Rajasthan's camel herders gather in the desert


A herder walks down a dusty embankment followed by one of his camels as he heads to the camel fair grounds in the outskirts of the small town of Pushkar on November 22, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

By Roberto Schmidt


Visiting Pushkar during the annual camel fair is like being in a huge, open-air theatre. 

It's a strange mix. Camel herders in white tunics and bright turbans decorate the majestic desert landscape, but some of the most dazzling outfits are saved for the dressed-to-impress camels. Busloads of camera-toting tourists wander around, snapping images.

I covered the fair for four days at the end of last month, waking up before dawn each morning. At this time of year, the light doesn't start filtering in until around 6.00 am, so I was able to shoot the herders as they started their days, sitting around fires that kept them warm in the chilly desert air.

Camel traders sit around a fire before dawn at the camel fair grounds in the outskirts of the small town of Pushkar on November 22, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

Hundreds of camel owners bed down for the night underneath blankets under their camel carriages as they keep an eye on their herds.

Early morning’s soft bluish light slowly turns into a golden hue as the sun rises over the horizon. The light at this hour and the natural haze created by the cloud of dust that dominates the desert gives a wonderful, warm tint to every image.

Camels for sale stand in a field at sunrise at the camel fair grounds in the outskirts of the small town of Pushkar on November 23, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

It was fun to play around with the shape of camels, whose long necks and humps create striking silhouettes.

They are also pretty amusing to shoot. It's not unusual to suddenly feel a curious camel trying to sniff you while you are shooting a herd.

A camel trader sits in a field at sunset in the camel fair grounds.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

The smaller the number of camels a herder brings to the market, the more effort he applies into making them dazzle prospective buyers.

Some herders put a lot of effort in adorning their camels. Some affix red and fuchsia plastic flowers on the camel's snout, put jingling anklets on their spindly legs and even shave their fur to showcase a star or spirals or stripes.

Camels for sale are adorned with colorful beads as they stand in a field at the camel fair grounds in the outskirts of the small town of Pushkar on November 23, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

The buyers certainly take their time taking a close look at the before the bargaining begins.

After a few furious and loud rounds, back and forth, between buyer and seller, they finally settle on a price -- anything from 9,000 rupees ($165) and up.

Camel traders wrap themselves in shawls at dawn at the camel fair grounds in the outskirts of the small town of Pushkar on November 22, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

It is easy to get caught up in all the visual stimuli at hand. But the hard reality of this annual meet is that the number of animals traded is drastically diminishing by year.

Townsfolk remember a time when about 25,000 camels used to be traded during the week-long fair. Today the number is about half that.

A camel trader smokes a pipe at the camel fair grounds in the outskirts of the small town of Pushkar on November 20, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

Camels kick up sand as they rush down a sandy embakment as they are being led to the camel fair grounds.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

The locals say the cost of feeding a camel has become very high. Most of the camel feed needs to be brought from outside this semi-arid province.

This was not the case a decade ago, when deforestation was not as prevalent as today. In the long run, it’s a better investment for a farmer to upkeep a new tractor then a herd of camels.

I was a witness to a tradition and a way of life that may not be here much longer.

Girls dressed in traditional Rajasthani clothing hold hands as they wait for the start of a traditional dance presentation at the camel fair.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

Young Indian women dressed in traditional Rajasthani clothing laugh while they wait for the start of a traditional dance presentation at the camel fair grounds.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt

A group of camel traders sit around a fire in the early morning hours at the camel fair.
AFP PHOTO/Roberto Schmidt