It was the sixth day of my Uncover India tour, and we had just left the historic village of Tordi Sāgar and driven to our next destination.
After a four hour drive in our 4×4 Jeeps, through the city of Ajmer and over Snake Mountain, we arrived into ancient Pushkar, which borders the Thar Desert and is a pilgrimage site for Hindus and Sikhs, with more than 500 temples and the holy Pushkar Lake. The lake is surrounded by 52 bathing ghats (stone staircases that lead to the water), which pilgrims will use to take sacred baths. A dip in the lake is believed to cleanse sins and cure skin diseases.
We settled into our accommodation for that night, and then took an orientation walk around the city. We were told that meat, eggs and alcohol are completely banned from Pushkar, but The Rose Garden of Rajasthan is where traditional meets hippie, and marijuana is popular with the locals (where it is sometimes used ceremonially) and the tourists.
We saw an Ashram, where many pilgrims will go for a warm welcome and free food, and a beautiful, white marble Sikh temple, Gurudwara Sahib, which prompted our guide to inform us that Sikhism is one of the richest religions in India.
We also passed a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, as well as the world’s only temple to the Hindu god of creation, Brahma. Although one of the most important gods, Brahma is rarely actively worshipped. In Hindu mythology, this is the result of a curse by Brahma’s first wife, Goddess Saraswati. When she did not turn up for an important religious ceremony, Brahma asked the gods’ advice and they responded by creating him a new wife, Gayatri. Upon finding out about this, Saraswati cursed Brahma not to be worshipped anywhere other than Pushkar.
Whilst the rest of Pushkar’s temples are from the 18th century, Jagatpita Brahma Mandir was constructed in the 14th century. After removing our shoes, we were permitted to enter the temple. We were not allowed to take photographs, but we could see a sculpture of Brahma, depicted with his four heads. It is believed that from these heads came the four Vedas. Sanskrit for “knowledge”, the Vedas are a collection of texts that form the foundation of Hindu theology.
According to Hindu mythology, Lake Pushkar is said to have been named after Lord Brahma dropped lotus flower petals into the vale and a lake emerged in its place. Pushkar consequently means “Blue Lotus” in Sanskrit.
Admittedly, my dinner that evening was not remotely Indian, as I had the rare opportunity to order a veggie spag bol. Having had a rich and tasty Indian meal for lunch, I didn’t feel too guilty for my uncultured choice that evening!
The following morning, some of us opted to participate in a Puja ceremony. This is a worship ritual performed by Hindus that is said to bring them good karma, remove the bad karma and give good health to both themselves and their family, as well as honouring and worshipping gods or loved ones that have passed. Whilst the ceremony can take place at home or in a temple, there is something even more special about participating in the Puja ceremony by Pushkar’s holy lake.We walked to the lake and were met by a Brahmin Guru (the highest caste in India’s Caste System) called Giri Raj. We were told to remove our shoes and sit by the water’s edge. We were each given a coconut and a metal plate containing red and yellow spices in the form of powder, flowers, rice and sugar.
We then washed our hands with holy water and this was to metaphorically cleanse our minds, our ears and our souls. The red powder symbolised good health and was placed in the shape of a bindi on our foreheads, alongside some of the water and rice.
The rice represented prosperity, the sugar was for happiness and the yellow powder symbolised the further cleansing of our souls. The flowers were blessings for our family and friends and we had to follow a set of mantras. We listened to the guru as he talked us through the order of the ceremony, and we could hear other worshippers singing and chanting, whilst drums were being played softly in the background and birds and cows roamed around undisturbed.
After the blessings, we were instructed to throw the flowers into the lake, followed by the other items on our plates, as offerings. Now we had started afresh, and we all agreed that we did feel a genuine sense of peace. This ceremony was now supposed to last us (and our families) a lifetime of good health and happiness.
We were then given red and yellow string bracelets to mark the completion of the ceremony, and which we were told were our “Passports to Pushkar”, meaning that we would not be approached as tourists anymore (though we definitely still were!).
Feeling calm and revitalised, we then wandered around the many markets in the city centre, purchasing a few of the beautiful wares (including some warmer clothing as many of us had not anticipated the colder weather in this part of India. It was February and the tours only run until March as it gets too hot after this. Right now though, it was surprisingly chilly, especially at night). I purchased two pairs of lovely trousers and a new bumbag, as the zip had sadly broken on mine and I love a bumbag! These three items came to just 900 rupees, which is the equivalent of around £9.
Whilst Pushkar was quite crowded, it still boasted a relaxed feel and after a great time exploring the bazaar, some of us went for a lovely lunch at a rooftop café, which was recommended by Lonely Planet and gave us serene views of the ancient city.
We then headed back to our hotel and got ready for our afternoon and evening activity. Many of us opted in for this, as it promised to be an unforgettable experience.We rode rickshaws to our starting location and I was at the rear, facing the oncoming traffic. In such an open vehicle this was an interesting affair, and it sometimes felt like I was about to be ploughed into the cars behind, as we often broke very suddenly.
We arrived to meet our hosts for the night, and they were a group of local cameleers, who would lead us on their decoratively dressed camels into the Thar Desert. I have not previously enjoyed camel riding, but these camels seemed very well looked after and I know that my tour company, G Adventures, only supports organisations who treat animals with the utmost care.
We rode for around an hour on the bumpy trail towards the desert, and it was funny witnessing everybody clinging on for dear life as we bounced up and down on the uneven ground. By the end I was very grateful to disembark and stretch my legs. My camel’s name was Johnny and as camels go, he was very friendly!
We were given masala chai tea upon arrival, which I knew I had to purchase once back home, so that I could be reminded of the sights and smells of incredible India. Then we were presented with traditional Indian clothing, which we had the opportunity of wearing for the night. These were beautiful and I felt like an Indian princess!
We observed the sun setting in the tranquil desert, away from the roads and the hustle and bustle. It got much colder, but we sat down in the sand to watch a very interesting magic show by a humorous magician called Romin. He made coins and balls disappear and duplicate, he appeared to swallow and regurgitate marbles and large silver spheres, and he conjured up two white pigeons from nowhere! Though he had broken English, this added to the enchantment and his tricks were very impressive.
We were then joined by members of the gypsy tribe of Rajasthan (where Romani people also originated). They live a nomadic lifestyle and their origin dates back to around 500 AD. They pitch tents where they can and they perform singing and dancing to earn the money they need to get by. We were told that they prefer this way of life as it gives them the freedom they desire. Their singing and dancing was beautiful and we were able to get into the spirit when they invited us to join in the dancing. I felt very clumsy next to the practised performers, but this was a lot of fun and the group bonded over the evening’s shared experiences.
Our authentically Rajasthani dinner was cooked by the cameleers and consisted of batti (bread balls), rotti (bread), rice with dal (lentils), laddu (sweet wheat balls), poppadom, potato and cauliflower, and spicy chutney (made from chilli, garlic, tomato and onion). It was absolutely delicious. The evening’s live entertainment, flavoursome food, and stunning surroundings were absolutely wonderful and I felt very grateful to partake in this cultural, fun and memorable activity.
I loved my time in Pushkar, a colourful city with cascading architecture and much culture. However, as with any fast-paced tour, it felt as though we were leaving just as quickly as we arrived, and tomorrow, we would be heading to our next destination by train.