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Pushkar Lake: the place to go for filth and deception


Pushkar Lake in central India is unnaturally vibrant green in color and has a visibility no greater than half of a foot down.  An accumulation of tobacco wrappers, cardboard boxes, and diapers clog the shores, which sit stagnant and breed mosquitoes. This is India’s holiest lake.

To devout Hindus, the lake represents cleanliness and creativity.  While the idea of physical purity is fundamental to Hindu belief, the notion of such freedom from contamination also extends to the metaphorical purity of mind, body, speech, and action. In accordance with these beliefs, Hindus are careful to practice purity in their food preparation, eating, dress, marriage, and even in the way they sit.  Ironically, although 60 percent of India’s population is Hindu, visitors to the subcontinent find economic corruption rampant, treatment of women atrocious, and environmental degradation to be some of the worst in the world.

The city of Pushkar, in southwest Rajasthan, proved to be much the same despite its holy nature, and instead of a feeling of enlightenment, I was left with an impression of a city of anomaly, filth and deception.

While it is indeed a place of pilgrimage, it is also the home to the biggest camel mela– or trade show– in the world.  Every November, 200,000 camel traders and determined salesmen descend upon the desert-rimmed city.  In recent years, the mela has become an enormous fair-like celebration week during which many of Pushkar’s traders make enough money to sustain themselves for the remainder of the year.  The spirit of the fair also created an enormous influx of drug trade, turning the small town into one of India’s largest drug hubs, in turn increasing Pushkar’s popularity among travelers. Bhag—the dried leaves and shoot of marijuana leaf— are readily available in any form, and restaurants like the Sun-n-Moon café in the Sadar Bazaar offer tourists treats like the “special lassi,” the “special pizza” or “special tea” to make their visit “more spiritual.” Often mixed with more dangerous substances like LSD or shoe polish, such offerings are used to put the traveler into a state of delirium in order to rob him.
Most travel guides and experienced travelers recommend against experimenting with marijuana in Pushkar.

However, the determined are more than willing to take the risk and thus, Pushkar has also become a popular resting place for washed-up, new-age hippie travelers attempting to discover a spiritual meaning to life. Bhag’s popularity has also further encouraged the importation of opium from the villages of Rajasthan. The result of such a combination is a town crawling with con artists, bustling with holy men, and with an economy created to connive money from two of India’s easiest targets: tourists and the pious.

Making my own way down the steps of the Pushkar Lake, I was immediately confronted by a man in a white Indian-style suit who began to explain the mystic powers of the water before me.  According to Hindu belief, Brahma—the God of creation, time, and all causation—dropped a petal of a lotus flower on the site of Pushkar after avenging the murder of his children by the evil demon Vajra Nabha.  From the petal sprang the lake and the city, a holy site for Brahma.

The priest also informed me that it might be of interest to visit the famous Brahma Temple, one of few in the world, located in Pushkar.  He explained that, in mythological literature, Brahma used this site for a self-mortification sacrifice that required that his wife, Savritri, be present.  When she failed to join him, he married a girl from a nearby village.  Out of anger, his wife swore that he would never be worshipped anywhere else in the world, and she nearly succeeded: the temple remains one of four in the world. Other believers contend that the need to worship Brahma has become extinct with his completion of the universe. Instead, they argue focus should be placed on the other Gods of the Holy Trinity of Hinduism, Shiva and Vishnu.

When he finished his story, I noticed that he had led me down the staircase of a ghat–a small temple with stairs used to access the lake waters– which was white marble and spotted with cows that roamed freely and left a trail of excrement trickling into the lake.  While the cows deposited their digested meals at the feet of the holiest lake in India, the man insisted I take of my shoes quickly.  To Hindus, shoes are considered impure and one is expected to remove them at holy sites and at the homes of fellow Hindus. Amused, I removed mine, and followed him across the stairs to a covered area.

