For two days and nights in January every year, the little known village of Ladera becomes a magical place. Venue of the Bikaner Camel Festival, it is host to a kaleidoscopic display of Rajasthani culture and tradition in just the perfect setting: a huge sand bowl, with clear skies and a bright moon above. And the entire area resonating with only the sounds of the festivities, far removed from the madding world we live in.
The first day of the festival this year took place at the Dr. Karni Singh Stadium in Bikaner city itself before the action shifted to Ladera, 45 kilometers away. “Rajasthan is known as the cradle of great warriors,” announced the compere as the royal guards on camels led the inaugural parade. These forces may only be symbolic now, but the riders still display the same pride as their predecessors may have when the elite camel corps, the Ganga Risala, existed and fought in the two World Wars.
Once the show of bravado was out of the way, it was time to break into a riot of colours and dance for the performers. Not that the Rajasthanis need much of an excuse to do so. If Sartar Khan Lattah and party set the mood going with their folk music from Barmer, Sushil Mali brought his troupe to perform the Lal Angi Dandiya Gir Nritya dressed in all red. The only other time you would see the latter is at the Sheetla Saptmi fair around Holi in West Rajasthan; there are a total of only 35-40 groups who know this dance form and they all come together at this fair.
The surprise element were dances, including suggestive ones, by a group of eunuchs brightly dressed as women in red, magenta and yellows. Interestingly, three of them work as office boys in Government offices and one is taking computer literacy classes. They get called upon by the authorities to perform at festivals like these after which they go back to work, disclosed Narayan Singh.
The stars of the show were, without doubt, the camels. Their acrobatics and dances proved they are not as unwieldy as they seem. Strutting, rolling on the ground, raising themselves high horse-style on just their hind legs, lifting money and tea kettles with their mouths to offer to the guests of honour and even taking their owner’s neck it their mouth seemed like routine fare. Unless you realize it takes six months to train them to do all this. “Symphony between man and animal…people are holding their breath seeing these stunts. What control, what posture,” was how the compere shared his excitement with the audience present.
The artistry of Rajasthan was in full view when camels walked the ‘ramp’ with their fancy furs to decide the best of them all. Camel fur is used for apparel and carpets, and also to give the animal an embroidered look when cut carefully on the body. What followed was a treat – of camel milk. Taken out fresh in the stadium in earthen pots, randomly selected visitors got sips of what is a slightly salty drink. Locals, as well as the scientists at Bikaner’s National Research Centre for Camels, believe this milk is highly nutritious and can also cure diabetes.
For those seeking a higher adrenalin rush, there were the sporty competitions including Gramin Kusti (rural wrestling), Kabaddi, dune racing, camel racing, kho kho and women’s musical chairs. And the way locals were cheering and rooting for their favourites was a sight in itself. As were participants for the Mr. Biknaer and Ms. Bikana competition who did not need any help from Bollywood designers.
“The night is getting cooler and cooler and the stage is getting hotter and hotter,” announced the compere when the cultural program started on stage after sunset in Ladera. Under an almost full moon clear night, one was treated to the many different forms of Rajastani folk culture including the Ghoomur dance. Winning the hearts was a woman dancing solo to the evergreen ‘Pallu latke’ song; before emissaries of love could come running to the stage, the compere announced, “If you heart has come upon this dancer, may I tell you she is a man!”
The ‘hottest’ and much awaited event was the fire dance. It is performed by members of the Sidhh community who are supposed to have been blessed with special powers by Lord Jasnath. These dancers take turns to walk on a bed of burning wood and coal, and dance around the fire. A few of them even take in pieces of burning coal in their mouths letting out sparks. All seemingly under a spell of the soft drug bhaang made from the leaf of cannabis indica. Theories abound on how these dancers pull off this ‘trick,’ but does one care? The thrills were complete.
And what better way to round up the fun than with authentic Rajasthani food? Thalis of daal, baati, choorma and other traditional vegetables of a taste that leaves you with no choice but to overeat. You can never have enough of this cuisine, or the Bikaner Camel Festival.
The Bikaner Camel Festival takes place in January every year over three days usually. A lesser cousin of the more opulent and bigger camel fair in Pushkar, many travellers prefer the one in Bikaner for the intimate and relaxed atmosphere it offers. And an opportunity to focus on the performances than crowds all out to crush each other.
There is no entry fee to the events, but food has to be paid for. The local administration makes elaborate arrangements to transport spectators by bus from Bikaner city to Ladera village, venue of the festival for the last two days.
It is recommended one books hotels in advance as January is usually peak season in Rajasthan. There is always the option to camp in Ladera – either on your own or at temporary arrangements made by Rajasthan Tourism for the festival.
Bikaner is about 525 km from Delhi. And can be reached in eight hours of easy driving on some of the best highways in this country. Especially after Sikar. From Delhi take the NH8 towards Jaipur, turn right from Kotputli for state highway 37B towards Sikar crossing Neem ka Thana and Udaipur Waati District Jhunjhunu on the way. After Sikar follow signs to Bikaner on NH11.
Where to Stay
There is no dearth of options in Bikaner from budget hotels and those run by Rajasthan Tourism to upper end ones. Bhanwar Niwas is highly recommended – it is an old haveli converted into a hotel by a Jain merchant family who own it. Some of the options include the Laxmi Niwas Palace, Lallgarh Palace, Karni Bhawan and Basant Vihar Palace.