Pushkar- Desert Divine (2009)

Pushkar- Desert Divine (2009)

Pushkar, congested, crowded and dirty by day, is magically transformed by evening. Come dusk, the quotidian makes way for the exotic, exciting and mystical in this temple town sacred to Hindus of all denominations. The ghats, swarming with bathers and seekers of salvation, become bereft and silent as night falls. The lake tantalises through the silky mist, shimmering in the moonlight. An occasional white-robed figure glides down the steps to contemplate the stillness and drink in the spiritual silence. Even the ripples on the surface of the lake seem hesitant, as if in deference to the sublime tranquillity all around. A radiant moon peers down at its own reflection in the placid waters of the lake. Fairy lights twinkle on the far bank.

Pushkar, the temple town in Rajasthan, 400-odd kilometres from Delhi, is many things to many people. For the devout, it is the ultimate pilgrimage destination with its holy Brahma temple, the only one in the world dedicated to the Hindu god of creation. The fabled waters of the lake are believed to wash away the sins of the faithful who journey patiently from far and near just to take a dip in its sacred waters. For the tattooed and bedraggled youth from Europe and Israel who come hurtling down the town’s narrow winding roads on their bikes and motorcycles, Pushkar holds out the irresistible allure of nirvana of a different kind – one that enters the soul through the miasma of psychotropic smoke or the intravenous needle!

Pushkar draws also the savvy trader and the bargain hunter, especially during the famous Pushkar Mela where tens of thousands of cattle and camels gather in the largest livestock exchange in this part of the world. While farmers and ranchers do their deals in the mela, the bargain hunters can pick up exquisite silver jewellery, leather crafts, puppets and antique household objects which will command obscene prices in their boutiques back home in Mumbai or Bangalore. And finally, there are people like me who wander into this town out of curiosity to glimpse a fading way of life in the desert town – one in which pleasure still means leisure and lazing around is not equated with debauchery!

Shop fronts sport brightly coloured puppets, their limbs dangling languorously. Cowbells clang as camel drawn carts puff up the sandy slopes. Motorcycles slung about with milk cans and mounted by handsome men in oversize turbans hoot stridently, scattering helter-skelter pedestrians and street dogs alike. From out of a perfumerie laden with vials of multitudinous sizes wafts the heady fragrance of a million roses compressed into ittar and corked inside tiny bottles. Roadside eateries invite you to taste the melt-in-the-mouth malpuas floating in enormous vats of sugar syrup. Distant drumbeats advertise evening aarti in one of the numerous temples that abound in this town. Wherever you turn, Pushkar assaults your senses as only an Indian temple town can. The streets twist and wind like a labyrinth, and at every turn you glimpse the serene lake. There are of course, mendicants galore – bearded, half-naked, barefoot, ash-smeared, beady-eyed, it takes all sorts to populate this town!

Brahma temple

Of course, having driven all the way from Delhi, we hurry for the regulation darshan of Brahma temple. When I stop to buy prasad, the shopkeeper who had been blithely munching prasad from his own basket, hastily wipes his mouth and measures out the sugar-coated puffed rice prasad for me. I console myself thinking of Sabari who tasted every fruit she offered to Lord Ram in Dandakaranya to ensure it was indeed sweet enough. Next day we also bathe in the lake and perform puja. The priest who officiates at the puja used to be a postman until recently. He tells us how the lake turned up millions of dead fish the previous year and the whole town stank for weeks! I spy floatsam – rotten garlands and detritus. We pretend not to notice and take a dip. A cow burrows its snout into the pile of my clothes lying on the steps of the ghat. Watching the cow from the water, my prayers to the presiding deity at Pushkar turns from the sublime to the ridiculous. “Oh God, please don’t let the cow eat my sari!”

Having got the puja and holy dip out of the way, we are free to explore the many delights that Pushkar has to offer. We make our way to the edge of the desert just in time to glimpse the splatter of orange that the setting sun had carelessly dripped on the desert sky. The orange turns golden as the sun dips behind a sand knoll and the streak spreads across the horizon. But the splendid sight is marred by dangling electric cables festooned with plastic bags. How they got so high up, I wonder. A political procession wends its way along the streets, kicking up dust and raising slogans. We sample the malpuas and creamy curds dished out in matkas. Geriatric American tourists haggle raucously with shopkeepers to buy fake ruby and silver jewellery. We saunter down the high street a couple of times drinking in the sights and sounds.

The next day, we wrap up our visit to Pushkar with a wobbly ride on a rogue camel that keeps drooling streams of saliva and dangerously lurching to dislodge me. I hold on to its hump for dear life and concentrate fully on not getting thrown off. When I manage to complete the ride with my limbs in tact, I feel as if I too have attained nirvana at last, Pushkar style!

(Published in The Hindu, March 23, 2009)

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