The sands of the Rajasthan desert in India glow dusty gold in the sunset.
Smoke from campfires turns the scene into a smudged shadow play of silhouetted turbans, camel humps and tents.
The evening is redolent with the smell of dung, burning wood and spices — and the sounds of horses whickering, the belching snort of camels and the tinkling of silver anklets.
I am in Pushkar, one of more than 200,00 visitors — pilgrims, tribal herdsmen, tourists, performers and traders of camels, cattle and horses — as the town celebrates Rajasthan’s largest and most exuberant festival.
Set within the folds of the Aravalli hills, Pushkar is a tranquil little village for most of the year. But at Kirti Purnama (the new moon) each year, Pushkar blazes into activity.
Pushkar Lake is the mainstage for the festival’s exaltation of Brahma, the mighty Creator.
The following morning, I squeeze through a shifting mass of Hindu pilgrims, tourists, camera crews and foreign journalists, to the water’s edge, where groups of saffron-robed priests face the rising sun as they chant hymns to the accompaniment of drums and wailing conch-shells.
Women, fully clothed, sit immersed in the shallows, floating their offerings of marigold garlands on the lake’s surface.
Men scoop the sacred waters into their hands and chant mantras, as they lift their cupped palms to the heavens. They then reverently drink the water which is reputed to have miraculous spiritual and physical healing powers.
Sadhus with matted dreadlocks and tridents at hand sit in the lotus position on the banks; some ascetics are entirely naked, with grey ash smeared over their faces, hair and bodies.
The sun rears up over the lake, like an enormous blood-orange, and the scrubland of the surrounding desert turns the colour of burnt umber.
A disembodied voice blares through a loudspeaker, warning people to keep an eye on their possessions and their children, and to not crowd together too closely.
Nobody pays the slightest attention.
I shoulder my way through the narrow lanes of Pushkar toward the fairgrounds.
Village women float like shoals of butterflies, dressed in shimmering peacock blue, iridescent green, gauzy veils and hot pink and scarlet skirts, their necks, arms and ears bedecked in silver filigree jewelry.
Sidewalk vendors sell a gaudy cornucopia of wares: bangles, perfumes, embroidered cloth shoes and even tasselled horse saddles.
Brightly caparisoned camels pick their way through the crowds, drawing carts mounted with effigies of Brahma and his consort, amicably seated on swans. Loudspeakers blare film music. Cows, their horns painted and hides daubed with colour, are led along and people throw coins to their owners.
Puppeteers enthral audiences with traditional music and stories.
Hawkers sell balloons twisted into shapes of gods and demons, and strolling musicians play their stringed instruments. The noise and confusion is both chaotic and exhilarating.
At the racing arena, camels and horses are being prepared for competitions. A young man wearing a T-shirt with “Hard Rock Cafe” printed across the front sits near me and strikes up a conversation.
He introduces himself as Jaisingh Rathor and goes on to explain that the horses, now lining up at the far end of the field, are unique to Rajasthan.
Originally bred by the princely family of Jodhpur for the polo field, they are now an intrinsic part of India’s cavalry regiments.
They are small, tough and have inward-twisted ears as their distinguishing feature.
He watches curiously as I film the camel parade. The animals lope in a circle, like a merry-go-round, their heads tightly reigned in to control their pace and direction.
They gradually pick up speed, urged on by cheers from the crowd.
Gypsies are said to have originated in Rajasthan, from where they fanned out to Hungary, Romania, Italy and Spain.
I pause to listen to a group of musicians performing a series of love songs and plaintive laments accompanied by the clack of castanets and riffs on string instruments — all eerily reminiscent of gypsy music. Then, a troupe of dancers whirls into view.
The women flash embroidered mirror work in the swirl of their skirts and the men with peacock blue and pink turbans hip-strut as they drum their feet to the beat of a tabla.
The dance troupe re-enacts the pageantry and drama of ancient Rajasthani myths and legends and a woman balancing five earthenware pots stacked one above the other, dips and sways in a traditional village folk dance.
I leave Pushkar with regret.
It has been an amazing four days, with a crowding of colour, movement, myth and legend, all brought together in one of India’s most rambunctious and spectacular festivals.
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