Pushkar: A Holy City Filled with Hippies

According to legend, Pushkar, which is located in the desert of Rajasthan, came into being when Lord Brahma, the Creator, dropped a lotus flower from the heavens in order to kill a demon. Magically, where the petals landed, three lakes appeared and Lord Brahma is said to have organised a gathering of 900,000 celestial beings on the banks of the lake.

Today Pushkar Lake is considered one of India’s most sacred sites and is surrounded by hundreds of temples and bathing ghats. Each year in October and November, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way to the waters in the belief that during this period the water will cleanse them of all impurities. This celebration coincides with the largest camel market in the world when more than 150,000 dealers and tourists come to the tiny city. (Thanks to Rough Guide for the facts).

Unfortunately, while I was there, the lake was virtually empty. Rajasthan has been severely affected by drought over the last few decades – with more than 32 million people suffering as a result. The state has to pipe in most of its water from other areas of India and holds only 1% of its own water. Speaking to a local restaurant owner, in the previous year there had been only 15 minutes of light rain – otherwise, not a drop has fallen. The Thar Desert is the most densely populated desert in the world, and the drought combined with a number of badly managed water projects such as canals and dams, has meant that many lakes have dried up, or are drying up. In addition, with the implementation of piped water to most towns, many of the age old frugal water usage traditions have been lost as people have come to rely on the government being able to provide water at all times.

Yet in spite of this, pilgrims still make their way to Pushkar and perform puja (prayers) at the many bathing ghats that surround the now dry lake. The scene is peaceful and powerful – bathers gather in the water while cows wander the steps and holy men provide flower petals and blessings to visitors.

Beware though – the Brahmin (priests) can be quite forceful in getting you to take part in Puja ( a repetition of prayers at the water’s edge including the throwing of petals, rice and the tying of a red cord around your wrist, followed by a donation). On my first visit to the ghat, a very proactive Brahmin took me through the prayers and blessing only to virtually demand that I donate a huge sum of money. For me, it made the experience quite unpleasant – while I understand that they have to raise money, it felt insincere and I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been suckered. Wherever you are in India, generally if any mystical looking person tries to tie a blessed cord around your wrist and dot your forehead with red or yellow, know that you are going to be expected to cough up funds.

Thankfully, once you’ve done your bit, you’re unlikely to be hassled by other Brahmins later on as they’ll be able to see your “Pushkar Passport” (your red thread).
Nonetheless, after that whole palaver, walking around the ghats, even without the holy lake glimmering in the afternoon sun, was inspiring and very relaxing in the warm dry air.
The 500 temples that surround the lake are connected to the water by 52 ghats – said to represent each of Rajasthan’s maharajis. These rich old men would build their own guesthouses and hire priests to do their religious business on their behalf.

Interesting facts include the fact that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s ashes were sprinkled into the lake from the main ghat. In addition, Brahma ghat is supposed to have been Brahma’s very own worship spot.

Temple Hopping
With over 500 different temples in Pushkar, if it’s your thing, you could spend days visiting all of them. I quite enjoyed walking up a nearby hill to the Gayitri temple which was built for Brahma’s wife. The story goes that Brahma was going to marry Savitri, but she was late for the ceremony and Brahma had to quickly find someone else to marry at the gathering of the deities, yagya. The only eligible woman was Gaytri, from the untouchable Gujar caste. In order to purify her, they passed her through the mouth of a cow (gaya means cow, tri means through).

Savitri, understandably, was rather upset with this change of events and cursed Brahma, saying he can only be worshipped at Pushkar. She also said that the Gujar caste could only be liberated after death if their ashes were scattered into the lake. This tradition still persists and Pushkar is the site of the only Brahma temple in India. ( I may be wrong on the last fact!)

In any case, Savitri flew off in a huff to the temple that now stands on the high hill across the way from Gaytri’s temple, while the main Brahma temple sits near the water’s edge. The walk up to Gaytri Temple take about 20 minutes, while that up to Savitri apparently takes around an hour and a half.

Holey Hippies
Pushkar, being a holy city, is entirely vegetarian. No eggs, meat or alcohol are allowed in Pushkar and drugs are frowned upon. However, that doesn’t stop the pleasure seekers and tourists from enjoying whatever their poison may be.

