Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 6: Pushkar)

Wed. and Thurs., Nov. 9 and 10, 2011, Pushkar

Why is there never a camel when you need one?

The lake at Pushkar is one of the most sacred Hindu sites in India. It came into being when Lord Brahma, the Creator (Brahma being one of the the top three Hindu gods, along with Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer) dropped a lotus flower to the earth. Where the three petals landed, three lakes appeared in the middle of the desert; of these, Brahma signified that Pushkar would be the most important by convening the entire pantheon of Hindu deities (90,000 at the time) for a meeting there.

But then Brahma made a big mistake. He married a shepherdess instead of Savitri, his intended. It was not entirely his fault: it was augured that he should get married at a certain moment in time and Savitri, busy getting dressed for the wedding, showed up late. He grabbed whomever was available instead. Savitri was beyond enraged, and to punish Brahma, she decreed that henceforward, instead of being worshipped everywhere in the world, he would be worshipped only at Pushkar. This was a big punishment because it means that, in order to worship Brahma, Hindus can’t just build a temple near where they live, as they can for the 3.5 million or so other Hindu deities that now exist: they have to come to Pushkar. And they do: they travel from all corners of the earth to make “Pushkar Puja” — to bathe in Pushkar Lake in order to cleanse their souls. According to my trusty Rough Guide, nearly 500 temples have been built around the lake and the ashes of such famous Hindus as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have been scattered from its bathing ghats (steps down into the lake).

The most auspicious day of the year to bathe at Pushkar Lake is the day of the full moon of the Kartika month — the exact day that our group arrived in Pushkar.

In addition to the thousands of pilgrims who come from everywhere to have their souls cleansed on this important day, thousands upon thousands more travel there during the week preceding the full moon of Kartika to attend the annual camel sale, during which event up to 18,000 camels and their owners from all over Rajasthan are in town. In short, Pushkar is not its normal peaceful self — the population having swelled from the usual 30,000 mostly devout Hindus to more than 150,000 people, not all of whom have Brahma-worship on their minds. The event is called the Pushkar Fair, and it includes the usual attractions of a regional fair anywhere in the world — cultural and arts displays, ferris wheels (4), rides for the kids, fireworks, hawkers, games of chance, competitions and contests, food vendors in the street, and even a guy demonstrating an amazing gadget that will slice and dice your vegetables “very fine.”

For a western tourist who is neither a Hindu nor a camel trader, this is perhaps not the best time of the year to visit Pushkar. Especially at night, the fair is crowded beyond belief, to the point where pedestrians press against one another and can only inch along, and many of the attendees are young men looking for trouble or “fun” who have never before set eyes on a white person, and — perhaps fuelled by alcohol and drugs — appear to have less than the best intentions when it comes to meeting this strange new race of people — especially its young female variety.

Still, I’m more than delighted that our tour (by a coincidence of time that might have pleased Lord Brahma himself) ended up in Pushkar when we did. It was a great lesson in what it’s like to be a visible minority. When we sat down in the stands at the fairgrounds, which were comfortably outfitted in mattresses, blankets and even sofas, to wait for a cattle competition to start, dozens upon dozens of men stood in the grounds and stared at us, as though we were the entertainment. We felt quite safe and relaxed at this point, and thought this was amusing, but the attention turned scary later as we made our way back on foot from dinner to our campsite after dark. We were unable to flag down a taxi, a tuk-tuk or even return to our camp by camel wagon, which was how we’d come out in the first place, because of all the crowds, which were so thick we needed to push our way through them at some points. The families had gone home, and the young men were out in droves, laughing and shoving and ogling the young women in our group. A few of the women were deliberately bumped and touched. I was glad for their sakes that we were in a group, and that we had such an assertive and diligent — and obviously Indian — leader).

(More photos from the Pushkar Fair are here.)

But there were also many other experiences we would never have had if we’d come during any other week. Three examples:

  • Since hotel rooms are not to be had during the Pushkar Fair, a whole encampment of huge tents with power, running water, toilets, showers, guards and even internet had been set up for us and several other tour groups, and aside from the heat which can be managed only by fans and patience (it gets cooler at night), it is a great way to “rough it.” There is a large dining tent, and wagon-equipped camels depart on request for the town, and to take tourists on tours.
  • As more-than-adequate compensation for the less-than-friendly-looking men at the fair at night, during the day many people, including couples young and old, and families with their children, grinned at us, waved and said, “Hi!” With equal pleasure, we waved and grinned and said “Hi!” back.
  • All night, Hindu worshippers chanted by the lake, their prayers magnified by microphones to carry throughout the town and beyond into the desert: it made a lovely, haunting sound that I found particularly poignant as I fell asleep in my tent in the light of the full moon.

Other once-in-a-lifetime events form part of all the company’s tours to Pushkar, no matter what time of year:

  • A local Hindu priest trusted by our tour guide (there are many fake Hindu priests around who will restore good karma to tourists, for a price) offered those of us who were interested a small Hindu rite of purification on the ghats of Pushkar lake near sunset, following which we were given marks on our foreheads and “Pushkar Passports” — strings tied around our wrists. Hundreds of devout Hindus were bathing in the lake at the time, which increased the sense of gravity of the moment (we did not go into the lake. We are not Hindu, and besides, the waters may be holy but they do not look very clean);
  • We had a one-hour camel ride, each of us on our own camel with our own camel driver, out to a desert site where, just after sunset, we watched a dance performance by a local family, and were fed a most delicious traditional meal in the moonlight, then transported back to our camp by jeep.

The family that danced for us (it included musicians, singers and a fire-eater as well as dancers, plus a baby who crawled around in the dark on the sand and banged on the drums and added to the vocals) used to catch snakes for the snake-charmers, but since snake charming is falling out of favour in India, they now help the universities’ herpetologists catch and manage snakes, and supplement their income by performing traditional dances for tourists.

As far as the camel ride, well… camels are not like horses. They give you a look that says, “I’ve got better things to do than to be carrying you around, and if my owner weren’t right here right now, I would be rolling on the sand and you’d be wherever you landed: your fate is no concern of mine.” Aside from the camel attitude, which made me wary throughout the ride, probably wisely, I had a great time and quite a comfortable trip. And when the camel driver got up on the camel behind me and urged him forward at a near-gallop in an effort to beat another couple of camels ahead of me, I looked down at the red bracelet on my wrist and remembered that my karma was in good order, and decided that it would all turn out okay.

Which it did.

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4 responses to “Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 6: Pushkar)

  1. I’m embarrassed to tell you I was getting impatient for the next installment in your journey. As you know, I’m a traveller too and I spend 60 days a year exploring the world. I keep a journal but it is nothing like your posts.
    I’m addicted to your posts. You capture the place, the people and the culture so clearly from a very personal perspective. I feel like I’m there with you.
    I think you should travel more.

  2. Thank you, Larry! I’ve been too busy travelling to post, and am now almost a week “behind.” But I’m having fun writing about my experiences, so I will write the rest asap, and I’ll fix up the photos when I get home. (Posting from an iPad with intermittent Internet is tricky and slow.) There are are several more installments to come!

    And I totally agree that I should travel more.

  3. Christopher Tassava

    So amazing, Mary! I’d never heard of this site, or this holiday. It sounds like an amazing event.

  4. I particualry enjoyed your discription of riding a camel. It is one of the few pieces of practical information I have managed to pick up while traveling: if given a choice between riding a horse or a camel — take the horse. (Unless you expect to be out in the desert for days at a time, and even then…) I am joying India through you. But I have absolutely no desire to visit…

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