From Jaipur we continued on our Rajasthani adventure to Pushkar, a small dusty and camel-filled town settled around the shores of a holy lake just outside of Ajmer.
We travelled by train again, this time in seater class. I found myself sitting next to a very friendly Indian girl around my own age. She was on her way to Udaipur (an 8 hour trip from Jaipur!), and we were soon happily chatting away on the 3 hour journey to Ajmer. She spotted my engagement ring almost immediately and we soon discovered that we will actually both be getting married in the same month next year! A game of compare and contrast began, which we both seemed to find fascinating.
The main differences between us are that, while Rich and I met and chose to be together ourselves, her husband was chosen out for her, a distant cousin, and their engagement was arranged by the families. She actually only met the guy once it had been decided for her. I asked her how she felt about it all, and she confided to me that she was confused, as he is older than her (by 5 years) and she really doesn’t know how she feels towards him. But there was no other option in her mind, and she seemed very happy to share lots of photos from their engagement meeting with me. She explained that all of her friends are already married, and while some of them are happily in love, others are still not 100% sure of their husbands. It is just how things go, she told me, and time will reveal all. Another thing that upset her was that once they are married she will go and live with his family- and when I say family I mean his parents, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces all. She was sad about that. She told me that while she knows she will be going into a good family, she will miss living with her sisters most.
Much less sobering to talk about were our weddings themselves- she was having a full scale Indian wedding – 4 days of celebrating with over 4000 guests invited, most of whom she doesn’t know. Every single one of them she had to travel to personally to invite them to the wedding- the engagement lasting 2 years to give time for it. She has over 30 ‘bridesmaids’, and was actually going to Udaipur not just to see her family but also to try on dresses/saris, have makeup and henna practised on everyone, order wedding jewellery designs, look at flower and firework options, and have some new piercings done especially for the wedding! In India, she said, they go all out, as there is no option for separating even if things go badly- this is your one big blow out, and then it is time to settle down and have family!
Saying goodbye (and good luck and good life!), we hopped off at Ajmer, where we were immediately bombarded with hassling tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, coming right up to Rich’s face and tugging on his arm. A friendly passer by helped us push them off, although they still stood by us and glared, and he explained to us that for our ease we were best off using Uber to make the last bit of the trip through the hills by road to Pushkar.
Arriving in Pushkar, our Uber dropped us off outside of the main town, as the roads became too narrow for cars. Jumping out, we wound our way through increasingly narrow streets, edging around cows and dodging motorbikes, asking the kids that were playing in the street the way to our guesthouse, Everest. The hostel was ok, but the toilet was a bit leaking and smelt pretty awful, Everest’s saving grace being it’s chill out rooftop restaurant, overlooking the ramshackle rooftops of Pushkar where people were laying out washing, and monkeys made it their playground.
As the sun began to set over the roofs, we heard drums beating and a great din of bells and chanting echoed up to us- it was a street party, the hotel owners told us. Heading out into the winding roads, we found open squares where stages and drums were set up, crowds of people hustled to see, and on the stage teenagers were fully dressed up and painted in breathtaking costumes and wigs (and even contact lenses in their eyes), reenacting the full story of Shiva the destroyer of evil – bringing together the Suryavanchis (people of the sun) & Chandravanchis (people of the moon) against the Naga (snake) people. It was like a mimed performance, music and singing blasting through huge loud speakers with everyone chanting along and there were some pretty impressive physical feats of dancing and human pyramids on stage too. There were massive drums and fireworks on the rooftops and streamers of tinsel and neon lights hung everywhere over the streets. People hung out of windows and climbed lampposts and buildings to get a better view. The dancing in the streets went on late late into the night.
The next morning, we rose early to wind our way through a somewhat sleepy Pushkar and make our way up the nearby mountain to the temple at the top. It was very much like walking through Glastonbury Festival the morning after the night before, rubbish and sewage strewn everywhere, pieces of clothing and plastic bottles and bags, strips of tinsel and fancy-dress. Dogs and cows rummaged through for scraps of leftover food, and of course the smell was pungent (and only due to get worse as it cooked under the sun throughout the day).
