Pushkar Camel Fair
And so Pushkar. If I have to find one word to describe Pushkar it would probably be 'mellow'. Not that you would think so if it was your first taste of India, it is busy and crowded and dirty. Yet it has a certain laid back charm about it. Maybe because it is a holy place, an important Hindu pilgrimage site, with its lake that is auspicious to bathe in.
It has become something of a travelers ghetto, with shops selling hippy clothing and silver jewelry, but unlike other travelers ghettos such as Thamel in Katmandu and Had Rin in Thailand, the traveler is just a bit player in the scene. Remove the backpackers and tourists and the flavour of Pushkar wouldn't change in the slightest, in the way it would do in those other places. But it is not just the mellow, laid back atmosphere that is the attraction of Pushkar. The full moon of Kartik Purnima was almost upon us, and in Pushkar, that meant the Camel Fair. Pilgrims converge on Pushkar to bathe in the Holy Lake, for they believe that their sins are washed away at the full moon. Through the centuries, the convergence of a multitude of pilgrims with their camels presented an opportunity to do a spot of camel trading. Over time this has become big business and so today, in the run up to the full moon, some 50,000 camels and cattle accompany the 200,000 pilgrims.
Farting burping ships of the desert
We arrived when the camel trading was at its peak. In the desert sand slopes behind the town was an ocean of camels. As far as the eye could see were camels, interspersed by simple tents and people sitting around them, finding shade from the intense sun. As we walked towards the mass of camels, we passed stalls selling camel paraphernalia, bells and harnesses and leather straps and rope. Amidst these a tent with garish movie posters propped outside. An impromptu cinema with the sound of the movie relayed to a tinny loudspeaker. At a deafening volume it enticed people to come in and put pictures to the sound for a few rupees. There were a handful of chai stalls and dharba tents with large aluminum pots of food displayed at the opening. It wasn't all that dissimilar to festivals back home, think Glastonbury but replace the bands for camels and the mud for sand.
We walked away from the stalls, onto the hot sand and into the mass of camels. They are peculiar creatures. Not ugly, but by no means attractive either. They are aloof creatures, if they could talk they'd make utterances like "hey, I'm too fuckin' cool for this" (profanities would pepper their language); "who the hell do you think you are?" and the DeNiro "you looking at me?" But they don't talk; rather growl a guttural prehistoric roar.
A camel chewing the cud is not a pretty sight, masticating with its mouth open (didn't your mother teach you to eat with your mouth closed) slobbering whilst its yellow teeth move from side to side. With their mouths closed they can look gormless, with droopy lips and pathetic eyes. "You smell" I say to one, he just stares at me but I know he is thinking "look pall, I'm sorry, but you mistake me for someone who gives a shit about my personal odour." But it is true camels really stink. Which brings me nicely to their feaces. Camel poo is quite different from what you may expect. It is not runny like cow pats or tubular like horse dung, rather it is perfectly spherical, in small little balls. But they are not like sheep dropping, more the size of snooker balls, and light brown in colour. Whilst the men sit around discussing the price of the beasts and sup chai and generally gossip, the women hang around the camels arses, waiting for them to do their business. They pick up the warm camel droppings and deposit them in large whicker baskets that when full they carry off on their heads. And why ever not, it is not every day they have such an abundant source of free fuel.
The camels are decorated. For many this just means a band of bells tied around their feet (to have music wherever thy go) and rings and wooden pegs pierced through their snouts. Many have red pompoms tied to the tip of their nose. Some are shaved, with patterns and symbols; zig zags and tram lines. No Nike swooshes yet, thank God. And one lazy camel, lying in the sand has words in black along the length of her long neck. It reads "I love you". I get too close to her and she growls at me.
"I don't think much of you either mate." Clearly I am not her sweetheart.
Begrudgingly, (because it always appears begrudgingly), the camels stand up, their joints seeming to defy engineering principles. Camels bring new meaning to the expression 'nobly knees', their knees are dry; wart like lumps that interrupt their fur legs. And then they walk. A surefooted somnambulism and it is easy to see why they are often referred to as ships of the desert. A man accosts us and asks us if we 'want camel ride'. Lindsey shakes her head, "Definitely not". Right from the beginning of the trip she has told me "Marc, you can persuade me to do many things against my will, but I will never, never get on a camel". Despite my best efforts she maintains this stance, "I don't have to give you a reason" she says when I try to reason with her and then she adds, "they are ugly, they smell, they are uncomfortable and I just don't want to". With the exception of the last point I find it hard to argue against her. So we don't ride a camel in Pushkar. Instead we buy one.
