THERE'S still a place in the world where gypsies dance in the streets for coins and scarlet-turbaned merchants sitting on Oriental carpets sell raw rubies. As if in a Rudyard Kipling dream, drums and tinkling hand cymbals echo down rows of brightly striped tents, and a circle of lounging camels divides the encampment from the drifting dunes.
Rajasthan, India's legendary state of kings, stages a tent fair that mixes locals and foreigners in a nonstop kaleidoscope of dancing, trading, games, music, showmanship, and religion. Every November, just before the full moon, the tiny village of Pushkar, on the holy Pushkar Lake, explodes to accommodate 200,000 visitors plus 50,000 camels. Livestock trading was the original purpose for the mela, or fair; now a few Western tourists come to see the spectacle. In fact, 4,000 non-Indians visit the four-day fair each year, and the number is growing.
Scenes mix action, leisure, and trading with religion and tourism. Days before the fair begins, locals arrive on camels, donkeys, horses, and on foot to set up their tents. Women, walking erect from years of balancing pots, wear bangles, draped scarfs, and skirts decorated with bits of mirror glass. Rajput men wear turbans, usually in red, orange, or gold, and an infinitude of mustache styles.
Rows of stalls expand the town into a tent city with a wild mixture of household goods and tourist attractions. Indian crafts include ceramics and brass, mirror-work clothing and pillowcases, and the traditional carved wooden horses with miniature warriors astride. Tent photo studios will dress you up in traditional Rajasthani clothing for taking your picture. Barbershops will style your turban, wax your mustache, brush your turned-up shoes, and apply the black eye makeup fashionable among Rajput men. A loudspeaker blasts popular songs from Hindi movies, and every day there is a circus with gymnasts on high wires, trained tigers and elephants, and jesters. A moving spectacle of humanity never ceases parading - beggars and holy men; Gaduliya Lohars, a tribe of bullock cart blacksmiths; and everywhere gypsies.
Much time is spent caring for the animals - feeding, watering, and exercising them. Buying, selling, and bartering continue nonstop. Most of the animals are beautifully decorated and lovingly cared for, since they are quite valuable. A good camel costs between 2,000 and 3,000 rupees ($160 to $240), a fortune in rural India.
Westerners can ride camels and elephants on city tours. On overnight desert safaris, they can see the real Rajasthan, the twig or mud houses of nomads, the shepherds and women walking miles with stacks of brass pots on their heads to draw water at low, dome-shaped covered wells. Stunted bushes and sand dunes are the only relief in a landscape where the primary motif is the flat horizon broken by mirages and silhouettes of gazelles, the sand patterned by insect tracks and wind.
Westerners can also arrange for a traditional Rajasthani wedding (for fun only; it's not legal) - complete with decorated elephant for the bride, jewel-mantled steed for the groom. The man has his face smeared with oil and spices, and the woman rides on a howdah, or high, square elephant saddle, swaying over a dizzying whirl of color below.
Part of the town is designated as a tent city for lodging foreign visitors. It's very much like the more spontaneous tent rows where locals set up housekeeping, only it has more amenities. Brightly colored tents are furnished with string beds. For each tent row there is a bathhouse. It is kept clean, and every effort is made to accord with Western standards.
Evening cultural programs share Indian dance and music with a Western audience. Love songs and historical ballads are explained in English, and dances are interpreted. Women dance with 11 pots balanced on their heads, doing sinuous backbends with perfect confidence. One humorous dance teaches how to tame a tiger, in case you ever need to know.
The evening scene, from the edge of the tent city looking out to the dunes, is magical.
Dust thrown up during the day produces a soft haze that mutes the sound of thousands of camels chewing. The fluorescence of the whirling Ferris wheel, together with pulsing gypsy rhythms lend a surrealistic air. As dusk falls, the flicker of hundreds of campfires pierces the darkness.
On the last day, there are games designed for the mixing of cultures, including tug of war (Indian women against foreign women, for example); costumed promenades to imitate the rajas (can a non-Indian fool the judges and pass for a Rajasthani after being dressed by one of the photo studios? I wonder); and shooting and dancing and riding contests. That's on camels, of course.
At dusk the Indians pack up their tents and start walking home across the desert, or cram into reeling buses creeping up the Nag Parbat Pass to Ajmer. The day after the mela, Pushkar seems a dead village in an empty desert. Like a mirage that never existed, the colorful tents and turbans and shawls are gone; the pounding drums and the hum of camels chewing is silent. Wind blows sand across camel tracks and footprints that mark where tent rows stood. By sundown they will have disappeared.
If you go
Lodging and transportation can be arranged through the Government of India Tourist Office, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, NY 10012; (212) 586-4901.