There is no denying the attractions of Pushkar. Famous for its annual camel fair, it also rates highly on the holy scale. The focal point of this valley town is the lake with its various bathing ghats.
I am now sitting in a rooftop café with a perfect view of white and blue walls, archways, cupolas and steps, all dutifully reflected in the fractured olive green glass of the lake. The golden afternoon haze makes this city blush bronze and the sparkles of distant saris flashing along the ghats are its sparkling gems. Colourful square handkerchief kites flutter under the orchestration of unseen pilots as they compete for sky with patchy flocks of pigeons, sparrows and swifts.
The mood is peaceful as the lake’s acoustics amplify the droning musical chants emanating from one of the temples.
Earlier today Alice and I made the trek up 750 feet to pay our respects at the Savitri Temple, perched on a steep pinnacle overlooking the town. Savitri, also more commonly known as Saraswati, was the wife of Brahma, who also has a rare temple here in Pushkar. The story goes that when Saraswati refused to bear witness to his performing a self-mortification, he got the poohs and invited another girlie along instead whom he 'married'. This resulted in him incurring Saraswati’s wrath and she cursed her husband proclaiming that he would only ever be worshipped in Pushkar and nowhere else. Right. So stick that in your self-mortifying bong and smoke it.
Saraswati is my kind of goddess and if I’m going to bring one home, she’s it (you may remember my earlier derisive scorn at Bernie and his flashing blue Shiva…well it didn’t take me long to convert, did it). Saraswati is the goddess of the arts and learning…and I might also supplement her with a little bit of Ganesh (he is the elephant-headed cutie whose parents are Shiva and Parvati – together they make up a bit of a holy trinity) given that he is the remover of obstacles and god of success. Gotta hedge your bets, I reckon.
After we slog up the spine of stone steps that mount this pyramid shaped hill, fight off the monkeys and get our breathing back to normal, we take in the temple and its magnificent view. A sign tells us there is ‘no smoking and silence please’. The obvious exception being the Bollywood bop that pounds out of the shop, which destroys the wind-whispering tranquillity we should have experienced, but end up having to imagine.
In the distance we can see a camel train progressing through a dry riverbed and there is no lack of green patchwork and reservoirs of reflective water. The town sprouts out from the lake like a flower’s petals, with the devotees dipping into the centre like bees.
The temple mount ascends at an angle of 45 degrees, so descending is relatively quick. Even quicker if you are wearing dangerously worn and slippery sneakers like mine.
We break back into the outskirts of the town and begin threading our way through the bazaar, past the flower threaders, the rose water stall, the endless curtains of tie-dyed hippy-styled clothes, the dreadlocked ones, the barefooted ones, the dazed, the dolorous and the dopey, until we are in Pushkar Central. Alice heads off for some shopping and I make my way past stacks and stacks of colourful plastic and metal bangles until I see glimpses of lake down the narrow alleyways that lead to the ghats.
I followed a narrow by-way down to a ghat with the intention of taking a few pictures. I should tell you at this point that Pushkar takes its holiness very seriously. You can’t get meat here and the hotels don’t even serve eggs. You are also requested to take off your shoes a respectful distance from the ghats and not photograph the bathers. But like any spiritual ritual, it is open to abuse for money.
Standing behind the shoe line, I start framing some shots. Given there were no bathers present at that moment, I thought all was fine. Until a ‘holy’ man appeared offering me the standard flower. I refused this offering as it is a prelude to them giving you a blessing for which you are supposed to pay through the nose – John and Michelle were conned out of 500 rupees ($15), which they thought was okay as he started at $500! The other members of the group had similar tales of woe and disgust.
My refusal to be sucked in by this charade really rankled holy pants as he then started accusing me of having no respect and that I should take my shoes off (so says the shoed one himself) and then when I was unmoved he accused me of not being dressed appropriately (my knees were covered). Call me a cynic, but I’m sure my money could have bought me some respectfulness. This is where me and organised religion part ways, I’m afraid. There’s nothing like a charlatan or two to give you that truly spiritual feeling.
On the subject of a more amusing charade, an incident occurred during our jalopy jaunt in Jojawar when we had stopped at a railway crossing. Three little children came up to beg at the back of the jeep requesting the usual pen, shampoo, money, photos etc. Their mother got wind of this and started yelling at them from a distance. ‘These guys are about to get a clip under the ear,’ I think. But no, Mum joins in the supplication. During this episode we suddenly heard the metallic ringing noise of a mobile phone. Without a blush Mum whipped out a phone from underneath her sari and turned away to take the call. Even the beggars are well connected here.
But I digress. All in all, I find the best way to deal with this stuff is to simply keep your hands in your pockets. Not only does this ensure nothing comes out of your pockets that you intend keeping, but it hides your hands from the henna painters, flower offerings, fortune tellers and the children who love grabbing your hand and passing on goodness-knows-what from their grime-encrusted mitts (bless ’em).
I machete my way back through the bazaar vendors and re-enter the lush confines of the Pushkar Palace’s courtyard garden. I have requested from Saraswati that I be blessed with some hot water tonight for a ritual cleansing. I hope she doesn’t let me down.