It has become a scene as synonymous with India as the Taj Mahal, thousands of Raika camel traders with their immaculate white dhotis and brilliant and intricately tied red turbans, squatting, drinking chai amidst their brilliantly festooned camels.
‘’Every year, some 30,000 camels descend on Pushkar, a small town in the state of Rajasthan, in what’s been billed as India’s “greatest tribal gathering”.
This headline, from an article written in 2018, is one of hundreds of similar statements that you will find littering the internet even today. Travel companies have relied on this fair as a major draw for tourists and have pitched it to global tour operators and media for the last 30 years, incredibly successfully. Tourists come in their thousands. Tour companies set up entire tented villages for them to come and stay and enjoy the spectacle, and in the process make tens of thousands of pounds for themselves. That’s business, I get it, I have been a tour operator myself, everyone needs to make money, it is after all, according to the song in the film Cabaret, ‘What makes the world go round.’
But here’s the rub, and I want you to consider the following statement incredibly carefully, the Raika, without who there would be no Pushkar Camel Fair in the first place, make no money out of this tourism. Pushkar is part of their way of life. Traditionally they went to Pushkar to trade male camels and to keep the breeding lines healthy, it was their one opportunity in the year to earn a living and thus help maintain their way of life. A way of life incidentally, that was sustainable and which, in today’s state of global warming should be celebrated. They were the main draw, their images were the reason that Pushkar Camel Fair became globally recognised. They were what made travel companies money and yet, the travel companies who benefited did not offer to share any profits with the Raika. Indeed they do not seem to have noticed that the numbers are dwindling, far less, stopped to consider why or the impact that this could have on tourism recovery. Yet, what would Pushkar, one of the major inbound events of the year, be without them?
Every year these pastoralists sit and endure tourists coming up and sticking cameras in their faces, often without even bothering to ask permission. Yes, they may ask for a small token for having their privacy violated so rudely, INR50 or maybe Rs100, but by and large, it is the travel companies that make money out of the Raika. The Raika do not.
The fairs’ billing as ‘Pushkar being The Largest Camel Fair in the World’ could now, not be further from the truth. Rather than 30,000 camels meeting at Pushkar to create this ‘incredible spectacle,’ this year it is estimated that a maximum of 1200 camels showed up. Camel herds in Rajasthan (and neighbouring Gujarat) have dwindled over the last decade from a million down to less than 200,000. India, is the only country in the world where camel numbers are decreasing. Some journalists have commented on the fact that the fair is now more of a ‘tourist attraction in it’s own right,’ rather than a camel fair and that there are plenty of other activities over and above the camel trading, to keep tourists amused. It has even been banded about that the fair could be rebranded as The Pushkar Fair. But doesn’t the industry at large have a duty of care to help support these people who have unwittingly given so much to them? Has anyone stopped to think about why numbers are dwindling and thought about what they can do to help, rather than just rebrand the fair to suit their own purposes?
I must state here that the reasons for the situation that the Raika find themselves in are vast and complicated and are nothing to do with the travel trade, let me make that clear.
To explain why their numbers are dwindling I hand over to Ilse Köhler-Rollefson former veterinarian, champion of pastoralism and winner of the Nari Shakti (Women Power) Award by the President of India and who has spent over 30 years living amongst the Raika.
‘’ Traditionally camels were sold at Pushkar to farmers who used them for ploughing their fields or transporting their harvest, and to other people who depended on camel carts. That demand in this modern world has naturally dwindled, but then, in 2015 a law was put into place that prohibited the export of camels from Rajasthan. It was intended to save camels, but had actually the opposite effect, as it stopped buyers from neighbouring states from coming and almost totally killed the trade. But the decreasing demand for camels as work animals is only one problem; the other is that grazing areas for camels have disappeared, as the desert has become irrigated and forests have been turned into protected areas and wildlife sanctuaries, making traditional herding almost impossible. Not surprisingly, no young Raika want to enter into the hereditary occupation as it is no longer possible making a living from it.’’
There is also a cultural aspect that has contributed, to a very large degree, in the Raika not capitalising on the fair beyond trading. Traditionally the Raika considered caring for these camels their duty to Lord Shiva and it was only acceptable to make money by selling male camels. Ilse has spent 30 years or more living amongst these people and helping them to find a way to survive in this modern world. It has been a long and slow journey to get them to accept change but the Raika determined to continue their lifestyle, have.
I do not believe that the lack of care from the travel industry is intentional at all. I think it simply boils down to a lack of awareness and understanding as to what the Raika are facing and, I would hope that with the increased appreciation for truly immersive tourism that the pandemic has brought about, that this, and travel in general, will change. I would hope that, moving forward, when people sell experiences like the Pushkar Camel Fair they will do so from a position of understanding and help to create culturally immersive experiences and not ones purely from a voyeuristic perspective, which is what has happened ‘til date.
I also appreciate that ranting about how the travel industry has failed the Raika, by not understanding them, by not actively seeking to include them in anything other than a voyeuristic capacity has not been their fault. How can they help if they are not aware of how they can help? The Raika face seemingly unsurmountable problems, so what can be done?
Firstly, we need to raise awareness to the very real problem that without intervention, The Pushkar Camel Fair may soon be without camels. Then we need to find solutions to the problem and offer ways to help going forward so that we will, hopefully, in years to come, still see some Raika at least in all their resplendent glory participating in the fair.