How much for your camel?
Well we don't really buy a camel, but several people try to persuade us. "You want camel?" a chubby man with a droopy face who doesn't look entirely unlike a camel himself says.
"Why would we want a camel?" says Lindsey, "What would I do with it back home, take it to Tescos with me, get it to carry the shopping bags home?"
"And how would we get it on the aeroplane?" She adds. The man had no answer to this and left us alone.
One evening, after watching the sunset, we walked past a small group sitting around a fire. One of the men was playing with a toy space gun, the sort that makes a click-click-click noise when you pull the trigger. A gift for his son back home, but it was unlikely his son would get as much pleasure as he was from it. With a cheeky grin he zapped us; I asked him whether I could take his photograph and he nodded, zapping even harder for the camera. We sat and joined him. I tried to make conversation with the little Hindi I know and some help from the phrase book. He was a skinny man, his age was deceptive. Not too old, but not young either; his children were aged between 4 and 9. His face was sunken and unshaven, with gray stubble over his rough, weathered brown skin. Above his thin top lip he sported a magnificent, well-coiffured handlebar moustache with greasy needle sharp ends that he occasionally reshaped with a twist. He wore a large, bulbous florescent yellow turban. Unlike the neat and purposeful Sikh turban, the Rajastani turban appears more ad hoc in its tying, yet is every bit as graceful. His ears were pierced with large gold studs, inlaid with small circular red stones. He wore a long kurta shirt that was a dirty white, the result of too many indiscriminate washings. This partially covered his similarly gray-washed dhoti.
The dhoti. Think of Ghandi and the clothes he wore. Picture his trousers and there you have the dhoti. It is an incredible feat of satorial engineering and it is a mystery to me firstly how you tie it up, and secondly how it stays up. Like with the sari, the Indians excel at turning simple cloth into elegant clothing without stitch or staple.
His wife sits beside him dressed in a burgundy sari. She partially covers her face with a length of her veil. When it drops she reveals a delicate, shy smile, the right corner of which is covered by a large golden ring, looped through the side of her nose, dropping to below her lips.
They were not from Pushkar, having traveled for a couple of days to get there. The name of their village was just another Hindi word in a rambling sentence; when they heard my stuttering attempts at speaking Hindi they took it I was fluent and started jabbering at me. "I don't speak Hindi" I said in Hindi but this didn't seem to register. I asked how many camels had they to sell. The man with the laser gun had five. Did I want to buy one? I wouldn't know where to start. The man stood up and prised the camel's mouth open. Are yellowed masticating molars the sign of a thoroughbred camel? The camel didn't like the interest in his gob and let it be known with a growl from the gut. Or maybe this is what was expected; is the judge of camel fitness the stench from its breath? It honked. I nodded as If I were an experienced camel trader and a connoisseur of halitosis camel breath.
"So was I interested?" he asked.
"How much?" I enquired. Sadly my knowledge of the numbers in Hindi doesn't exceed the teens and multiples of ten. Beyond 100 and I'm out on a limb. The sand was too fine to write in, so I could not ascertain whether the beast they were trying to interest me in was 700, 7000, or 70,000 rupees. It was definitely a multiple of seven, and was not 700,000 because that, in India would be referred to as 'seven lakh'. Slightly less than ten, or a hundred or a thousand pounds for a hulk of stinking, growling aloof camel? Not today thank you. I tried to explain that he was too big for me to put in my suitcase to take home and thanked them for talking to me.
We were invited to join them for their evening meal, but politely declined. What if they served meat? It was not as if they traveled with a fridge, and in the searing heat of the desert it would be hard to keep anything fresh and bacteria free. An invitation to dine with them seemed like an invitation to our old pal Diarrhea if we were lucky and our dear friends bacilinary and amoebic dysentery if we were not.
