Pushkar is a holy city. There's a lake in the center of Pushkar which is thought to be of divine origin, and contains the remains of Gandhi and Nehru, among others. All around the lake are temples and palaces, and it really is quite beautiful. I was told that it was off-limits to take pictures of the lake, which was a shame. Surprisingly, though, there were picture postcards of the lake for sale all over Pushkar.
Pushkar is the only place in India where there's a temple dedicated to Brahma. Brahma created the universe, but then went strangely quiescent. There are loads of temples for Laxmi, Vishnu, Shiva and Ganesh, but this temple is unique. As one of the main pilgrimage spots, this town has always been important. Even when the Rajput maharanas were at the height of war with each other, they built mansions next to each other (though at a safe distance) in Pushkar. The town also has many sadhus, who are people that have forsaken all worldly possessions for a life of begging and religious quest, and there are a lot of people who sleep out in the open.
I had been told that the best way not to get hassled in Pushkar was to get blessed as quickly as possible. The red string around the wrist (and a red dot) would tell people that you've been to the lake and made your contribution. The first morning I set out for the town with one of the others in the group. I didn't mind waiting for her to use the Internet if she didn't mind my looking for music. This seemed a sensible arrangement, but it went a bit wobbly as we walked by the lake.
All of a sudden, we were set on by a group of men who tried to block us from going into the town, and to herd us toward the water. Their spokesman said we couldn't enter the town until we got a blessing. "This is our way," he said. "Your way?" I asked, thinking that to start with a lie was no way to say hello. I would have walked around him, except that my companion was already on her way to the water and I didn't want to lose sight of her.
I was annoyed, and knew there was something terribly wrong, but figured that getting a blessing couldn't hurt. So we went down to the water and he started in. I had to repeat some Sanskrit after him, which was innocent enough until the sacred part of the blessing was pronounced: "Mm mmm mmmm mmm mmmm mmm three hundred rupees..." I repeated this as "Mm mmm mmmm mmm mmmm mmm twenty rupees," which was what I understood to be the going price for one of these blessings. Anyway, the bargaining got a bit raucous (widows, orphans) and I started getting more and more indignant that he was taking advantage, especially since he had a friend standing behind us to help him out and give change for notes in large denominations.
Suffice it to say that I ended up giving multiples of the customary amount and that I was really, really sore. It wasn't a lot of money in the scheme of things, but I didn't like this guy a single bit. I certainly didn't like the way he conducted himself – he was more bull than Brahmin – and I absolutely hated the concept of bargaining for blessings. But the kicker, to my mind, was that after the transaction was concluded, he had the nerve to ask me if I was happy – truly happy in my heart – after having had the blessing. That's the way with crooked priests everywhere.
On the other hand, my companion got her blessing for the customary twenty rupees, from a handsome, young fellow (as opposed to the two snaggle-toothed wolves who attended to me) and what's more, he told her she'd live to be a hundred. The way they acted, my guys should be pleased to reach fifty. In any case, it's the same lesson again and again – the one who gets you into the most trouble usually walks away without a scratch.
I should also mention another scam that goes on in Pushkar, the henna-handshake scam. Some very friendly Gypsy-looking woman says hello to you in the street, shakes your hand, and by doing so, gives you a henna tattoo. And having greased your palm, she then demands that you grease hers. I was ready for this one, saying hello by pressing my hands together in front of me, which is a respectful greeting that no one could complain about.
Still white-hot incandescent from my brush with the priests, we walked around the town. One surprise was that Pushkar was absolutely choc-a-block with Israeli tourists. Apparently, India is the destination of choice for Israelis, and this was the destination of choice in India. Everyone in Israel has to serve in the military, which is like living in a boiler room, so when they get out of the military, they're not good for very much. They become hippies and march off to India. Not only are the ex-military kids there, but there's a Lubavitcher headquarters in Pushkar as well to exhort them to take up the faith!