As a vegetarian, this meant that every restaurant we went to had many delicious options  and we found ourselves visiting an assortment of eateries and rooftop restaurants.
The destination is popular with tourists and you could see quite a number of young travellers looking as though they had consumed far too many bhang lassis (like a marijuana milkshake). Beautiful, thin women with dirty dreadlocks and bloodshot eyes sat in corner cafes with their bearded and dusty partners. I found it difficult to imagine coming to India simply to smoke as much dope as possible and float around in a stoned haze.

From speaking to a number of locals, it seems that Israelis in particular have a very bad reputation and are not well liked. They tend to travel in large groups, living cheaply and spacing out on drugs. It is one of the popular countries for Israelis who have just finished their national service in Israel and India is their country of choice for getting lost. I found it quite amusing that many of them had fake dreadlock extensions added to their hair. In any case, I am not quite sure what it is that they do that so irritates the Indians, as there are many other travellers who are also intent on losing themselves through hallucinatory experiences, but they haven’t done much to inspire respect.

In any case, back to the eating.

We had a few hits and one terrible miss. The Satyan served a vegetarian Thali ( kind of like a mezze platter with a few different dishes) that tasted burnt, old and reheated. My mother’s paneer (cottage cheese) dish was inedible and tasted awful. While this was the only bad experience, guide books do say that this is common in Pushkar with the myriad rooftop restaurants in the town.

On our last day however, we discovered Dreamland Roof Top restaurant run by Ashok Mittal. The woman in charge made the most delectable dishes, and after speaking to her for a while, she told us that she would never hire a chef because, “ I know if I make good food, people will come back.” Yum – vegetarian’s paradise made even better by the beautiful views.

And, while alcohol is officially outlawed, if you really feel like a drink, most restaurants can get you a beer.

As we were in Pushkar during off season, accommodation was cheap and the main bazaar area, which has silver jewellery, clothes, fabric and curio shops as well as food stalls, was not overcrowded. There were amazing clothes and stunning silver jewellery. If I had a larger suitcase, I would have gone shopping crazy. We also had some comfortable cotton slacks made up by one of the local tailors for next to nothing.

Tailor Made
On that note, the tailor culture in all the places I visited was something I really enjoyed. In Pushkar, every second shop has a small old foot powered Singer sewing machine and every item in the shop can be made up for you, “No problem” in a couple of hours. Later, in Manali in the mountains where warm fleecy jackets are very popular, you can also choose your fabric and style to be made to fit. The speed at which items are completed is remarkable, especially considering that most of the sewing machines are foot powered.

Ajmer to Pushkar

After 20 hours on the train, we finally arrived at Ajmer station.

To get to Pushkar, you have to take either a taxi or a local bus. On leaving the station, we were immediately hounded by taxi drivers trying to get us to drive direct with them and rickshaw drivers asking for exorbitant amounts of money to take us to the bus station 2 km away.

It was quite frenetic, and I felt more eyes staring at us than I had in Mumbai. Our first port of call was to buy our ongoing train ticket to Delhi on the much fancier Shatabdi Express. One nice thing about travelling by train in India is that at all reservation offices there is a special line for foreigners, senior citizens, disabled persons etc. This means that you can skip most of the long queues and is definitely one perk to being foreign. Also, in order to make travel easier for foreigners, the train companies reserve a certain percentage of tickets for tourists, meaning that you can generally book your ticket on the day or the day before for even the most popular train routes.

The tickets bought (about Rs 600 for one adult, Rs 300 with senior citizen discount of 50%), we headed outside into the thick of the taxi drivers.

Disorientated by the yelling from all directions, it’s easy to be rushed into choosing a taxi to escape the madness as soon as possible. But its far cheaper and takes just as much time to take a rickshaw to the bus stand and catch the local bus to Pushkar ( The taxi was overpriced, Rs  50 for 2km, but the bus is only Rs10 per person and leaves every 10 minutes). Once on the bus, it’s a leisurely ride through Ajmer, where you drive past a beautiful lake and crawl up over a winding mountain road to the town of Pushkar itself.