The audible assault of the Raja Magic Show
Beside the camel trading was the mela ground and the festival proper. Fairground ride technology has yet to reach India, the rides all resembled Meccano and were from the fifties, a row of ferris wheels and cars that go round and round. Beside them were stalls and tents that evoked a Victorian country fair. Peek shows and a circus and a magic show. This was not to be missed. We paid our ten rupees and entered through the curtain, which was tantalizingly opened in between tricks to reveal the 'show'. The music was deafening. It was punctuated with the echoed voice of the compere plying for trade. "Roll up, roll up" or whatever the Hindi is for that. The stage was small and flimsy, with a row of footlights and a number of clumsy props. The magician was a woman who showed no interest in her craft. We entered just as she was sawing a man in half. There was no flourish, just a matter of fact, here is a box, man inside, saw, saw goes through box, ergo man is cut in half, thank you, next trick. It was painful to watch. She got a boy to levitate, laying him on a tabletop, then removing the legs from under him. An impressive trick, but her heart wasn't in it. Maybe it was because she was unable to gauge the reaction from the audience. Any ooos or arrrs were drowned out by the sound-system. The noise was painful; deafeningly loud. Bolloywood hits devoid of bass were pumped out through tinny tannoy loudspeakers. Now it is a general rule in India that more can be gotten from less. If they can squeeze one more body on the bus they will. If they can get one more drop of juice from an orange they will. And if they can get one more decibel from an amplifier they will. If the volume control goes to ten, the Indian will push it to eleven. No matter if the sound distorts and clips, it's volume they are after.
Combined with the aging cassettes with stretched tape from overplaying and a tape player that varied in speed with the unreliable current from the antique generator bellowing out plooms of diesel fumes, the tinny tunes warbled and brought a whole new dimension to the already tortuous assault on the audible senses.
Lindsey plugged her ears with her fingers. As the magician magically refilled a water bottle with no zest or flourish Lindsey screamed at me "I can't stand this Marc".
"What?" I hollered back at her.
"No, let's go"
Did I really want to see this frankly pedestrian trick? More to the point did I want to inflict any more damage to my already sore ears? Given the alternative between dreary magic and permanent hearing loss, the magic lost out and I hurried after Lindsey who was already by the exit. Relief as we walked away from the Raja Magic Show with tinitinitis ringing in my ears and Lindsey laughing at the ridiculousness of the noise and the pathetic attempt at magic we had just witnessed. "Even your feeble attempts are better than hers"
" Well thanks" I said to my wife, "for your vote of confidence".
Close to the camel trading fields was the Mela ground. An expanse of sand surrounded by steps and a small grandstand (probably not the best word to use, there was nothing grand about it). A programme of events was laid on for the Mela ground. The Indians are not very demanding in their entertainment; MTV has yet to reach the desert folk. So the programme included games such as musical chairs and a turban tying competition. We arrived to see a game called 'Makti Phod, Pyramid style' being played by women. Or rather attempted to be played. No one seemed to know the rules except the umpire who was being singularly unsuccessful in explaining them. The object of the game revolved around throwing a ball from behind a line at a pyramid of cylindrical disks. Quite what happened when the pyramid was hit and the disks went flying remained a mystery. Every time this happened the players who were supposed to catch the ball or at least do something with it degenerated into an almighty fracas, vehemently arguing, pointing and venting hot air. The Umpire tried in vain to regain everyone's composure, explained the rules (again), and restarted the game. But no sooner would they start again, than someone would have a problem and the shouting would recommence.
There are strong traditions of entertainment in India; story telling, music, dance, magic; all devoid of marketing hype, fame and the associated bullshit that goes with performing in the West. Performers travel the villages, entertaining; the Pushkar Mela provided them with a large and captive audience. We saw storytellers and hypnotists, snake charmers and monkey handlers, all entertainers from an age before television. A magician interspersed his tricks, and made his money by selling a 'miraculous' teeth-whitening powder. The skeptic in me says it was a sooty black powder that had no special properties other than being black. He would select a young child from the audience, put his left arm around the child's head, holding it firm and lift up the child's upper lip exposing the gums. With the forefinger of his right hand he then rubbed the black powder on the child's teeth leaving a mucky black grime over them. With his thumb he wiped the grime away to reveal dazzling white incisors. The audience was in awe at this miraculous powder and ten rupee notes were handed over at a furious rate in exchange for small brown vials of the powder. I wanted to shout 'No you fools! Don't you see? The child's teeth were white to begin with. The black powder just accentuates their whiteness". But before I could utter a word he returned to his magic routine, swallowing a sword. He then took a granite ball, like a cannon ball that weighed at least five kilograms and placed it into a rope harness. At the end of the harness was attached a pellet, the size of a large vitamin tablet. He lifted an eyelid up and proceeded to stuff the pellet under it. He then lifted the granite ball using nothing more than his eyelid. You certainly see the weird and wonderful in India. He wasn't the only magician around. I asked children where I could find 'jadoo,' magic and they would always know. Unlike many of the other countries we have visited, children in India are captivated by magic. But I suppose you'd expect that from the place that brought to the world the Indian rope trick.