So, what can be done?
Let’s look at the Raika over and above their photogenic appeal. Their camels, if allowed to survive, have so many beneficial qualities to society at large. Let’s look at just three of these.
- Traditionally, the Raika live a nomadic existence with their camels for six months of the year. Whilst free grazing, camels eat around 36 medicinal plants which means that their milk has incredible healing qualities. It has been shown to help women with anaemia, children with autism and to be a big aid to people struggling with diabetes. I have to admit that initially I was sceptical, but then tried camel milk to help with my own health issues and was astounded by the results, hardly a recognised case study in itself, but I have read official studies and truly believe that camel milk is beneficial on so many levels. Their milk can be used to promote health and assist with health-related issues in Rajasthan at least.
- With global warming being an imminent threat, the pastoralist way of life was one that was symbiotic. The farmers would let the Raika graze their camels for free on their land, the camels would eat ‘weeds,’ that farmers found difficult to remove and also fertilise the land with their urine and manure. Camel manure is important to uphold soil fertility organically, its effect lasts three years and it saves chemical fertilizers which are one of the worst culprits with respect to emission of greenhouse gases.
- The making and sale of goods made from camel by products benefits the local Raika communities and helps them sustain this traditional way of life. Products include camel milk, camel milk soap, camel poo paper, camel cheese and camel hair rugs. These can be found on the Camel Charisma website.
Is anyone helping?
Yes. LPPS (Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan, meaning Herders’ Welfare Organisation) is a charity which was established by Ilse together with Hanwant Singh Rathore in 1996. This aims to support the Raika in various ways. Much of it takes the form of political advocacy, working with the state and central governments to try to ensure that the Raika have grazing and camel health services.
As part of LPPS, a camel milk dairy has been set up that markets products through Camel Charisma, a social enterprise set up for that purpose. Frozen milk is shipped out from there throughout India, mostly for autistic kids and for cancer patients. As the demand for camel milk still remains limited, it currently runs with the help of donations and milk is then distributed for free to school children and needy people, especially those with TB. During the pandemic, they provided nutritional support to many families throughout the region as well as aiding pregnant women prone to anaemia, diabetics and children suffering from conditions such as autism.
It costs around INR 50,000 to run the dairy per month, with two staff, processing, quality control, cold chain and dissemination of milk.
In 2018 travel companies collectively sent 12800 tourists to Pushkar. If each of those travel companies donated just INR100.00 (GBP1.00/USD1.30) then USD17219.00 would be raised, this money would help support the dairy for two years and in turn Raika families with their herds and ensure their survival at Pushkar for generations to come.
(I do appreciate that tourist numbers will take time to recover to these levels)
With increased profitability, the camel product lines can also be increased, leading to more sales and more Raika families being supported.
The photographs coming out of Pushkar this year have been nothing short of woeful. Rather than being the proud Raika which were the reason for the success of the fair, a few thoroughly depressed Raika have turned up, the camels have been shunted out to outlying land filled with rubbish and, rather than talks of trading and sales and breeding lines, the talk is of suicide.
Together with LPPS, we at Indian Experiences would like to try to redress this situation. Starting from today, we are starting a 12 month campaign to ensure that the Raika are not only still at Pushkar in 2022 but that they are happy and are talking of a more positive future.
How can you help?
Tour Operators: You can support LPPS in one of two ways:
- You don’t have to wait until the next Pushkar Fair! Send your customers traveling to Rajasthan throughout the year to visit LPPS and experience a chaifari. If you have clients staying in the Ranakpur region of Rajasthan, book a chaifari for them where they will visit a nomadic herding camp, encounter the camels, and have the chance to sit down with Raika herders and chat with them about their way of life. They can try a taste of fresh camel milk – drunk in the traditional way from a folded aakleaf and a bowl of camel milk tea brewed over the camp fire. Book via your DMC or the Camel Charisma Website: Money raised goes directly to LPPS and the Raika.
- Affiliate with LPPS. Make a donation on behalf of all the clients that you send to The Pushkar Camel Fair. We are in the process of setting up a page on the LPPS website to show a list of tour operators & travel agents who have actively supported LPPS. You can donate via your DMC. You will then receive a logo to place on your website to show that you support the Raika of Pushkar. For further details contact Philippa@indianexperiencescom
- Do tell share the chaifari experience with your inbound agents.
- Affiliate with LPPS. Make a donation on behalf of all the clients that you send to The Pushkar Camel Fair. You will be listed on the LPPS website as a company which supports the Raika Community and you will receive a logo to place on your website to show your support.
Come and experience a chaifari or if you are based in India donate to LPPS via the link on the Camel Charisma Website.
Travel Writers – Spread the word!
We invite you to visit LPPS based at Sadri in Rajasthan (nearest tourist landmark Ranakpur Temples) and write share our story. Please contact Indian Experiences for further details.
Camel Charisma require branding, marketing & distribution experts to assist with our camel related products. Please contact Indian Experiences for more details.
The buzz worlds in travel over the last 18 months have been sustainability and regenerative. Help us to implement both of those now to ensure that the Raika remain at Pushkar for tourists to meet for many years to come.
For more on the Raika: