Pushkar was another random addition to the itinerery, a sensible stop between Udaipur and Jodhpur (though it is actually very close to Jaipur). This tiny town on a tiny lake swells 8x during the camel fair. Otherwise it is full of pilgrims, hippies, and clothing merchants.
Our taxi driver let us off on the opposite side of the lake – Don’t listen to anyone, keep walking, there is only one street in Pushkar. It is not quite true, but there is one main bazaar ringing much of the lake. In between the entrances to the ghats are purveyors of food, bangles, t-shirts, LPs, and clothing. Almost immediately, as our taxi drove off, we had a couple of feelers from men hanging about. Where are you trying to go? The phone was up and we were off trudging through the scooters, tourists, pilgrims and cows. Just keep bearing left around the lake, hidden from view by the buildings.
Next we were offered a crumpled dried flower as a gift, for the lake. It turns out this is one of the local scams. Anytime we stopped to get our bearings, some helpful person would likely offer us a flower. When we openly laughed at one guy, a nicely dressed middle aged man in a tidy sweater, he got defensive – I am a brahmin, this is my business – a bit of research reveals that brahmin in Pushkar make their living through performing Pooja and officiating ceremonies in exchange for money. This is all good and well, but increased competition or greed has created a situation where they coerce the unsuspecting into a ritual and demand lots of money – 1000 rp per family member prayed for – and get quite angry, even involving police if the payment isn’t made. Later that night we talk to a local hotelier who has left the family brahmin business, despite 350 years of names in the books proving their heritage. Being a brahmin isn’t scalable, and he wants a chain of hotels and to be dripping with diamonds.
The brahmins are prominent in Pushkar in part because of the temple to Brahma, a rarety in India. The lake is holy too, with 500 temples and countless shrines in its 2.3 km perimeter. Many Indians come to Pushkar as part of spiritual tourism, seeking the blessings that follow. The setting is also very pictuesque, with lovely dessert sunrises and sunsets, making it another romantic place and good for weddings. These two things lend a bit of a carnival atmosphere to the place. First are the various chants and ceremonies going on at the temples, then the mooing of more cows than we’d seen yet, and then the brass bands.
Various processions make their way to and from the temple and those seeking special auspiciousness hire a band. Each band comes with several horn players, some drummers and a cart with speakers and some sort of organ or calliope. Some are in suits, while others are in sad uniforms. Behind the band is a procession, often women, sometimes carts with gifts, bowls of milk balanced on heads, and a video and still phototographer. They are loud. They often get separated in the traffic, and miss that part of the troupe has stopped for a photo op, or is tangled up with a band coming the other way, or merging into traffic. The effect is a little New Orleans, energetic even frantic layers of music. All the bands play the same tune, over and over, something a slightly drunk maniacal zamboni driver might favour as he careens around and around, stopping occasionally to try and get his bearings. Get two bands in the same area and it is surreal, plus honking and bells from temples and whatever music the restaurant is blaring.
In the afternoon, the fireworks start. Crackles and dull booms and sharper concussive blasts as weddings are announced and celebrated. This will reach a crashendo at sundown and end at 10 or 11 PM. Eventually the noise subsides and the shops shutter and the cows bed down in the alleyways. In one case a cow had hopped onto the raised platform of a restaurant and was happily eating from the unattended wok and prep area.
It all starts again the next morning with sitar coming from a nearby cafe, the chanting at the temple, the traffic, and then brass bands on the move. If you want to escape the intensity of the main bazaar, you can go up- either to a rooftop restaurant or up to one of two hilltop temples on the edges of town. The taller one has a tramway, which didn’t seem to be killing anyone, but we still decided to walk. To get to the steps, you touch upon the dusty camel-safari-selling edges of the desert, and pass through a market, getting a worrying reminder from the peanut salesman, “For the monkeys, lots of monkeys!”
You would think you could also go down, to the edge of the wee lake to join the circumabulators, or watch the bathers and worshipers, but sadly the huckster Brahmin are so pervasive and aggressive, even Indians seemed driven away. So, eventually we head up another 5 flights to another semi-Western cafe, order a clandestine beer (no meat or alcohol in the holy city) wondering if we are breaking a law or just offending a custom, and watch another lovely sunset spread across the lake.