India is known for its festivals - virtually every night I can lay in my hotel bed listening to the noise of some celebration for a deity or special occasion taking place in the streets. However, there is one festival which is famous across India - the Pushkar Fair, which is held in the central part of Rajasthan for a week each year. It attracts a staggering 200,000 visitors and 50,000 animals - most of them camels - and I have never seen, or will see, so many camels in the one place at the one time.
Rajasthan is a very colourful place at normal times - but during the Fair it reached new heights. In particular, this was due to the clothing of the women who were adorned in long flowing saris of vibrant reds, greens, blues, purples - complimented by a rich display of sequins which sparkled in the hot sun. The markets were full of women buying clothes, jewellery and handicrafts - and it was an incredibly busy and colourful sight. But the women were not alone in the shopping, as men could purchase various paraphernalia for their camels - including coloured reigns and ornaments for their beloved beasts.
There was even a side-show alley, which was extremely modest - a Ferris wheel was the biggest attraction and I loved watching the old men from the desert look on in awe at how the wheel worked - imagine if they went to a theme park in Australia or the USA! Most of sideshow alley contained stalls dedicated to various bits of farm equipment, as well as cars, mobile phones and food - but most of it was covered by the ever-present dust. Notably absent though were the show-bags - they just didn't exist. The only other attraction was low level entertainment being promoted by a very high powered speaker system, but I was not interested in seeing women being sawn in half, so I passed on all the shows.
But the highlight was definitely the animals - in particular the camels. One morning I walked through a dusty and hilly area that was home to thousands of camels who were grumbling and growling, bellowing and belching - and their owners doing the same! The sounds were just incredible, as the whole place was alive with the activities of both beast and human. I watched some camel bartering going on - the prospective purchaser would look over the camel and check its legs, coat and overall physical condition, and if he was pleased (it was always a male that did the buying) then the owner and customer would go off to discuss the price over a pot of tea. Sometimes one of the parties would engage in a bit of theatrics in order to impose his view (waving hands in air, storming off) so the whole process was obviously very complex. The camels were obviously worth a lot, because you would see wads of rupees being exchanged if the sale was successful.
In order to assist in the sale, the camels would be beautified (yes, it is possible to do). They would be shaved so as to create simple patterns on its fur, as well as being painted with some black ink, which came in the form of circles, zigzags and other geometric shapes. Some camels though, were dressed to an extreme level - there were a few that looked like that had just charged through a Christmas tree and came out the other side, dripping with brightly coloured tinsel and other decorations!
Speaking of beautifying camels, there were the obligatory contests - for example the popular camel beauty pageant and the camel dancing contest. There were also contests for humans - such as turban tying and a moustache competition - the winner being someone who is normally able to successfully tie their moustache in a knot over their head!
This was the most colourful celebration I have ever seen - it was almost too much to absorb at once. Thankfully (so I thought) Agra would be a nice respite from any celebrations, but I was wrong. I had just finished writing the previous paragraph (it was about 7pm) when I heard a considerable noise outside of the Internet Cafe. So I logged off and went into the street to see the commotion. Well, it is wedding season in India and they are extremely noisy and colourful affairs. This one involved a parade of about 100 persons, surrounded by a brass band who looked like a college band from the US - playing at full volume, whilst a singer half spoke/half sung through a system of huge speakers at the front of the parade. A dozen men were carrying lights, which took the form of three brass lamps on a single pole. Towards the rear of the parade, the groom, clothed in beautiful Indian clothes and with a fetching turban, rode upon a decorated horse, and in front of a large wall of multicoloured lights - it was quite a spectacle.
I went to have a closer look, and was took a couple of photos and was smiling stupidly at all this noise, when an elderly gentleman in the parade waved me to join them. I politely shook my head to say no, but he was most persuasive - so in I went - passed the band members and light carriers into the centre of the parade (can you believe it!) Now, if I thought it was noisy watching from the outside, being part of an Indian wedding parade is nosier still. The gentleman who coerced me to join the parade was the groom's grandfather (his name was Parwol or something similar) and I was soon given a garland of white and orange flowers and dancing with all the men folk. Everyone wanted to get a photo with me and I even had to pose for a photo of me shaking hands with the groom still astride of the horse.
45 minutes later, we were still marching, dancing and clapping, as we approached the reception venue. Several of the wedding party (including the grandfather) invited me to eat with them at the reception - so I just couldn't say no! We approached the venue, and I was given flowers to throw into the air, some rosewater to spray on me (including putting some cotton wool that had been dipped rosewater on my earlobe) and I watched the groom (now off the horse) haggle with the bride's family that he should be allowed to enter the venue. Of course the answer was yes (after a bit of bargaining) and so we went in.
The wedding was at a 5 star hotel and was set in the huge garden - probably 80 metres square. One whole side of the area was full of the choicest Indian food - the other side was filled with drinks (no alcohol is served at a Jain wedding) and the rear backed onto the beautifully lit swimming pool. In the centre, there were rows of seats (about 200) organised in front of the final side, a coloured stage which had two vacant chairs - so under a clear warm night, the groom made his way to his appointed seat.
In a way this was more difficult to absorb then the Camel Fair, as many people would speak to me to ask me questions and see if I was well catered for. I have long discovered that my job (an Australian Government employee) seems to get very positive responses from those I tell - so in this crowd of jewellers, exporters and IT experts, I was received very well. Finally, the bride arrived, but with no fanfare - she just appeared. She looked like she had just walked out of a Rajput textile museum - it was easily the most elaborate outfit I have seen in India - bright red, of the finest silk, and with countless gold sequins.
They bride and groom sat together on the stand, but hardly spoke to each other and just welcomed a constant stream of relatives and friends who walked onto the stage. I later found out that this wedding had three parts - the first is the actual ceremony (held the day before) this was the reception for the bride, and since the groom came from Mumbai, another reception would be held there in a few weeks - what an exhausting schedule!
As there were no speeches and I was full of food - I spent half an hour saying goodbye to everyone who spoke to me, and then, at about 11pm, headed off into the night - still overwhelmed by the incredible hospitality of the Indian people.
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