The sand was brown -- soft and pale -- and the thousands of camels sitting and straggling about were browner still. But from across the sun-splashed desert came dazzling flashes of color: red, orange and yellow turbans shimmering like sequins; green, purple and scarlet saris sparkling like fireworks.
And nearby, in the town of Pushkar, along every cramped and narrow roadway, tens of thousands of turbans and saris flowed together like an artist's paint box.
I had been lured to the Pushkar Fair -- in the western Indian state of Rajasthan -- by its reputation for hosting the most exotic camel-trading extravaganza in the country. But it was the typically colorful dress of the Rajasthani nomads and villagers, coming together for a week of revelry, commerce and worship, that left the greatest impression on me. Greater, even, than being part of a surrealistic canvas on which I was enveloped by an endless sea of gangly camels.
Pushkar is famous for two reasons: It is a sacred town, which Hindu pilgrims seek out, particularly each autumn during the week that leads up to the full moon in the Hindu month of Kartik. And it is also the site of a mammoth fair held to coincide with the full moon of Kartik -- a fair that every year transforms Pushkar from a sleepy community of 20,000 into a festive congregation of several hundred thousand.
Across a short stretch of silky smooth sand just to the west of Pushkar looms a small mountain -- a large hill, really. You can ascend a steep and rocky path to the top of the mountain. And from the peak, where a tiny temple has been built, you can enjoy a splendid view of Pushkar, of the lake around which the town has sprung up and of the desert that surrounds it.
This is where I headed immediately on my arrival last November -- to get a quick visual perspective of what the town and the fair were all about. From the temple -- which was built for Savitri, the Hindu goddess of betrayed women -- the fair and the town looked orderly, uncluttered and compartmentalized. Directly below me was the huge livestock fair, covering about two square miles. More than 35,000 camels, bullocks, horses, goats and buffalo calves were being sold. East of the livestock bazaar and across a long road were neat rows of large orange tents -- a village built specially for visitors to the fair. Worshipers were bathing in the lake. Shops were doing a brisk business in the town. And between the town and the livestock fair was a long midway, offering recreation and entertainment for the Rajasthani villagers and desert nomads who flooded into Pushkar for their big annual bash.
But the tidy view from the lofty vantage point of Savitri's temple, I was to discover over the next few days, was a colossal illusion.
India -- or any of its parts -- is a land that cannot be viewed from afar. To look at India from a distance, whether it be across two continents, from atop a small mountain or through a self-imposed mental barrier, is to deceive oneself. India must be touched, it must be breathed. Never did this prove to be more true for me, after having lived in the country for almost two years, than at the Pushkar Fair.
Coming down from the small mountain and spending four days in the midst of the fair was to experience the full, unsanitized vibrancy of India -- its dazzling color, its deep piety, the uncontrollable ebb and swell of its masses, its simplicity and its misery, its pulsating rhythms and, most of all, its enchanting incomprehensibility.
India is in a constant state of mayhem. It seems to be eternally on the verge of disintegrating into a million pieces, each flying off on its own way. But some force -- perhaps the country's unflinching faith and spiritualism -- always seems to hold India together.
And here at the fair, another type of centripetal force was at work on the giant Ferris wheel that dominated the Pushkar midway. Amplifiers that beckoned prospective riders were so loud that the ground shook. Frightened children plugged fingers into their ears. Conversation was an impossibility. But the crowd ignored the decibel discomfort and elbowed its way forward to grab a seat for a single rupee (eight cents).
Most seats were filled with four people, but sometimes twice that many crammed aboard. The giant wheel turned at such rapid speed it looked like an old 45 record gone amok at 78 rpm. I cringed as I watched this overloaded circle of people spinning recklessly about. But without just cause -- the riders were having a ball. The centripetal force of India was, as usual, at work.
There were other Ferris wheels along the midway. A tiny wooden one held children in four wobbly seats. And a large wheel was propelled by human energy: Two attendants churned their legs like a treadmill, running over crossbars that connected the wheel's spokes high above the ground.
Pushkar was a cornucopia of choices, so vast and varied that I had difficulty deciding how to allot my time.
Early morning and early evening were best for observing the camel trading, when the sun was less intense and cast a soft golden glow over the desert, with the humped animals silhouetted picturesquely against the sky. The camel dealers walked among the animals or sat in small groups, eating, conversing, smoking long hookahs.
