tribes on the dusty plain struck camp and began their long, arduous, trek back home again.
Lord Brahma rested in his lonely temple in Pushkar, watching over the petal-garnished lake, and all was right with the world for another desert year.