Rolling on the Sleeper Train

After spending a few days in Mumbai sorting out travel arrangements and what we wanted to do, we decided to venture to Pushkar in Rajasthan before heading to Delhi and further north to the mountains.

Visiting Rajasthan during April is not usually recommended as it’s hot and dusty. For the most part, tourists will only visit during the cooler months. Rajasthan is well known for its forts and palaces, and while I didn’t get a chance to visit many of the sites, places such as Jaisalmer and Jaipur look like they came straight of storybooks.

But, as we wanted to get up to the hill country in the northern state of Himanchal Pradesh as quickly as possible, we only stopped in Pushkar for a few nights.

Leaving from Mumbai, we took the overnight train on sleeper class rather than the more popular tourist choice of air-conditioned second or first class carriages. This was quite the experience. Arriving at the station, we found the train and our seats. I admit that if I’d been on my own, I may have freaked out. The station was dirty and young beggar children continually asked for food and money. We were at the station two hours before the train was scheduled to leave and the sun was just beginning to set. The compartments were dark and dingy. The fans, which at this stage were not on, were encrusted with dirt and I couldn’t imagine spending 24 hours holed up in this grimy train.

After some time sweating on the plastic benches, the lights turned on, the fans began to spin and the train filled up with passengers. My mom and I were sharing with a young family with two kids and a man travelling alone. Nobody spoke English, but the atmosphere was quite festive. People milled around and chatted, food was hauled out of suitcases as passengers settled down for supper, and chai wallahs walked up and down selling tea and food. As we headed further out of Mumbai, cooler air wafted in through the open windows as we rushed past smaller and smaller stations and towns.

Being the only white faces on the train meant that we attracted quite a few stares, but unlike later experiences in Delhi (in which young boys threw a lime at the back of my head) nobody made any untoward comments or made me feel uncomfortable – in fact it was quite the opposite and my mother and I were made to feel safe and welcome.

At around 11 pm, the lights went off and everyone retired to sleep on the three tier benches. I covered myself with a shawl and was rocked to a fitful slumber by the motion of the train. While I didn’t quite fit in a solid night’s sleep, I think with enough practice, it could be quite easy to sleep soundly and wake up refreshed in the morning light.

It was interesting to see how the seasoned sleeper class passengers travelled – with blow up pillows, blankets and bars of soap and tiny towels for morning ablutions. During the night an additional traveller had joined our coupe. Pasha, as we later learnt, was a fire extinguisher salesman from Mumbai. He, like many Indians, spoke very good English and he and his friend, Shabbar, were goodcompany for the rest of the journey.

Pasha was incredibly hospitable, treating us to chai and cooldrinks throughout the trip and giving us advice on what we should and shouldn’t do when we headed further afield. It quickly became clear that he had nothing good to say about anyone hailing from Delhi. Pasha claimed they were all criminals. He cautioned us not to accept food from others and not to trust anyone because they’ll just want to cheat us. While this is quite obviously a very broad statement, the short time that I did spend in Delhi didn’t manage to completely counter Pasha’s negative descriptions.

During the day, small groups of musicians would walk up and down the aisle playing drums, tambourines and singing traditional Indian songs. Lying on my bunk melting in the midday heat, I floated off to sleep listening to the wavering, haunting voices of the young musicians.

Taking sleeper class, unlike the more expensive air-conditioned carriages, gives you a taste of how average people in India get from place to place. And because of the open windows, you get a real feel for the landscape and terrain. For some, sleeper class could be a little too overwhelming due to the heat and the human closeness. It was hot, it was not particularly clean and I was rather tired by the end of it. But it was cheap, interesting and fun and is definitely recommended, even if you only take sleeper class once. That said, I imagine that if I was travelling alone I may have found it more daunting.

Practicalities:

  • The price of sleeper class from Mumbai to Ajmer was about Rs 350 (R60) per person and is a very cheap way to travel.
  • There are “western style” and “eastern style” loos, but the western ones are generally filthy.
  • You can buy food along the way, but we brought our own snacks with us.
  • Luggage is stored under your seats. We bought a lock and chain and attached the bags to the seats just to be safe.
  • It’s a good idea to have a sarong or large, thin shawl handy to cover yourself while you sleep.