We sit on the steps overlooking the Mela ground, watching the world go by. A game of kabadi is in full swing to the left of us. At our feet a man lies snoring. And beside me sits a commando. It wasn't the rich, choking smell from the beedi he was smoking that bothered me. It was the barrel of his AK47 that poked into my ribs. "Excuse me," I said to him, "you couldn't be awfully decent and point that away from me please."
"Ooh, I'm sorry. What country come from you?"
It's not a pleasant feeling having an antiquated Russian machine gun pointing at you, however innocently. But in a way, it made me feel marginally safer. No terrorist is going to open fire on an armed commando. Is he?
The British and American governments issued a warning advising their nationals to avoid visiting Pushkar because of the perceived threat of a terrorist attack. Lindsey's sister had sent us an email telling us of the risk. She had heard a story on Radio 5 and it sounded like an attack had already happened; Pushkar was already overrun by murderous militants. We took the threat somewhere between with a pinch of salt and a little seriously. We couldn't leave Pushkar, all trains were fully booked. So we just tried to avoid crowds (difficult) and be more alert (what does a terrorist look like? A man with dark skin, beard and a turban as the tabloids would paint him? That means everyone in Pushkar was a potential terrorist!) The Indian government took the threat seriously with hundreds of armed and unarmed soldiers and police in the vicinity. There were masses of armed police by the temple, and although Hindu temples have been the target of terrorist attacks recently, this seemed short sighted. I mean if you were a fanatical gun-totting terrorist, would you target a temple with old Hindus shuffling around when there is a juicier target of Israeli and American and European Infidels outside?
The police chief in the media played down the threat, saying his men were frisking everyone entering Pushkar. There were metal detectors, but no one was manning them and we saw no sign of any frisking going on. The police in the mela ground were more interested in looking at the western women and supping their chai. If there was a threat, other than the increased presence of the forces, no one seemed to be taking it seriously. And in the event, the Camel fair passed almost without incident. The only trouble we saw involved an Englishman being attacked by a lathi wielding hare-krishna-haircut nut. The Englishman ran from the ghats, he must have desecrated the lake or something, and was chased and beaten by the Indian with the long wooden truncheon. Being stronger, the Englishman managed to get hold of the lathi and the tables turned. He now chased the Indian, who ran into a nearby shop and locked himself in. The Englishman, overcome by the turn of events then fainted. The Indian emerged again and tried to kick him on the floor, but by this time a large crowd had gathered and held him back. It was time for Lindsey and me to stop gawping and move on. Don't want to be involved in any follow up questions that might be asked.
The holy lake
Outside the camel trading and the mela ground, we spent much time idly wandering, mostly around the lake. Three sides are built up; buildings washed in pastel blues, the colour of the Brahmin (and a colour said to be avoided by mosquitoes). And then the ghats leading down to the waters edge. The forth side is open. We sat on the steps behind the ghats watching activity by the lake, or strolling barefoot across the arched bridge to ghats where numerous Sadhus sat cross legged, talking, praying, meditating, puffing on chillums or just begging.
Pushkar attracts more than its fair share of these holy men dressed in orange or saffron, many smeared in ash with natty dreads that would put many a Rasta's to shame. When that time in life comes when you've seen it all, done it all, it is time to become a Sanyassin, renounce all your worldly goods and earnestly take up the search for God. And thus are the Sadhus, taking Shiva as their consul, these ascetics seek the divine with little more than a begging bowl and a water pot. Occasionally, like Shiva, they carry tridents and will sometimes own a chillum, smoking ganja as Shiva was said to do. Some will argue this helps in their pursuit of the transcendental absolute. I'd suggest that for the purist, the God state will be attained without the use of drugs which are little more than an illusorily prop, Maya, and all that the chillum does is to get them stoned. But then maybe I'm just a cynic. It is hard not to; many wander India, they are given free passage on Indian railways. Seems like a good alternative to being a bog standard beggar- dress up, or rather dress down so that all you wear is a saffron loincloth. Don't wash your hair, smear yourself with ash and you can beg in the name of God. And get stoned to boot! Of course I am not suggesting that all Sadhus are frauds. Many are hermits, living in caves; others perform austerities, like living in silence for years or standing on one leg (or picking up weights with the penis). Some sadhus are said to possess magical powers, such as projecting their bodies to far off places and that old chestnut of the Natural Law Party, yogic flying.
