PUSHKAR, INDIA -- For 400 years, camel herders and farmers have converged on this holy city deep in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan to buy and sell camels, troll the market stalls for new saddles and gawk at tribal people from faraway villages.
In recent years, however, an exotic new tribe has been attracted to the ancient desert fair, offering new opportunities to ogle: Western tourists. The desert camel drivers marvel at this bizarre breed that turns red under the desert sun, views the world through black boxes held in front of their faces and is willing to pay $2 (more than two days' wages for most desert farmers) for an hour's ride on a lumbering camel.
India, as part of its new efforts to open up to the outside world and its hard currencies, has begun promoting remote, indigenous fairs and festivals as major tourist attractions. In the last several years the Pushkar Camel Fair -- reputedly the largest camel market in the world -- has become the most popular festival among foreign tourists visiting Rajasthan, the northern desert state that is now India's largest tourist draw.
And so it came to pass this month that the 20th century collided with a culture and society that has remained virtually unchanged since the 16th century.
Desert tribesmen arrived with their families and household possessions piled high atop medieval-style wooden carts drawn by camels after 14-day treks across the desert, while tourists arrived in shiny new air-conditioned tour buses that made the same trip in seven hours.
Both camel driver Bhagwan Singh and French tourist Olivier Bernicat haggled with shopkeepers over the price of a new camel saddle, an elaborate wooden contraption. But while Singh, with his, will return to the desert on a more comfortable perch, Bernicat plans to use his as a rack for house plants.
German tourists gasped in horror as camel doctor Kailash Narayasoni jabbed a row of metal rings through the upper lip of slobbering camel, a centuries-old technique to help drivers control recalcitrant camels.
Asked if the influx of foreigners was good or bad, camel trader Bhagwan Singh quickly said, "Good." When asked why, he replied, "We like to look at them."
But for the Rajasthanis, one of the most colorful, yet conservative, societies of the Indian subcontinent, the foreign tourists are merely a sideshow to their most important commercial and social event of the year.
Suraj Jain, like his father and grandfather before him, came to the fair primarily to sell camels. He traveled eight days from the city of Udaipur in southern Rajasthan, pushing a herd of 200 of the knobby-kneed creatures. Most of the buyers were farmers or villagers who will use the camels to pull carts, still the preferred mode of commercial transport in outlying desert regions.
This year's going rates ranged from $16 for an unbroken baby camel to more than $1,000 for a well-trained, cart-pulling mature adult. In all, more than 17,000 camels and 23,000 cattle and horses changed hands during the six-day market, according to fair director K.S. Mathur. And this was a slow year. Because the monsoon rains yielded particularly good crops this year, fewer farmers needed to sell their camels for extra cash to survive until the next growing season, Mathur said.
The number of foreign tourists was down as well, to about 3,200, as a result of the plague scare that swept India in late September, according to tourism officials.
Even so, the sand dunes on the outskirts of the lakeside city of Pushkar were covered with camels, camel carts, cattle, horses and campsites as far as the eye could see, a vast panorama of another era. Women clad in brilliant saris of red, blue and orange carried massive heaps of fodder on their heads to feed the camels while men wearing equally bright-colored turbans clustered around campfires, slurping tea and debating camel prices. The air reeked of the acrid smoke of burning camel dung and the pungent odor of sweaty blankets.
Camel owners primped and pampered their beasts, combing their humps, clipping the hair on their sides into intricate geometrical designs and festooning their long necks with colorful collars and necklaces.
The camels appeared to have mixed emotions about the entire event. Babies cried plaintively as their mothers were led away by new owners, buck-toothed adults snapped at would-be buyers peering into their mouths, and those waiting to be sold belched malodorously and moaned as they chewed their cud. The result was a constant cacophony of barnyard coughing, wheezing, bellowing and groaning.
The first three days of hard wheeling and dealing gave way to the more festive elements of the fair as an estimated 300,000 Rajasthani villagers and religious pilgrims converged on the town of Pushkar, population 11,000.
The camel fair is timed to coincide with the religious ceremonies that fall on the full moon of Kartik Purnima, usually in October or November, depending on the lunar calendar, when pilgrims from throughout the region descend on the town to take a dip in the holy Pushkar Lake, which is ringed with white marble ghats -- the stairways for ritual bathing.
Appropriately, one of the ghats is called the Gau Ghat, or cow ghat, because residents of a neighboring state constructed a cow temple at the site more than 400 years ago to protect cows from attack by an enemy Mughal governor, according to local lore.
On the morning of the full moon, the narrow streets of the town throng with mobs of worshipers draped in the rainbow colors of the Rajasthani desert tribals. Here again, native culture often clashes with modern-day tourism.
Signs in four languages give tourists stern warnings at the entrances to the holy lake's bathing ghats:
"In Pushkar area, men and women are not allowed to kiss and embrace in public.
"Half clothes are not allowed. Men and women please dress respectfully.
"Strictly prohibited are drugs, alcohol, non-vegetarian food."
Loudspeakers constantly remind "the foreign tourists" that taking photographs is strictly prohibited.
Meanwhile, back at the fairgrounds, tens of thousands of desert inhabitants gathered in an arena to watch the annual camel races and games that could easily qualify for on David Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks competition.
Camels got the last laugh on showmen trying to demonstrate the beasts' "magnificent strength." When six men piled atop one camel, the disgruntled animal merely tilted his body as he struggled to his feet, sending them all flying into a tangled heap on the ground.
And the jockey riding his horse to clear victory was so intent on impressing visiting dignitaries that he pulled his sweating black mount to a stop five feet short of the finish line to bow before the assembled state ministers.
He was disqualified despite his loud protests to the judges and his horse's swift kick to a bystander.