Sunday, 12 October 2014

Pushkar - City of Camels: Part 1

Angela and I were almost finished with Rajasthan, but we had one final destination left to see in this ancient realm of royalty and dust. Centred around a holy lake said to have appeared when Brahma dropped a lotus flower in the middle of the desert, Pushkar is a pilgrimage town that draws a colourful melange of characters: bearded babas and bathers, Hindu devotees, tourists and tribal musicians; all of them congregate along the bazaars and ghats that encircle the sparkling lake filled with holy water.

We didn't do a whole lot in Pushkar. It's less a place of sightseeing and more a place to wander and observe the water rituals, the chantings, the prayers, and other such spiritual scenes that seem so enchanting to our western eyes (well, not so enchanting when one of the lakeside "priests" scams the hell out of you, but more on that later). We'd be missing out on the famous camel fair that takes place here at the end of October, and which sees hundreds of camel merchants bring their livestock to the middle of town for bartering, bazaars, competitions and performances. We would, however, get to enjoy a unique camel experience of our own, which involved riding one just outside town for some beautiful views of the desert.

We drove north from Udaipur to Pushkar via the nearby city of Ajmer.
Passing through the Aravalli Hills again.
Driving through the busy but otherwise unremarkable city of Ajmer.
Political campaign advertisements, including Mr. President himself.

Leaving Ajmer, we had to drive over Snake Mountain in order to reach Pushkar.
On the other side of the mountain, the landscape was dry and almost savannah-like with its spaced apart trees, as though we'd suddenly teleported to East Africa.

Our hotel was nestled in the heart of a pretty valley. 
We mostly relaxed during our first afternoon and evening in town. The next morning we climbed up a hill to Savitri Temple, which provided some great views over Pushkar and the surrounding countryside. 

We met these sweet girls who wanted to take photos with us. 

Also met this goat who was more than happy to pose for a photo too.

Back down at ground level, we started exploring the busy bazaars of Pushkar.
One of the first places we visited was a Brahma temple. It's one of the only remaining temples dedicated to Brahma, which may seem strange given that Brahma is the God of Creation, perhaps the ultimate of divine titles. Supposedly, temples to Vishnu (the Preserver), Shiva (the Destroyer), and Ganesh (the Remover of Obstacles) are much more common, because these gods still have an active role in the day to day lives of the people, and must be appeased regularly. Brahma, on the other hand, has already finished his task of creating the world, and so has little interaction with present-day people or events.
At the temple we were given a bunch of flower petals and told to take them through the bazaar to the nearby lake. 

Once at the lake, we were ushered over to sit with a "priest" who helped us use the petals for a ritual, where we repeated a chant and prayer, threw the flower petals over our shoulders, and received blessings in the form of bindis. We thought that we were being honourable little backpackers by immersing ourselves in the local culture. Little did we know that we were actually embroiled in a devious scam. The priest asked us how many family members we had, then told us to make a donation for each family member, explaining that the more we donated, the more good luck we'd bring to our families. Of course, this sort of emotional manipulation made it hard for us to offer anything too small, but we tried to keep it at a modest amount. The priest laughed at our paltry offerings and told us how the average donation was around 5000 rupees (about 80 US dollars) per family member, an absolutely ridiculous amount in retrospect, but in the heat of the moment we just nodded our heads in comprehension. Thankfully, we had enough sense not to donate anywhere near as much as he'd suggested, but still gave away around thirty dollars between the two of us. It was thirty dollars more than that stinking trickster deserved, but we were entrapped by our own needless sense of obligation. It wasn't until later that we read about the famous "false priests" of Pushkar, many of whom have made a small fortune from swindling hapless tourists. The very same day we were there, our driver Bubloo informed us that the scammers managed to take about 800 dollars from a group of three Europeans. After seven months of travelling in Asia, it's kind of embarrassing that even we fell for such blatant thievery, but it just goes to show that even very experienced travellers are at risk. I only hope any readers planning to visit this town learn from our mistakes. DON'T TRUST THE PRIESTS AT PUSHKAR LAKE!
Rampant scamming aside, the lake was a rather pretty place, and a great place to people-watch.

When we're not giving away our money, we're posing for photographs. Such is the general tourist experience in India.

Cows. Lots of 'em.
Taking a break with some vanilla lassi, a yoghurt-based drink.

We purchased some incense and perfumes from this guy. 

Back at our hotel, Angela made a new friend.

Click here to continue the adventure in Part 2, in which we ride a camel in the nearby desert.

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