Sadar Bazaar Road
Behind the ghats to the north runs Sadar Bazaar Road; more a narrow lane than a road. It is the busiest part of Pushkar, with many hotels, restaurants, and shops catering for the tourists and is the main access route to the Brahma temple for the throngs of Hindu pilgrims. Like a trip down Par Ganj, Sadaar Bazaar is a physical and sensory obstacle course that demands constant attention. At ground level there are the cowpats to be avoided. A few inches above them are beggars on trolleys with crude skateboard wheels. They sit cross-legged with legs that are usually withered flesh covered bones, devoid of muscle, with outstretched arms. One skateboard beggar with a deformed spine had coated himself in red tika powder, kept his legs tucked in and his face pointed to the ground so he looked more like a lump of sweating red powdery flesh than a human being. An emaciated woman pushed another beggar, whose cart had a handle on. He had a jolly smile, bushy beard, and white bandage covering his nose and cheeks and thick black sunglasses. This chap was eminently photogenic in a freakish kind of way and was doing better at begging than the red lump of flesh on wheels; constantly having plump European middle aged tourists poking their SLRs at him.
Where shops or stalls did not flank the road, immobile beggars sat on the ground. These tended to be advanced cases of leprosy, with stumps for hands and feet; a biblical disease that still has a terrible stigma attached to it, despite it being curable and not particularly contagious (you'd need someone to repeatedly spit in your face for an outside chance of contracting it). A pretty young girl sat with her right leg outstretched. It supported a nasty, bloody wound that was going septic. Yet all it needed was washing and a bandage; maybe that would have lessened its effectiveness as a tool for marketing her begging. And what did I do? I walked past. Heartless bastard. Lindsey put a few rupees in the begging bowl of a sweet old lady, and we handed out a few bars of soap and sachets of shampoo, but what more could we do? What would you do?
So much for ground level. At waist height children begged, "one rupee" or more commonly "ten rupee;" inflation has hit the begging economy. A couple of slightly older boys were dressed in the costume of Hanuman, the monkey god, complete with face paint and a wire tale protruding from their back sides. "Photo, photo" was their mantra.
Then there were the cows. Large cows, small cows, baby calves, cows with menacing horns, swaying udders, moos and a constant chewing on cardboard. One morning I was sitting at the barbers, having a shave and it started to rain. It was pouring. When the barber finished his stroke with the cutthroat razor across my lathered face I looked around. There was no rain. A cardboard chewing bullock was emptying his voluminous bladder outside the open fronted barbers shop, less than a meter away from the barbers chair I sat on. Lovely. A good number of the cows were coloured pink or red, dyed by tika, the powder you often see on women's' heads. Those bullocks with genetic deformities were given extra special attention. Led by saffron robed men with begging bowls these bovine freaks were dressed up in colourful fitted dresses. The handler thrust the deformity in our faces, demanding rupees for it; a growth protruding from the hump on the bull's backs, an elongated skinny tube of flesh with bony matter at the end that resembled a hoof, it looked everything like a withered fifth leg,
Dodging the four legs were the two wheels. Scooters with reckless youths; the throaty roar of Enfield Bullets ridden by beautiful Israelis boys and their babes on the back. And the wide, knee knocking Russian made Yezdi with copper milk churns for panniers; the milk float, Pushkar style.
And above the beggars and cows, and the bikes was a sea of colour. Tributaries of yellow and pink and orange and red, turbans and saris, flowing down the narrow lanes to the main flow of the Bazaar.
Priests try to thrust flowers into your hand, to do puja by the lake. And then try to extort money from you in return. Small men and boys carrying indigenous violins play a screeching melody and try to sell the instrument that sounds like a cat being slowly strangled. Kasmiri carpet wallahs, handicraft shops, textiles, bed sheets and shirts, everyone with a different line to persuade you to "visit my shop". We hurry past a stall selling provisions for the tourist. The shopkeeper breaks his usual patter of "cigarettes, water chocolate biscuit" and as you walk past ignoring him, "maybe come back later," with "don't hurry-hurry, chicken curry".
