The size of his turban and his lean, leathery features made him look like an inquisitive mushroom as he leaned over my shoulder, his chin almost resting on my neck, peering at what was being written in the note pad.
I was talking to a camel trader via an interpreter at the Pushkar Camel Fair.
Apart from the fact he couldn’t understand English, the wizened baba (a term of respect for old father or master) lurking over my shoulder just wasn’t on our wavelength.
Only a few minutes before, he had inhaled a large pipe of hashish, exhaling the smoke with a gush of relaxed satisfaction as he crouched outside his small tent.
He seemed to think what I was doing was the most interesting thing in the world.
Oh, and more than a few dung beetles. At this time of year, Pushkar is a dung beetle’s paradise.
Our group of tourists was surrounded by Rajasthani onlookers. They only scattered momentarily when a passing camel let fly with a wildly angled side-kick which collected two foreigners — much to the delight of the children.
Big laughs all round, but the old baba didn’t flinch. He was intent on my notepad. Or maybe it was the pen? Or was it the ink inside the pen? Or the little ball in the tip which rolled on the paper to release the ink inside the pen? Or maybe he was just “being there”?
Camel trader Umrao Khan, 50, from the village of Lamarisi, a two-day ride north of Pushkar, was guarded about his business, but happy to explain what he looked for in a camel. Khan inspects an animal at least 10 times before he decides to buy it.
Ride before you buy, he says.
“Also check if it is eating well or not. The animals should be clean in the crotch of their legs. I also look at the way a camel stands.
“I check the mouth to see if the camel reacts: to see if it is a biter.
“I make the camel sit down and watch the way it sits. This is important. It must sit down straight; if it trembles in the legs, the animal is weak.”
Khan has been trading at Pushkar for more than 20 years and says tourists started appearing at the annual fair only in the past decade.
“The tourists are not intrusive. Only the curiosity is there. I am too busy with my own affairs to pay much attention,” he said.
The camel fair dates back 40 years, but the religious festival it is associated with has its origins in the distant past. In October and November, during the eighth lunar month —one of the holiest for Hindus — pilgrims and traders begin gathering in Pushkar.
The worship of Brahma, the creator of the world, was widely followed at the end of the first millennium BC, but today Pushkar has the only pilgrimage shrine in India dedicated to Brahma.
Hindus come to cleanse themselves, as they have done for centuries, as it is believed that for five days every year, beginning on Kartik Shukla Ekadashi (the bright half moon) and ending on Kartika Purnima (the full moon), the gods visit Pushkar to bless the faithful.
Sadhus, or holy men, come down from the Himalayas for the festival and village women dress in their most colourful saris to attend: dazzling reds, yellows, greens and indigo blues.
Camels, horses and cows are bought and sold, paraded and raced at the fair; on the last night of the festival, amid chanting and clouds of incense, thousands of pilgrims purify themselves in Pushkar Lake and float candles in offering on its sacred waters.
The festival and fair provide a panoramic display of Indian culture: from devout holy men and pilgrims to showmen parading chained, dressed monkeys, to more innovative forms of entertainment, including one enterprising puppeteer who used a sheet, a cardboard box and a grubby, hairless, plastic doll’s head as props.
He scared the sandals off children and adults alike when he made the doll’s head “disappear” beneath the sheet, inside the box, then “speak” to them in evil, muffled tones.
Arrogant camels, washed and shorn to display intricate patterns, their necks, heads and bodies decorated in pompoms, beads and feathers, with silver bells and bangles on their legs jangling as they walk, fail to match the pride of the owners who lead them.
There’s camel racing, cattle milking, turban tying, folk dancing and music, livestock competitions and Rajasthani men go to great lengths, literally, to win the $30 first prize in the Pushkar Moustache Competition.
Keen-eyed traders peddle their wares at the makeshift bazaar — everything from decorative swords to cricket bats, camel bells, baubles and beads, cooking and farming ironware, hay rakes, copper pots, axe heads, scythes, hand-forged saws and scissors, files, opium pipes and knives. The stands of silver and costume jewellery are a riot of colour as sari-clad women mill around them.
Amid the dust and colour sits a large van promoting Vodafone. Even camel herders in the Thar desert can’t escape the reach of mobile-phone marketing.
At dusk, men sit in circles around fires of dried cattle dung, silhouetted against the dying light, their talk softened to a murmur amid the dust raised as the tourists and touts leave the camp. Some travelled towards town, others to the Ferris wheels and the glinting lights of the bazaar.
As the sunlight died, the smoke from cooking fires, mixedwith the dust, softened the sunset to pastel pink.
Camels snorted and grunted, settling on their haunches for the night. The Ferris wheels looked decidedly out of place in the desert night — lit up and spinning like orbiting space stations, towering above throngs of lean, turbaned men and women in flowing saris.
Weather-etched babas and their sons sat around fires, talking of tomorrow’s deals as women and children huddled in front of tents eating the evening meal.
All photos © Vincent Ross