And scattered among the men and animals were young women and girls in bright, flowing saris, carrying large, flat bowls upon their heads. The bowls were filled with neatly formed paddies of dung, picked up from the livestock; it served as the lone source of fuel to keep fires burning at thousands of little campsites across the desert. The paddies were arranged in such carefully crafted stacks and rows that they almost appeared to be works of art.
The camel grounds seemed to stretch on forever. Every time I walked over another dune or ridge, the horizon was filled with hundreds of new camels, staring idly as their masters bartered their fates.
Watching two traders cut a deal offered an example of the rituals of desert commerce.
Both men appeared to be prosperous traders, wearing western-style sports jackets over their traditional white cotton pajamas. One was burly and bearded, probably in his fifties, wearing a bright orange turban. He was seated, with his sons and two servants, upon woolen blankets spread across the sand. The other, also attended by his sons and servants, was very old and lean. He wore a white turban and his skin was as wrinkled as a walnut; he was offered a seat on the blanket.
The two men shared cigarettes, and then opium; they sat with their heads close together, talking in low tones. The old man stood up to confer with his sons, who then coaxed a dozen camels to stand. The men walked around them, feeling their flanks, then sent their sons away and conversed privately.
A servant brought over a bowl of water and handed the older man a wad of coarse dough. The man mixed it with the water, kneading it with his fingers, then ate while the younger trader sat silently by his side. After the old man had finished eating, he took out his dentures and washed them.
The sons returned and soon a young man appeared with a white sales book. As the men talked, he wrote down the particulars of the deal. The two men exchanged rupees. They sealed the deal by signing the sales deed with their thumb prints.
More than $1 million in livestock transactions took place during the fair; the most expensive camel netted about $750.
If the desert was the domain of the men at Pushkar, the streets, the shopping bazaars and the sacred lake belonged to the women. It was only on the day of the full moon, when the superior livestock had been sold and the religious fervor was approaching its peak, that the camel traders and farmers joined the women.
In the crowded streets, the Rajasthani women, unaccustomed to such unwieldly crowds save this one time of the year, never walked alone. Looking like brilliant squirming centipedes, all members of the same village wearing saris of a common pattern or color, they held hands or scarfs forming a chain so they would not get lost in the huge mass of people.
On the day of the full moon -- as I tried to wend my way through the crowds to watch the worshipers at the lake -- I became entrapped in a frightening wave of humanity. Bodies were packed so tightly that it was as if we were one gigantic organism. Children cried. Spindly old women shuddered. I realized that if I fell I would be trampled to death; there would be no way to halt the swell of bodies moving forward. But how could I feel fear when I was so much stronger than most of the others? Besides, jammed together as tightly as we were, it would have been nearly impossible to fall to the ground. It took me more than half an hour to progress about 100 feet, to a point where I could veer off on a side lane.
For four solid days the concrete steps -- or ghats -- leading down to the lake were blanketed with women old and young bathing in the water. It was here one day, at the lake, that the profusion of color was so blinding that I fled to take refuge in the desert, where the softer hues were like a balm to the eyes.
Pushkar is a holy city because of its lake. Hindu legend says that Brahma, the god of creation, was one day riding upon a bird flying over the earth when he dropped a lotus leaf. The leaf fell where Pushkar's lake is today.
To celebrate the sacredness of the lake, on the day of the full moon, worshipers placed tiny candles on dried leaves and floated them out onto the water. It was a lovely sight, with the moon rising over the horizon to the east just as the sun was setting in the west. And below, the lake was speckled with the flickering of candles.
On the night of the full moon I visited the Temple of Hanuman, the monkey god, one of more than 100 temples along the streets of Pushkar. The roof of the temple was supported by columns painted deep vermilion; the frieze and entablature were shocking pink and yellow; the walls were aqua-blue.
In contrast to the garish colors, the floor was carpeted with bodies covered by dark blankets. It was difficult to walk through the temple, and it was even more difficult to estimate the number of people inside, or guess their ages or sex. The blankets obscured their beings from head to toe.
On the altar people were singing to the accompaniment of a drum, a harmonium and cymbals. An old man waved for me to sit by him and handed me slices of an apple to eat. The music from the altar was soft and melodic. The old man talked incessantly even though I told him -- and he acknowledged -- that I could not understand a word he was saying.