We were never far from a mantra in Pushkar. From five in the morning, waking us up, till late into the evening, denying us sleep we hear it. From loudspeakers on every other lamp-post it reverberates. "Hello, hello, hello". Occasionally it is followed by a burble of Hindi, other times with music. But more often Mr. Hello just checks that everything is still working. "Hello, hello, hello". I half expect him to vary this with "testing, testing, one, two, three". But he never does. All he says is "hello hello hello" and it is as if he likes the sound of his own voice. And thinks the rest of us should hear his dulcet tones too.
Sunset at the ghats
With the sun giving up its intense heat, shedding its golden sheen and blushing red as it slowly drops out of the sky, we head to the Southernmost ghat by the aptly named sunset cafe and sit on the steps, waiting for dusk to rob us of the sun and the squadron of huge bats to emerge from the depths of the banyan trees. We are not alone. The Sunset Cafe is a popular spot, and the steps down to the lake attract crowds of westerners and Indians alike. And I don't know quite what to make of it. It heaves with tourists; as worthy of comment as the locals I've been wittering on about.
Behind me is a tanned and toned man doing his yoga. His chest is bare, round his upper arms are tattooed bands that he'd say are Celtic or Tibetan or Egyptian. I'd say 'yeah- whatever'. His black thin cotton trousers with flames printed up the sides ride up his legs as he contorts himself into different positions. Occasionally he pulls his face out from under his arse revealing stubble that is cut into the outline of a goatee beard.
It is one thing to go through your yoga assanas in front of the sunset, but it is another to choose such a public place. Don't get me wrong, he is good at his yoga, but that is it, he is too good. Yeah, so he's saluting the sunset, but he's also an exhibitionist, showing off. In front of the hordes he becomes as much a tourist attraction as the setting sun itself. Indians stand beside him whilst their friends take photographs. For me, yoga is a private thing (not that I ever get my fat body down to it); it is an extension of prayer. And I conclude, very unprayerfully that he is a twat. I judge him badly as he finishes with a head stand, crossing his legs in the lotus position above his perfect torso. Tosser.
"Hello photo". they are well versed here, beautiful, photogenic Rajasthani girls in traditional costumes. One has the most intensely piercing green eyes that are definitely worth a few rupees. Then there is the boy dressed up in the hanuman outfit, the wire tail still protruding out of his arse. Even the street children with grubby faces, and filthy torn clothes get in on the act, "one photo"
"OK, ten rupees".
Israelis outnumber all the other tourists by at least four to one. Or so we counted as we strolled down the bazaar. And on the steps they are out in force. Under the Banyan tree stands an evangelical orthodox Jew with long side burns and beard; wide brimmed hat, jacket and cords, that are more appropriate for their eastern European origins than the blazing heat of India. He is searching for the lost tribes, or in this instance, bringing longhaired Israeli hippies back to the faith. There is a queue of them, all waiting to perform a strange ritual. He tied a long thin leather strap around their arm and it looked every bit like he was helping the youngsters find a vein to shoot up. Attached to the strap was a small black box. This contained prayers. A similar box was strapped to the forehead. The traveler then read some scripture from a pamphlet and the ritual was over, to be repeated by another scruffily dressed Israeli.
If that little scene was out of Jerusalem, the rest of the scene was out of a beach on Thailand. I mean, it's as if the Israelis have just walked off the beach in Koh Phanghan and dropped into Pushkar. To the left of us sit a couple of girls. They wear bikinis that are barely covered. Both have see-through tops, one is little more than a string vest. She has a sarong loosely tied around her waist. It slips down below her hips so the string of her bikini bottoms is clearly visible. Her flabby friend whose figure should tell her better wears exceptionally low cut pants that hug her arse rather than her hips; her bikini is a g-string revealing her flabby botty cheeks. There are lots more leg on show around me.
A couple of girls walk past us, down the steps towards the ghats. They are dressed in skimpy hipsters and tight sleeveless tops that show off plenty of tits and tummy. And I'm thinking have you got no shame? No respect? Great for the beach, but not quite Pushkar. Pushkar is holy. They are nonchantly strolling to the lake's edge when an Indian man starts shouting at them, breaking the peace. They stare at him blankly; their initial reaction is to ignore him, but it soon becomes clear that he is becoming angry. The focus of his ire is the platform shoes the girls are wearing. Shoes must not be worn in close proximity to the lake. They kick off their shoes and throw them to their friends.