We were on our way up to Savitri temple, the highest in Pushkar, from which you had stunning views back down the valley and across the surrounding dusty desert hills. We weren’t alone climbing up to the temple, hundreds of other out of breath locals and pilgrims joined us on the climb, it was a challenging climb, and many of them rested and chatted to us in Hindi as we passed, equally sweaty and out of breath in the humid heat of the day, even at 7am! There is also a cable car to the top, but it doesn’t start running until 9am, and the idea is to see sunrise from the temple at the top. To be honest, it was so overcast that it actually just got slightly lighter as the day began, but still, the climb was challenging and rewarding, and I also loved seeing the monkeys on the way and snoozing dogs at the top.
Below us we could see the vast space around the town too, with markings where vast circus tents would go. In November, Pushkar hosts one of the largest camel fairs in the world, with the town’s population growing by an additional 300’000 people during it (that’s twice the size of Glastonbury festival), and that’s not even counting the number of camels.
Paying our respects to Savitri, we made our way back down to the town, and headed out to explore. The first thing we noticed were the sheer number of white tourists we saw here compared to everywhere else we had been so far. Some were families and couples, but mainly it was large groups of half dreadlocked, half shaven twenty somethings with impressive facial hair, wearing mismatched tie-dye trousers and smoking large joints through Indian pipes and hookahs. It continued to add to the strange feeling we had that we had actually managed to drop through a portal from rural India right into the heart of Glastonbury festival. Almost every shop we saw had brightly coloured and sequinned zaney garments hanging from the eaves. We enjoyed generously stuffed falafel wraps, cooked up from scratch on large steel pans right in front of us in the street.
Behind the chaotic streets, was Pushkar lake, a strictly holy place. The lake is believed to have formed where petals from a lotus flower in Brahma’s hand fell in the desert. Deeply peaceful in comparison to the crowded streets above, here we found wide concrete steps leading down to the water’s edge, and built within these steps are hundreds of large pools of ‘ghats’. These are the holy ghats where locals and pilgrims come to bathe, wash, and make offerings to the Gods.
Many people have their ashes scattered here, and the priests are everywhere, carrying trays of flowers and asking for donations (101 rupees for tourists) in exchange for a prayer and petals to scatter in the lake. They tie a red cotton bracelet around your wrist, and this has come to be known as the ‘Pushkar passport’, as it let’s them know who’s paid and who hasn’t, and is actually a pretty good system as it means that once you’ve done it you are left in peace. Unfortunately we think we might have been taken in by a ‘fake’ priest here, as it was only after we (ok, I) accepted his flower petals that we realised how suspiciously unofficial it all seemed. But we had read that the fake priests could get quite aggressive, and so gave him the equivalent of 50p to leave us alone – although he tried to ask us for more of course, in ‘exchange’ for individual prayers to every extended member of my family. Sneaky.
Another pretty nasty begging experience that was prevalent in Pushkar were women in the streets asking for us to buy them ‘just chapati, not money’. Luckily Rich had read about this before and so was ready for it – these women would lead us to a shop where we would (hopefully) buy them some goods, and they’d then sell it back to the store owners and split the profits. Even worse, there were also groups of women doing this same thing but for baby milk, whilst holding small children in their arms up to us. Apparently these kids would often be handed around, and even drugged in order to keep them quiet while the women ‘worked’.
Whether true or otherwise, it put us on edge, and along with the touts and claustrophobic streets and noise and smells and sewage everywhere, it would be fair to say that 1 day in Pushkar was more than enough for us, and unless you’re looking for that kind of druggy hotspot, or want to see the ghats specifically, we wouldn’t recommend…
Next stop Udaipur, the white city of the sun…