I was surrounded by blanketed clumps of bodies. A young woman lying beside me stirred. All I could see of her was her face and hands: She had good white teeth; her face looked to be that of a teen-ager; but her hands were knobby and withered and seemed to belong to a woman at least three times her age. She was unusually friendly for a lone Hindu peasant woman. After a short time, she sat up, and it was then that I noticed her body had been protecting an infant.
I did not want to leave this temple. The soothing nature of the music, the incongruity of the colors, the kindness of the old man, the insouciance of the young woman, the eeriness of the hundreds of hidden bodies around me -- it was all so intoxicating and all so Indian. But eventually I decided to venture into the Pushkar night.
Although it was late -- well after midnight -- the streets were filled with thousands of people. The shops and stalls were alive with activity, the midway was wild. The people were celebrating under the full moon as though they never wanted the night to end.
The Ferris wheels were not alone in whirling about with reckless abandon. The entire fair had a frenetic energy, as though every ride, every event, every person was accelerated by the fullness of the moon.
It was India playing its most exhilarating tune, all its chords chiming at the same time, vying to be heard.
There was Mayavi the great magician, whose tent was bursting at the seams as thousands of necks craned forward to catch every legerdemain. Fortunetellers plied the crowd, as did masseurs and vendors of perfumes and spices.
One could look in on the Diamond Jubalee Circus, or sit and watch comedy dance routines where the beguiling, gyrating women were actually men in silk sari drag.
Young men stood in long queues to pose for photographs before backdrop scenes of painted cars and motorcycles, horses and Hindu gods. As the camera clicked they looked their macho meanest, never cracking a smile.
Alfresco barbers and dentists did their handiwork for all to see.
I chose to visit a tent in which one could see, for a rupee, a 10-year-old girl performing a number of feats with her feet -- threading a needle, combing her hair, kneading and cooking bread, putting on makeup and shooting both a rifle and a bow and arrow.
I also looked in upon a grotesque little zoo, named after Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. Scrawny animals were in minuscule wooden cages with iron bars, so tightly confined they could barely move. The keeper walked me through, past a porcupine, a monkey, a toucan, a cheetah, a coyote and rabbits, chicks and pelicans. As we came to the cage of a sleeping lion, the keeper smacked the animal with a switch to make him roar. And when we visited a motionless alligator, he proudly tried to stir the animal with a metal rod.
Merchants along the midway and in the town do brisk enough business during the one week of the fair to see them through most of the year. Camels are not the only hot selling items in Pushkar. One can also buy pitchforks, dentures, ax blades, posters of Indian movie stars and western babies, religious art, scissors and kitchen utensils, shoes, sports jackets, bras, swords, cosmetics and camel saddles.
But by far the most popular consumer item on the streets of Pushkar isjewelry -- particularly bangles, earrings and necklaces. Women stand three deep in front of jewelry stalls to augment their already abundant supply of bodily adornments. I counted 68 bangles and bands on the arms of one woman who was looking to purchase a few more.
I dubbed one street in Pushkar "Sugar Cane Alley." If there was one activity enjoyed by every single fairgoer, it was gnawing on sugar cane. Purple stalks, standing 12 feet high with flowing green leaves, could be seen all over town. On Sugar Cane Alley the stalks were lined up against a wall for almost 200 feet. Vendors sliced them with scythes and sold them on the spot. The street was a carpet of discarded husk and leaves. But one sampling was enough to sate my curiosity.
In some ways Pushkar was like a county fair in the United States. There was a large outdoor arena for judging animals, for camel, horse and donkey races, for a parade. Competitions tested which camel could carry the most people, and which animal could haul the heaviest load.
There was an exposition area with agricultural, educational, commercial and religious displays. The exhibits ranged from rural health care to Indian handicrafts, from environmental literature to a stall sporting artificial limbs. Yet by far the biggest attraction in the exposition area was an electric model train, where a long queue of gawkers was hastily ushered past two little trains on a bare platform.
It was ironic, I thought, that the villagers were so captivated by something so modern, something so western.
Because for me, at Pushkar, it was just the opposite. It was the elemental village way, the eastern ingenuity, that was so entrancing: the ritual of selling a camel, the joy of adding a new bangle to the wrist, the simplicity of running a Ferris wheel with your feet.
And of course there was the color, the incredible color, which touched everything at Pushkar.