Whilst the women wear beachwear, the men are dressed in what could best be described as hippy garb. Baggy Thai fisherman shorts are de rigueur, baggy shirts, singlets and bare chests revealing more ethnic tattoos and pierced nipples. Israelis have taken to piercing like ducks to water; I saw countless numbers of them with pierced eyebrows. Looking at the Israelis around me, if I didn't know any better I'd judge them as a nation of beach bums or hippies. Maybe they are making up for lost time; Israel wasn't exactly on the hippy map of the sixties and seventies.
So I have described what I saw, and have been critical in my words, but I haven't said what my problem with it all was. I'd sum it up as a lack of respect. Pushkar is a holy place for the Hindus, who are conservative in their dress. Wandering around in beachwear is not really appropriate. And, if you follow the rules of the Om hotel where we stayed, it is forbidden... (I transcribe these verbatim)
RULES OF THE HOTEL
- I know very well that PUSHKAR is a holy religious place
- I will live in hotel very peacefully and I will not do any type of quarrel
- While living in hotels rooms I will take care of my things
- Neither I will take any type of Drugs take "Opume" Charxes. Ganza, heroine and smak nor will I buy or sale or import it.
- Neither will I do any vulgar (bed) activity in the market nor will I wonder in the market in a half nacked position
- I will not take photo's of the people bathing in the lake and I will not go with my shoes in the Area of 40 feets near the lake
- In spite of all these I will by obey all rules made by the administration and the owner of the hotel
- When I will found disobeying above mentioned rules than I will be (guitry) accuse under the converned rules and regulation
So I got chatting to an Israeli girl who was wearing a revealing singlet and asked her whether she felt she was 'wondering in the market in a half nacked position'. She looked at me blankly so I decided to not follow that line of inquiry. She had been in Pushkar for six weeks. What can you possibly do in Pushkar for six weeks? I didn't ask, she told me. "I have lots of friends coming to Pushkar. Many from the army, many I met in Dharamsala". She had spent two months in the mountains, in Dharamsala, the place where the Dalai Lama lives before coming to Pushkar. "We finish the army and decide to meet in Dharamsala or Pushkar or Goa. I am going to Goa after here. Many of my friends left yesterday when they put the hotel prices up for the Camel Fair. There were twice as many Israelis here a couple of days ago."
"So you spend all your time sitting around with your friends from the army?" I asked her.
"Oh no" she replied. "Here in Pushkar I have been doing a course in Reiki and I do my yoga every day. When I was in Dharamsala I did a meditation retreat. I was surprised, I was expecting to go to the Himalayas and find a yogi to teach me meditation, but the guru I found who took the course was an Israeli. The course was conducted in Hebrew!" I suggested this was great news for the future of Israel. An army of spiritually awakened Israelis, returning from their travels around the sub-continent could only be good for the peace process. But she didn't think so. "We can never have peace with the Arabs" she said icily, adding" we need a war," leaving me wondering what she had actually learnt in India.
Whilst the Israelis made up the bulk of the young travelers sitting on the steps watching the sunset, there were also several Europeans. Whilst the Israelis take on the dress of the hippy beach bum, the Europeans are more eager to don the local, ethnic garb. Girls wearing saris and bindis and nose rings. Crude, heavy silver earrings, bracelets, ankle chains and toe rings. And even I succumb to the allure of the Indian dress, it is not long before I am spotted wearing pajama trousers and a long, flowing kurta shirt.
On our way again
We leave Pushkar as the Mela reaches its peak. The people responsible for timetables at Indian Railways clearly have a cruel sense of humour. They schedule express trains to depart either very late at night, or in the small hours of the morning. As we drove out of Pushkar at five o-clock in the morning we were not laughing at this vicious joke. Yet I wondered whether it was only us who found being rudely awoken when it was still dark and the body was still asleep wholly unappealing. As we drove we opposed the flow of people, streaming into the Holy town. Do they not need sleep I thought?
Trying in vain to part the sea of bodies walking in the night, our driver held his hand down on the horn (to all you sleepers in your comfortable beds, if we can't sleep then neither shall you). From the comfort of our Hindustan Ambassador we watched them, wrapped up in scarves and jumpers, heading towards the lake. Scraps of land by the side of the road were filled with pilgrim's busses. People gathered around bonfires, keeping warm in the early morning desert chill. There was an air of expectancy; something big was going to happen. It was the night of the full moon and the culmination of the Pushkar Mela, to bathe in the lake by the light of the Kartik Purnima moon. For us it was the day train to Udaipur.