The Pushkar Camel Fair is Rajasthan’s version of a statewide used-car swap. Each year, roughly 16 trillion camels get traded in for new and improved models.
Recently, however, the focus of the fair has changed a bit. The Indian Tourism Authority issued a mandate to perk up the camel swapping because, apparently, the hundreds of tourists who come to the fair each year were getting bored.
On the east side of Pushkar, a village in the northwest Indian state of Rajasthan, there’s a large dirt field with a small grandstand. During the camel fair, thousands of people, tourists and Indians alike, now gather to watch camel-related sporting events. No one greases the camels - at least, they didn’t when I was there - but the activities are just as, well, interesting.
The first event was the Strongest Camel Contest. It was supposed to work like this: A camel would sit down on its haunches and about 20 guys would pile on and yell at the animal in Hindi (the camel’s native tongue) to stand up. The camel would struggle to stand and, one at a time, the men would drop off until the camel could get up. An official would count all the men still on board and the camel with the most would be declared the winner. Simple enough.
The problem was, after everyone climbed on, no one was sure who’d dropped off when. Sometimes a few men dismounted at once, and when the camel stood up, some guys would try to jump back on by clinging to the poor animal’s neck or tail. An official would step in, rule this illegal, and an argument would erupt. Eight different people, each claiming to be the official official, would assert that the camel belonging to their cousin was the real winner. Clearly, instant replay was needed.
Next came The Getting-Your-Camel-Away-From-The-Watering-Trough Event. This would be known in the West as “showing up at the starting line.” You’d be surprised how many contestants don’t make it, partly because they have to be there at a certain time. Some riders simply have no idea what 4 p.m. means; reverence for the clock is not a big priority here.
These minor contests were, of course, merely precursors to the big event, The Camel Race. This is Pushkar’s answer to the Kentucky Derby: one lap around the large dirt field. Someone even made a white line around the perimeter for the nine camels to follow. Once again, the concept sounded simple.
The camels stood at the starting line (or close to it, anyway), hoof to hoof and hump to hump. Seconds, perhaps minutes, of rigorous training had prepared them for this moment. A gun was fired. The riders all shouted highly motivational phrases at their camels, then, when that didn’t work, they began whipping them with sticks. They were off.
The pack was tight, puffing away into the first turn. It looked like anyone’s race. However, upon entering the second turn, the four lead camels broke off and ran toward a watering trough in that corner of the field. The riders did everything they could to get their mounts turned around but by the time they did, the rest of the pack had grabbed a 30-meter lead.
Throwing caution to the wind along with the rules, the four wayward riders decided to cut across the infield and catch up with the pack on the final turn. It would have been a brilliant cheating strategy if every single person in the grandstand wasn’t watching them.
As the lead pack neared the final turn, the four thirsty camels drew up on a perpendicular course. You could see the horror in the lead riders’ eyes when they looked up and saw the four camels closing in on them.
The nine speeding camels collided. In one tangled, out-of-control mass of heads, humps and hooves, they emerged on a new trajectory toward the trees to the left of the grandstand, where I happened to be standing. I was taller than most of the onlookers and managed to grab a small branch above my head. I pulled myself up and lept for a second branch just as the entire pack trampled the people beneath me.
The chaos lasted about two minutes. Once the 11 injured spectators were carried away, I was surprised that the festive mood returned just as quickly as it had disappeared. No one died. Just a few cuts and bruises. Par for the course, I’m told.