The Pushkar Camel Fair happens annually according to the full moon at the end of October and beginning of November. The first week is for the real camel trading and local competitions, like Mr. Mustache. Unfortunately, we got here only for the second week, which still has some action among the locals but is also mainly for tourists with camel rides, tourist musical chairs, etc. The atmosphere is more like a county fair with stalls of vendors selling useful goods for cooking, swords, jewelry, food and carnival rides of ferris wheels, haunted houses, and more. It was all very fun and the camels were authentic. Our favorite star was a prize winning stud bull, a gentle behemoth who had to weigh at least a ton. One little girl was earning tips by riding a unicycle along a tightrope back and forth all morning, balancing a pole, juggling, never missing. Her mom stood vigilantly just beneath her.
On Saturday morning we walked through the camel fair and into the town of Pushkar, a very busy (mostly) pedestrian street with the usual vendors of everything from shoes to beetle juice. There were very few beggars, though we did notice a few farmers looking for donations from the superstitious for their “five- legged calves,” which had withered fifth limbs dangling from their backs. We
left our shoes at a locker and followed our guide to the Brahma temple, Jagatpita Brahma Mandir. Although Brahma is the Hindu god of creation who made all things, there are only a few temples dedicated to him, in comparison with the other main gods, Vishnu and Shiva. The story, as I have read on Wikipedia, is that Brahma fought a demon with his lotus flower weapon, and four of the lotus petals fell to earth forming lakes here in Pushkar (“pushpa” meaning flower, and “kar” meaning Brahma’s hand). When Brahma descended to earth, he wanted to perform a yajna, or sacrifice, for which he needed his wife Savitri. She, however, was elsewhere, so Brahma chose a milkmaid and had her purified by Vishnu and Shiva to become the goddess of milk, Gayatri. When Savitri finally arrived, she was so mad at Brahma for remarrying that she cursed him and said he would never be worshipped outside of Pushkar.
This Brahma temple at Pushkar is therefore very sacred and pilgrims come from all over to perform their devotions. We walked up a steep stairway with the crowd and passed in front of the four-faced silver statue of Brahma and made our way back down. Although it was very solemn, the crowd was also very joyful and some groups broke into song or chanting.
From there, we made our way to the ghat along the Brahma lake to watch people bathe in the holy waters. No one took off all their clothes: in fact, women dipped themselves fully dressed in their saris. Our guide told us we could also go down to the water, but we decided not to out of respect. There was this very unpleasant street fellow who was trying to get us to buy some flowers for an offering. He kept walking alongside our guide, so I thought they were friends. When we got to the lake, this guy was really in my face about buying the flowers so I finally asked the guide to tell him to stop it. The guide paid him some rupees and he left. Our guide was not so great in this and other ways, especially in explaining things.
Part of our guide’s difficulty in communicating with us was some ambivalence at the Amber Tours office about whether we would be able to safely go to Ajmer, a nearby city, to visit a mosque. After a lot of research on the internet, I finally pieced out what our guide was trying to tell us. The police were on high alert in case there was an outburst of fighting between Hindus and Muslims over a court ruling that had just come out this day, November 9. Across the country in the state of Uttar Pradesh, there was a Muslim mosque, Babri Masjid, that was established by the Mughals in the 17th or 18th century on the original site of a very holy Hindu temple where it was believed the Lord Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu) was born. Hindus also believe that Ayodhya is especially sacred because this is one of the sites where the soul can achieve final release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
The mosque/temple has been deeply contested by both Muslims and Hindus ever since. In 1992, a political rally was held outside the Babri Mosque and it led to 150,000 Hindus charging the mosque and destroying it within hours. Hindu/Muslim riots broke out in cities throughout India. When things finally calmed down, the government set up a commission to determine how to resolve the underlying dispute of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. After 27 years, on the day we were supposed to visit a Sufi mosque in Ajmer, Rajasthan, the commission finally delivered its verdict: a sort of “split the baby” result whereby the land will be used to build a Hindu temple, but five acres will be given to the Sunnis for a mosque. After lunch we got our verdict from the Amber Tours office that it was safe for us to visit Ajmer Sharif Dargah.
Ajmer is a much larger city than Pushkar, less than an hour’s drive away. It, too, has a very large lake, which was hard to view through the smog. We had to leave our van and take a tuk-tuk up the hill through incredibly narrow streets, jammed with people, cows, motorcycles, tuk-tuks and other obstacles. We got out and walked along a very busy pedestrian street, filled with families, hucksters, shoppers, and pilgrims. There was also a very disturbing sight of three terribly maimed beggars. A group of young men playing loud drums and blaring horns walked slowly down the center of the street. They were carrying a carpet that people threw rupees into - some kind of ancestral offering?
At the mosque, we had to leave our shoes and cameras with a vendor. It was a big space with many areas for washing, saying prayers, and listening to sermons. Fortunately we were wearing hats so we didn’t have to wear some obnoxious scarf for tourists, but we did stand out in our hiking/safari gear. People looked, but not aggressively, In fact, outside the mosque people approached me to have photos taken with me in them.
After our visit to the mosque, we made our way back to Pushkar. Our guide walked us back to the bathing ghat and offered to take us for a drink along a bridge. Then we were supposed to stay for evening prayers followed by a performance of classical Indian dance. Barry and I were both so exhausted by the camel fair and visits to the Brahma temple in Pushkar and the Sharif Dargah mosque in Ajmer that we had to call it a day. We just wanted to clean up, have dinner, and crash before tomorrow’s trip to Delhi.