Religion aside, Pushkar is a lot less aggressive than places like Jaisalmer, and I actually had a chance to take a look at the shops. I spent a few hours in a good music store, listening to local Rajisthani music, as well as some novel South Indian music that I probably wouldn't have found at home. The owner of the shop knew that he'd caught a big fish, so he spent a lot of time with me and came up with some great music.
From there we went to see the Pushkar Camel Fair. The fair wouldn't start until the next week, but everyone was starting to gather. The Pushkar Camel Fair is probably the most famous camel fair in the world. A hard-working camel can make the difference for an entire village, so this was no mere curiosity. There are not only camels and accessories, but there's food, and even a Ferris wheel. For the duration of the fair, the grounds become a small tent city, with shoemakers, barbers and other merchants – sort of a camel Woodstock.
Later on in the news, it seems that someone had some sort of intelligence that some terrorist activity was afoot somewhere, and the US State Department got into the act as well, telling everyone to avoid the Camel Fair. BBC News 24 interviewed an unusually inarticulate Israeli tourist who said that the fair was unique, that it was one-of-a-kind, and also that it was unique. For some reason the BBC commentator felt she had to deliver a one-liner after every news story. She glumly followed this report with "What a shame." I'm delighted that I got there before the BBC, since in my ignorance I had such a nice time. I can guarantee that the real thing was a whole lot less painful than the coverage.
On the way to the fair we were joined by a young kid playing a fiddle. There were kids all over town with fiddles, selling them for 50 rupees apiece. These local fiddles looked something like zithers, with one playable string and several sympathetic strings. There was a metal version that sounded a lot better than the crude, wooden version he was carrying, and I was hoping to get one later on at one of the music stores in town.
He was a very nice kid, and I kept trying to explain that I wasn't in the market for his particular fiddle, but he insisted on keeping me company. Finally, I got the idea that I could make the both of us happy by taking a fiddle lesson from him. So we sat down amongst the camels and he taught me how to play. The technique was just a bit different. The bow has a high arch and a slack string, To tighten the string you squeeze with your thumb. With the left hand, you use your first finger as a stationery "fret". I wasn't brilliant, but I did get some sound out of the instrument.
I gave him a few rupees for the lesson, though he still kept trying to sell me the fiddle. I tried to explain that he was ahead of the game, since he had some money and he still had the fiddle. In any case, he was pleased enough with his earnings that he asked for one of my empty film containers which he used as a purse, and he insisted that I take his picture. I asked him his name, and of course he said, "Tomato." This seems to be one of the top ten kids' jokes in India.
I'd seen ads all over town for a music school and concert venue: the Saraswati Music Palace, and decided to go looking for it. Perhaps I could get my hands on a fiddle and learn a few things. After a nice lunch of alu gobi I started asking directions. People got me close to the place, but I couldn't find it. I went down a bunch of back streets, up to the main road again, and got pointed in all sorts of directions.
Actually, asking directions from people was a great exercise. Where the same merchants had been trying to throttle me earlier, when I asked for directions, they became different people altogether – pleasant and helpful, with all the time in the world. To them I became someone with something to do, and for their part, they seemed impressed that I was interested in the music. One of the guys smiled at me from across the road, "Tabla! Dig-a-dig-a-dig-a-dig!!"
Whereas before the Music Palace was in the center of town, now it was somewhere on the outskirts. I took a dirt road, walked and walked, and finally asked a woman inside the gate of her house. There was a man passing by, she told him what I was looking for, and he took me there. It turned out that the music school was a small hut that doubled as a cigarette stand.
The owner of the stand invited me inside. He had a set of tablas and a harmonium, not exactly what I expected, but I had spent so much effort getting there that a tabla lesson wouldn't be such a bad thing. He wrote out some rhythms in syllables for me to play, though I was more interested at that point in getting a good tone out of the drums. All through our lesson people kept coming to buy cigarettes. My teacher thought I should buy a set of tablas to take away (commerce is never far away from anything in India), and perhaps take some extra lessons later on. I escaped with a cassette, which for some strange reason, cost less than a pack of cigarettes, though he did offer to sell me cigarettes as well.