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November 2009
Meeting Brahma and a Sufi Saint
Mukesh Khosla
If it's a great pleasure to check into a starred hotel in Pushkar, it is an even greater pleasure to check out of it a day later. That's because a hotel is a hotel after all, any where in the world.

After having burnt a hole in your pocket, you will realise that there are better ways to be a tourist in this ancient Rajasthani city of temples, festivals and fairs.There are several ways to enjoy Pushkar. On foot, on a camel or in a boat. You could see Pushkar while sitting atop the ship of the desert. Or on a boat on the famed city lake. And of course, by taking a walking tour of the city. These are the best ways to take in Pushkar's spiritual sights, its hushed sounds and exquisite street aromas.

Pushkar is like a mirage in the desert. As you motor your way to the city from Jaipur, cutting through the unending sands, Pushkar seems to rise out of the dunes. Nothing can really prepare you for the sheer magic of this desert city of Rajasthan surrounded on three sides by hills and by sand dunes on the fourth. The surreal houses and the silhouettes of humans and camels seem to move dream-like in the sandy haze - an extension of the desert etched against the sky, as if in a fairy tale.

The overpowering image of the city is its lake. Mythology says that it was created on the spot where a lotus dropped from the beak of Lord Brahma's swan. As the lotus touched the ground, the earth parted and water gushed out. Within a matter of no time a lake was formed where Brahma performed a yagna.

Holy Dip

According to legend, those who take a dip in this holy lake, wash away all their sins. It is believed that the water not just cleanses your body but also your soul. The surest way to salvation, some say, is to take a dip on karthik purnima night with sages chanting hymns to Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe. But Pushkar is more than just the lake. The only temple (though some sources say there are three) dedicated to Brahma is located at the place where he performed the yagna. It is curious that the creator of the universe has just one temple dedicated to him (while Vishnu and Shiva have numerous in almost every city in India). Anyway, mythology justifies this with the tale that anyone who tries to construct another edifice for Brahma will instantly meet his doom.

Believe it or not, the city has over 400 temples and 52 ghats (stairways descending into the lake). Pushkar is one of India's most ancient cities of the world. There is mention of it in the Ramayana which states that Vishwamitra would come here to pray. Mahabharata mentions Yudhisthir making a pilgrimage here to take a dip in the holy waters. Pushkar finds references in Fa-Hien's account of India in the fourth century. According to the spiritually-driven tourists, no trip to India's four dhams is complete without a visit to Pushkar as well. That is why it is sometimes referred to as the fifth dham or tirath Raj - the king of all pilgrimages.

Material Pleasures

But apart from spirituality, there are many material pleasures to be experienced in Pushkar. The colourful market located just near the lake has the most incredible hand-painted handicrafts and embroidered apparel. Shops are chockfull of artifacts meant more for the foreigners than Indians - with price tags that suggest the same.

Yet a walk through the main market is a notto- be-missed experience. It is a hub of activity where you can pick up a large variety of local crafts and a mind-boggling array of bracelets, trinkets and other chunky jewellery. The narrow streets are a walker's dream - no traffic and no honking, though you do take a bit of jostling. But just surrender to your instincts and you'll have covered practically the entire city on foot without any feeling of exhaustion.

One of the enduring delights of Pushkar is its street food. It's everywhere! On pushcarts, in hole-in-the-wall shops and its dhaabas that serve typical Rajasthani fare down to dal batti churma and lahsoon ki chutney. You could find ubiquitous samosas, bhajjia and chaat, the all-you-can-eat thali and the lassi that you could have laced with bhang.

And the food surprises just start there. Raju Terrace Restaurant will serve you the best shepherd's pie this side of England. At The Third Eye, the menu offers hummus, falafel and penne with fresh tomatoes and feta cheese. With the influx of international tourists, the local eateries have seized the opportunity and learnt their native cuisine - British, French, German, Israeli and even Mediterranean. You can get almost anything except alcohol and non-vegetarian fare.

Camel Tales

Late in the evening, our local guide, Parsuram Meena transports us back in time with his tales of the desert, where the camel once was the sole mode of transportation. Rajasthan no longer remains the mysterious unknown desert to be trudged only on a camel. The dunes are no longer distant and unyielding. Today, the state is well connected with all modes of transportation. But the fascination for the camel and the desert remains.

Besides the temple, Pushkar owes its global popularity to the Camel Fair. The massive and colourful fair takes place in November and an estimated 25,000 humped beasts are traded during the fair by turbaned locals, accompanied by their womenfolk in resplendent attire. There are cattle and other animals on sale as well, but the main focus is on camels.

But a word of caution: unless you are booked well in advance during the fair, don't bother going to Pushkar. There is nary a place that will accommodate you, and you might have to sleep on the desert sand. Tourists come from all corners to witness the biggest camel fair in the world.

Ajmer Sharif

Fifteen kilometres away, Ajmer Sharif is home to Dargah Sharif of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti whose blessings are sought by every Muslim. In fact many Muslims consider this to be as important a place of worship as Mecca and Medina. A few years ago, the then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf came to pray at this marble-domed shrine.

Such is the rush of tourists to this city not just from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries with Muslim population, but also people of other religions too, that the Railway Minister has sanctioned a special train from Delhi to Ajmer Sharif in the 2009 Railway Budget.

According to Muslim holy books, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti passed away in 1256 A.D. after praying in seclusion for six days. These six days are now celebrated as Urs every year. Legend has it that the Dargah Sharif is a place of wish fulfillment - especially in these six days - for those who pray here with true feelings and tie a thread in the shrine shall be granted their wish. Emperor Akbar is said to have been blessed with a son after he offered his obeisance at the dargah.

The city has other attractions including the famous twelfth century mosque called Adhai Din ka Jhonpara. This was originally the site of a Sanskrit vishvidhyalaya (university) which was destroyed by the Muslim invader Muhammad Ghori in 1193. Within two and a half days he built a mosque in its place, which explains its unusual name Adhai Din (two and a half days).

Ajmer has its own lake but unlike that at Pushkar, the Ana Sagar Lake is man-made and was constructed by Anaji Chauhan, grandfather of Prithviraj Chauhan. Over the centuries, successive Mughal kings have enhanced the beauty of the lake. The Daulat Bagh gardens and the Baradari (marble pavilion) are the major attractions around the lake.

Sandy Tracks

But whether in Ajmer or Pushkar, the camel safari should be a part of the itinerary of every tourist - a safari that traverses over the sandy tracks, passing remote villages, with the unforgettable experience of watching the sunset over the desert.

The best season for a camel safari is from November to March - that is the period between the onset of winter to early spring. There are packages available from one thousand rupees per person per day, upto even five thousand bucks a day. The safari can just be a day-long affair or be stretched to a seven-day adventure. The view from atop a camel is truly amazing - endless stretches of sand with no sign of civilisation. On the back of a camel, you can cover a vast expanse of the desert and capture a lifetime of memories. The quaint rural houses in the setting sun, the magnificent temples, Rajasthani women in colourful attire walking miles to fetch water, men in multi-hued turbans supporting huge moustaches, the stepwells, the sandstorms, the chinkaras, the blackbucks, the soaring eagles… A picture postcard exotica that has held an enduring fascination for the footloose traveller.

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