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The Kalbeliya and Bopa Women:
Queens of the Rajasthan Desert

Held annually in a region where the currency is camels, the Pushkar Camel Fair attracts Indian pilgrims and merchants drawn by a devotion to religion or business. The festival and the camels have been featured in magazines and television programs around the globe. I was fascinated by this unique event, but was hoping to find something different here. I was looking for some of the most beautiful people on the planet, the Gypsy women, queens of the desert.

The Bopa and Kalbeliya are very different but both are called “gypsy” in the local languages. The lowest level in the Hindu caste system, they live without permanent homes and are seen as squatters and hustlers. Some Indians told me they are “dirty and aggressive beggars”. Others warned me that they are famous for their thievery. Moving from place to place, sleeping beneath the stars on the outskirts of towns, the Bopa and Kalbeliya share the bad reputation of gypsies the world over. Once much sought after by kings and maharajas, they were hired to provide exotic entertainment—the Bopa are talented musicians and singers and the Kalbeliya are dancers and snake charmers. However, as royal audiences disappeared, the Bopa and Kalbeliya gypsies lost much of their livelihood. Today, they subsist as semi-nomadic street performers, traveling between fairs and festivals that draw large crowds. I was hoping Pushkar was on their list.

Arriving in Pushkar, a month before the famous festival, my wife Yumi and I had the impression that it was just a typical tourist town. Hawkers waited for us at the bus terminal, fighting for their right to sell us their hostel rooms or services as porters. Even after we agreed to follow one, others who gave us flowers insisted we offer them a hefty donation and take the flowers to the sacred lake. Street vendors had switched from basic snacks to souvenirs, and apple pie and ice cream signs covered the local sweets stores. Hashish and marijuana were offered to us a dozen times before we reached our hotel, drenched with sweat and covered in dust. Although Pushkar felt like a hippie town discovered by tourists, it had a charm that enhanced the beauty of the spectacular lake and surrounding desert. Exhausted from forty hours of train and bus travel, we ate a simple meal and collapsed in bed.

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The Kalbeliya Gypsy women, skilled dancers once hired to entertain kings and maharajahs, are now reduced to struggling to preserve their culture.
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Rajasthan Cultural Eco-tours

Take an extraordinary journey deep into the remote Rajasthan desert to experience its colorful indigenous cultures first-hand.

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