Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 21, 2017
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Over the hump

A camel fair in northern India shows off desert culture at its best

Founded in 1486, the city of Bikaner sits in India’s Thar Desert, 360 kilometres northwest of Jaipur. One of the three Rajastani Desert Kingdoms (along with Jodpur

and Jasalmer), it thrived as a rest stop for Silk Road caravans en route to China and Central Asia.

The city is dominated by the well-preserved 16th-century Junagarth Fort, and every January it hosts a lively and colourful camel fair.

The short-leg Bikaner camels have large, hairy ears, and they are renowned for their weight-bearing strength and great endurance. They have shared the life of the desert dwellers as their means of transportation from time immemorial. Camels can easily live without food or water for one month in the winter and one week in the summer. They are easy going and generously provide their owners with some nutritious, salty milk, which is savoured throughout the area.

Joined by a few curious travellers, the proud people of the Thar Desert gather at the Bikaner Camel Festival for a very unique four-day feast, with contests, races, weddings, music and dances under one theme — the camel. For centuries, this faithful animal has occupied a prime part of people’s lives and both are tightly bound by necessity and affection. This yearly event celebrates their lasting relationship.

The fair starts in Bikaner’s open-air stadium with multiple contests. We watched as the dignified camels paraded under heaps of vivid decorations: woven blankets, as well as saddles, with rows of large tassels. The camels had multicoloured necklaces dangling from their heads and ears. Owners or their children, clad in their best traditional clothes, pulled or rode. Some camels had their fur artistically shaven in sophisticated geometric patterns, recalling the designs seen on white mud houses of desert villages.

Next came the contest of the most handsome and authentic Rajasthani man. Local men cloaked in regional costumes, their long, black beards plaited in tiny braids tied together in charming patterns marched proudly in front of the crowd while swinging traditional swords. It was hard to choose the best one!

The Dbola and Maru contest followed. This legendary Rajasthani couple, doomed by a tragic fate similar to that of Romeo and Juliet, rode away from their village on their faithful camel. Young couples dressed and behaved so to bring out the essence of the touching love story as they paraded in front of the judges.

When the competitions were over for that day, the concerts began. A troupe of about 25 men in white cotton suits and red turbans sat in an arc on stage and began singing while clapping two pieces of flat wood in their hands. Some of them were so deeply moved by the music that they raised themselves on their knees while leaning their upper body towards the centre of the group, as though they were mesmerized by the chanting. They concentrated on the yellow-turbaned lead singer pacing in front of them. The effect of these animated red and yellow turbans was stunning, and we listened wide-eyed and breathless.

A very different show followed. A solo dancer came on stage, dressed in a partly sheer black and silver silk dress, its long, soft veil falling sensuously over her waist-length braided hair. At first, she performed slowly and languorously, using her arms and hands to express her emotions while tightening her bright-red lips in deep concentration.

She followed the pace set by the musicians sitting cross-legged nearby and accelerated her steps as the rhythm changed until, by the end of her performance, she kneeled, swirling on herself and at the same time turning in a large circle around the stage. This beautiful and talented dancer was a hijra,
a cross-dressing man, considered the third sex in India.

Darkness had fallen upon the stadium, and we heard the last registration announcement for foreign couples wishing to experience an Indian wedding the following day. Then the last, amazing performance began. A group of four Kalbeliya women, members of a snake charmers’ community, climbed on stage with their team of musicians. Dressed in black tops, veils and ankle-length skirts completely covered with colourful embroidery, three of them started dancing while the forth sang with a surprisingly powerful voice.

These delicately built dancers are renowned for their flexibility, and they move swiftly while curving their bodies backwards and sideways, supple and pliant, constantly changing postures. This outstanding show left us filled with wonderful images and the privileged sensation of having attended a unique event.

The next day, we departed for a nearby village to attend a traditional Indian wedding. Three Western couples, lavishly dressed in colourful Indian wedding outfits, arrived at the ceremonial tent on camel backs. They sat on rugs facing their surrogate Indian parents and surrounded by a crowd of mostly local people. A small wooden fire burned in front of the couples, and the ceremony began. The parents conducted every step of the event, leading the young people through age-old rituals.

With the wedding over, we climbed the sand dunes to watch the camel race. These elegant creatures ran with their heads proudly lifted while doing their best to win. Some of them neglectfully ran out of the racing field; others continued head-on to the finish line. We strolled back to the food and drink booths in the village where I searched extensively for the renowned camel milk sweets without luck.

We left the village at the end of the afternoon for Bikaner to have dinner at a roof-top restaurant from where we could admire the illuminated ancient fortress while eating cheese nan and
Indian stuffed tomatoes. After our satisfying meal, we headed towards the Fort for the final event of the evening. In the main courtyard, blankets were unrolled on the floor and people sat cross-legged to enjoy a lively Indian singer and his extended ban of traditional instruments as they rendered classical tunes with a modern twist.

And this was the end of the camel festival for us. We left with a sense of fulfilment, having enjoyed so many colourful and interesting events. All were centred on the the Thar Desert people, for whom the camel is so meaningful and indispensable in their daily lives.

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