Like so many places in India, the scene was an odd mélange of the holy, the tourist, and those trying to take advantage of the two.  To my right, a man stood grinning, barely visible behind a towering pile of orange and pink flowers that had been plucked without stems and permeated the air with a rotting, perfume-like scent. Aided by the priest who had told me the story of Brahma, the flower vender handed me a tray, and together, the two men piled it with three bowls, a stack of wilted flowers, and brilliant red powder.  Before I could question, I was hurried down the steps to the lake’s edge.  The priest pushed me into sitting position and ran down to the water to fill the bowls.  Returning, he quickly recited Hindu mantras and demanded that I repeat after him, reprimanding me for stopping or contemplating. I stopped short when I recognized the words, “and you will pay me 350 rupees”—or $8 American.  I skipped over those words and allowed him to dip my fingers in the filthy water and then apply the water and red powder to my forehead. Tying a red string around my wrist, he demanded, “350 rupees for the good wishes of your family.”  I smiled at him and told him that I owed him nothing because I hadn’t repeated that line. Sensing impending anger, I stood up, dropped a five-rupee coin onto the tray, and ran up the steps, side-stepping the enraged holy men who yelled after me, disturbing all those who sat in prayer.

I later learned that such ghats surround the shore of the Pushkar Lake almost in its entirety. They serve as access points for the pilgrims who flock to Pushkar annually during the period of the Hindu festival of Diwali in November.  From the steps, pilgrims stand around the lake, removing clothing without modesty or apprehension, and reach down to touch the water that is said to cleanse away a lifetime’s worth of impurity.  The pilgrimage, which occurs simultaneous to the camel mela, also attracts tourists from across the world.  As a result, “false priests,” such as the friendly character I met, make a living by conniving unassuming victims into paying for a faux religious experience. Even in October when I visited, pilgrims spotted the tiered shores and while it was indeed a sight to behold, should the viewer have Anglo-type features or an accent, I discovered that the experience is not nearly as peaceful.

Following the false priest’s advice, I made my way along the Sadar Bazaar to the Brahma Temple.  The shape of the temple resembled that of numerous other Hindu temples in Rajasthan, but it was not the typical white.  Instead, it was painted a vivid red and looked more like an enormous fire hydrant than a shrine to the God of Creation.  At the entrance, yet another man in white thrust flowers into my hands, whisked me up the steps, and explained that he would be my guide.  He told me he was the son of the caretaker of the temple, and assured me I only need pay him, “as I wished.”  Flattered, but not believing the bribe for a moment, I told him I was a poor, starving student and I would not pay him.  Again he replied, “as you wish,” and we walked through the entrance gate and toward the altar, which stood at the center of the courtyard at the base of the red spire.

My guide explained that the spire was red to represent good luck for the family.  Family seemed a theme in the temple and I noticed that silver coins were imbedded in the floors as markings of donations made by Hindu families in devotion to Brahma.  My guide was extremely adamant to point out this concept of donation, and continued to explain that even the Queen Elizabeth, whom he described as “one of you people,” had donated money.

He then led me up the stairs and to the top of the walls of the temple.  From my vantage point, I could see Pushkar’s 52 palaces and 500 other temples representing the Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, and Buddhist faiths, as well as the lake, rippling from the bathing pilgrims. Scattered between holy sites were hotels, backpacker’s shacks, rooftop bars, and tarp-covered slums that sent puffs of campfire smoke into the air. Beyond it all, I could see the outskirts of the Islamic neighboring city of Ajmer where, five days later, Bangladeshi extremists would detonate a bomb in a mosque and kill two and injure seventeen.

Leaving the temple, I was forced to pay a small boy who had stolen my shoes at the entrance for their return.  While I waited, a man asked me for my donation.  Reluctantly, I dropped another 5-rupee coin into the tin, slipped on my sandals, and began down the street.  As I walked, I could hear the calls of my guide, “ma’am, your money!  You have forgotten to give me your money!”

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