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Eat. Pray. Love


Pushkar is just 18 kms away from the Dargah Sharif in Ajmer. But in a country where everything changes at every 150 kms, I wasn’t surprised that Pushkar was an entirely different town from the one I had been to just forty-five minutes before.

The day was beginning to get warm. CK, my companion and I had decided on a whim to continue further to Pushkar. He had a ‘bulava’ to go to Ajmer; I hopped along for the ride. While at Ajmer, I saw a signboard for Pushkar and this was my ‘bulava’ I said.

As a fourteen year old girl, I had first heard of Pushkar as the place for one of the biggest camel fairs in the world held annually in November. The closest I had been to a cattle fair was the Vaniamkulam Chandha held every Thursday near my hometown Shoranur in Kerala. In my mind I replaced the cattle for camels, and gave them keepers with brilliant turbans. Someday I hoped to see the camel fair in Pushkar.

Here I was in Pushkar and the camel fair which took place in November was long over. But Pushkar has something else beyond camels. A Brahma temple which is a rarity.

That this is a temple town is certain from the moment the car drew into the main road from where we would have to proceed by foot. CK and I shed our warm clothes. The sun was bright and strong. The chill of the winter morning had dissipated. Pilgrims and tourists in equal numbers walked through the street. I saw a young man in a wheel chair being pushed by another young man. Who were they? Pilgrims, travellers or accidental tourists?

Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India and is one of the five sacred pilgrim spots for devout Hindus. As we walked towards the lake, which has 52 ghats for the pilgrims to descend to the lake, I see a distinct difference in the shops that line the street. If in the dargah bazaar of Ajmer the shops had shown a clear Islamic slant, here in Pushkar it is Hinduism that rules. Statues of gods, puja mantaps, rudraksh beads and flowers. Even the incense smells different. If it had been udh that had swirled through the dargah area, here it is sandal and mogra. In the span of one hour, I felt I had travelled through two different lands and how amazing that they were both in one country – India.

At the Dargah Sharif if we had a khadim, here we acquire a panda. A young man in tight fitting jeans, a clingey t-shirt, a wind cheater and wearing fake raybans. Once a priest Rakesh Sharma is now a guide who will help you make a deal with the gods. Nirvana is promised as he leads us through the street smelling of cow dung, smoke and hot oil.

We climbed down the steps to a ghat. Almost as if on cue a priest appeared and Rakesh said we needed a puja thali. We will share one, CK said. Ah, husband-wife Rakesh explained to the priest.

“No,” I said we are not.”

“Oh, how can you share a thali then?” He asked. “You can’t share karma.”

“We shared a car; we shared a Khadim at Dargah. Besides we are going to the same heaven, right?” CK said holding out the plate to me.

I hid my smile and gripped the thali. CK had been googling Pushkar on our drive here and most travel blogs warn about the priests of Pushkar.

We have a moment of disquiet. We are asked for our gothras. CK knows his; I don’t. Besides do non-brahmins have gothras?

The priest and the panda don’t know what to make of me. I am linking my karma to a man who is not my husband. I don’t know my gothra. They are both baffled and worried and I can’t stop grinning. In the end, the priest carries on and our not-so-legit paths to heaven have been eased.

Rakesh Sharma leaves us at the end of the road and we head towards the Brahma temple. Pushkar is said to have over 500 temples (80 are large and the rest are small); of these many are old that were destroyed or desecrated during Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's rule (1658–1707) but were re-built subsequently; of these the most important is the Brahma temple. Though the current structure dates to the 14th century, the original temple is believed to be 2000 years old.

We climbed the many steps to the temple. However I felt none of the serenity that had filled me at the ghat as I sat by the waters of the Pushkar lake. Instead what I felt was a strange blankness. Perhaps it had to do with the marble steps and the marble paving around the temple. I know this is Rajasthan and it is inevitable marble would be used. But to me marble flooring is reminiscent of a hospital reception or a hotel lobby.

It is almost noon and as we walk back to the car, we stop at a roadside stall. There are giant vats of hot oil. A fat man wearing an oil stained banian and yellowing pajamas is frying pyaaz kachoris and mirchi pakodas. In one corner of the shop is a tea urn. Ck and I sit on the steps outside and place our order. Tea comes in khullars – mud cups. I asked for both the kachori and pakoda. I am a great lover of street food and one of the tricks to enjoying it is to put out of mind how it was made or who made it.

Instead of the tamarind and mint chutney the shopkeeper insisted I eat the kachori with kadi. As he crumbled the kachori, and added a dollop of kadhi over it I looked away trying not to think if his hands were clean. But the food is delicious and I eat slowly feeling an incredible sense of content.

A little further away, a foreign tourist is taking pictures of a group of sadhus who seem to know exactly what pose to hold. One of them has a chillum and it is quite obivious that they are stoned to high heaven. I suppress yet another laugh thinking that heaven was going to be an interesting place if the sadhus were there with their chillums.

From across the road a wandering musician came with his ravanhatha. It all feels curiously like a movie set. Eat. Pray. Love. The music is haunting and awakes a strange set of feelings in me. The old musician said, “Beti, buy me some food!”

I paid for a plate of kachoris and pakodas and tea. He sat across and ate. Between us there is a companionable silence.

In an inexplicable way, there is a great sense of belonging between all of us. The kachori seller, the tea boy, the old musician, the sadhus, CK and I. For the moment, we are all one family. Vasudevakutumbhakam!

- Published in Man’s World October 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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