Thousands of camels converge on the tiny desert town of Pushkar, in India's state of Rajasthan, for the annual Pushkar Fair. It's a fascinating and peculiar sight, and a popular opportunity to witness an old traditional-style Indian festival.
The original intention behind the Pushkar Camel Fair was to attract local camel and cattle traders to do business during the holy Kartik Purnima festival, held in Pushkar around the full moon in the Hindu lunar month of Kartika.
The fair has now also become a major tourist attraction, with the camel trading part being surpassed by a formal program of activities arranged by Rajasthan Tourism.
When is the Fair?
Usually in November, depending on the cycle of the moon. The camel action takes place during the first few days of the festival, after which time the focus shifts to heightened religious celebrations. In 2018, the official dates for the Pushkar Fair are November 15-23. Be sure to come early to see the fair in full swing! Camels and other livestock will start arriving from around four days before the official start of the fair.
Find out detailed information about the Pushkar Fair dates, including what happens on each day and when the festival will be held in future years.
Where and How is the Fair Celebrated?
In the small town of Pushkar, near Ajmer, located on the edge of the Thar Desert in the state of Rajasthan.
Most of the activities take place at the fairgrounds, located to the west of town near the intersection of Brahma Temple Road and National Highway 89. The camels are dressed up, paraded, shaved, entered into beauty contests, raced, made to dance, and traded. A huge carnival is held, with an array of musicians, magicians, dancers, acrobats, snake charmers and carousel rides to entertain the crowd.
Rajasthan Tourism publishes a program of events before the festival, which can be obtained for free from your accommodations in Pushkar.
What Rituals are Performed During the Fair?
Pilgrims come to this festival to bathe in the holy waters of Pushkar's lake and be absolved of their sins. The two days around the full moon are considered to be the most auspicious time of the year for bathing in the lake. Those who bathe on the day of the full moon are said to receive special blessings.
What Can Be Expected at the Fair?
Years ago, the sand dunes used to be covered with up to 50,000 camels. However, unfortunately the number of camels being sold at the fair has dwindled dramatically and the fair definitely isn't what it used to be. These days, it's much more commercialized and tourist-focused. The camel races are definitely a highlight, although the comical beauty contests featuring elaborately adorned and shaved camels are also amusing. There's temple dancing, folk and fusion music concerts, spiritual and heritage walks, and arts an crafts bazaar as well. And, of course, the fair would be incomplete without a mustache competition!
On the negative side, the huge influx of tourists means that many locals see the fair as a money-making opportunity.
Be prepared to be pestered by beggars, gypsies, and kids. Camel traders will also ask for generous amounts if you want to take their photos.
See the Fair from a Hot Air Balloon
Pushkar Fair Tours
Join Vedic Walks on their special Pushkar Fair walking tour. It runs twice a day during the fair, morning and evening. On the morning tour, you'll get to see pilgrims taking a holy dip in the lake. The evening tour visits the bustling fair ground at its prime.
Where to Stay During the Fair
The influx of visitors during the camel fair causes the demand for accommodations to skyrocket, and prices increase accordingly. There are two main options for organizing a place to stay -- either arrive a couple of days before the fair starts and find somewhere (which is the cheaper option), or book in advance.
Accommodations include simple guesthouses, luxury tented camps set up in the desert especially for the festival, heritage hotels, and farm stays.
The closest railway station, which receives long distance Indian Railways trains, is Ajmer. The train line linking Ajmer and Pushkar opened in early 2012. The Ajmer-Pushkar Passenger departs Ajmer at 9.50 a.m. and arrives in Pushkar at 10.50 a.m. It's an unreserved train, so you can't book tickets in advance. The fare is 10 rupees. The train doesn't run on Tuesdays or Fridays.
Otherwise, if you go by road, it's a windy 30 minute drive through the aptly named Snake Mountain (Nag Parbat) to Pushkar. The local buses are dilapidated and crowded but the fare is only 20 rupees and the journey is very authentic (translation, rather rough). Buses depart from the bus station, as well as near the railway station (walk across the pedestrian overpass to the opposite side of the road).
One-way from Ajmer to Pushkar in a taxi usually costs approximately 500-600 rupees but can be more during the camel fair. Negotiate hard! Otherwise, try app-based cab services Ola and Uber, which are now available in the area. Or, pay a couple of hundred rupees for an auto rickshaw.
Alternatively, the nearest airport is in Kishangarh, about 40 minutes northeast of Ajmer. It was inaugurated on October 11, 2017. The airport currently receives one daily afternoon direct flight from Delhi, operated by SpiceJet. The other option is the airport in Jaipur, around two and a half hours away. Taxi fares to Pushkar can double during the festival. Expect to pay about 3,000 rupees from Jaipur. Do check Uber and Ola for better rates.
Scams to Be Aware Of
If you go to the lake at Pushkar, it's likely that you'll be approached by Brahmins or Hindu priests who will give you a blessing (even if you don't want it or agree to it) and ask for a large donation in return. They will pressure you to pay up and even threaten to call the police. It's also common for locals to come and give you flowers or flower petals, and then demand a large sum of money. Be sure to firmly avoid anyone who approaches you.
Other Similar but Smaller Fairs in Rajasthan
Concerned that the Puskhar Camel Fair is too commercial or want to experience a rural-style fair in Rajasthan on a smaller scale? Try the Chandrabhaga Fair in Jhalawar or the Kolayat Fair near Bikaner, which happen around the same time (see information and dates). Both combine cattle trading (including camels) with holy pilgrimage and bathing in sacred lakes.