Hello from Pushkar, which is regarded as one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. We arrived here yesterday lunchtime following a horrific 5am start and a 5.5 hour train journey from Udaipur. I was sad to leave India's city of romance, which had a lovely relaxed vibe about it. An evening boat cruise was the final action of my time there, which awarded us incredible views of the sun setting over the mountains. But that very much marked the end of a chilled out two days. The 6.15am train from Pushkar was not remotely relaxing! Our seats were very uncomfortable and we were repeatedly pestered during the journey by begging children. Some of them boasted tambourines, though like most Indian musicians I've seen they had absolutely no musical talent. It seems anyone can be a musician in India. You just need a wailing voice, an instrument and the ability to beat the hell out of it! The train took us to the chaotic town of Ajmer, from where we caught cars over the Snake Mountain Pass here to Pushkar - a journey of just 11km.
Pushkar is a very small city, with a permenant population of just 25,000. Taking into account the many tourists and Hindu pilgrims that figure is probably boosted a little bit, but the place has a small town feel. We pretty much covered it all on our one hour evening orientation walk, which we timed to escape the rising heat. The end of March in India is the start of the hot season, and in my 2 weeks here I've been able to feel the temperature changing. Today's high was in the region of 34C, but at least the heat is dry and not humid.
The first thing that strikes you on a walk through Pushkar is just how many western hippies there are here! Apparently many of them are from Israel, but there's definitely some Australian, American and British hippies mixed in too. A lot of them appear to be permenant residents, but I suspect that a few years ago they were probably office workers in Tel Aviv or London or somewhere. It strikes me as a strange decision to move from the western world to India, and many of them appear to be very strange people. Years of drug abuse and lazing around appear to have taken their toll of some of the scruffy hippies, and you see many of them ranting to no one in particular in the street. This morning one middle aged lady in our cafe was screaming to herself about how she doesn't need the love of a human, and how she was very clean! Nobody paid any attention to her but I was slightly concerned to see she'd been given a very sharp knife to cut through her french toast - she really didn't look like the most stable of people!
There also appear to be more beggars and disabled people in Pushkar than other cities we've visited. The two things go hand in hand in India as virtually no company will set on an invalid. I'm not sure if they come here hoping to take advantage of tourists and people trying to do good on their pilgrimmages, or whether they believe the waters of holy Lake Pushkar will help cure their ails. I suspect its a bit of both. Hindu's believe Pushkar Lake was created when Brahma (the Hindu creationist God) dropped a lotus leaf from the heavens, and bathing in its holy waters is the main reason the pilgrims flock. Unfortunately because of drought the large lake is all but empty, which makes for a very ugly sight. The pilgrims instead use bathing pools constructed by the ghats, which in Hindi means steps down to a lake.
I find the Hindu mythological stories quite bizarre if I'm honest, and they remind me a lot of the Aboriginal dreamtime tales. However, what surprises me most about them is how the stories don't seem to have any moral purpose. For example one of the key stories linked to Pushkar is about the wedding of Brahma, which was apparently conducted here. Brahma was all set to marry a woman and was waiting at the alter only to find she never turned up. So on a whim he picked a woman from the crowd and married her instead. Brahma's initial fiance returned soon after and became infuriated. So in revenge she swore that Brahma would only be worshipped in Pushkar, and nowhere else on Earth. For that reason, Pushkar contains Hinduism's only temple devoted to Brahma, whereas temples devoted to Hinduism's other two main Gods (Vishnu and Shiva) can be found all across India.
There is a story related to Shiva (the God which protects from evil) which is even more bizarre. Shiva and his wife had a child named Ganesh. However when Ganesh was born Shiva walked out on his family and went missing for a couple of decades. When he returned to try and locate his estranged wife he was confronted by his son, who blocked the path of a man he didn't recognise. Shiva, not recognising his son, in turn beheaded Ganesh to get past him. On discovering that he had beheaded his own child, a mortified Shiva picked up the head of the nearest animal he could find, which happened to be an elephant, and that is how Ganesh came to have an elephant's head.
Many of the Hindu temples here are inaccessible to westerners, but I was permitted entry to the Brahma Temple - albeit once I'd left my camera outside. For the holiest temple in one of Hinduism's holiest cities, it was very disappointing. There wasn't much to it at all in terms of decoaration, and I left feeling very underwhelmed. From there I ascended a nearby hill (750ft from ground level) to reach Pushkar's second holiest site, the Sakitri Temple. By now it was about 11.30am and really starting to get hot, so it was unsurprising very few people were up there. The temple itself looked like a concrete shack and was very ugly both inside and out, but my walk was rewarded by stunning views over Pushkar and the surrounding desert.
After descending the hill I then took a walk around the dry lake, which would look so much more beautiful if it had water in. As I approached the ghats to get down to the lake bed I had a rather ugly confrontation with a Hindu man, which I feel a bit guilty about. He tried to thrust a flower in my hand which he told me to give as an offering, but I shirked his advances. In Pushkar there are so many conmen trying to perform this same trick, and when you take the flower they insist you give them some money. We were told to avoid them. But this man got really, really angry when I wouldn't take the flower, and he wouldn't let me past. My only option was to accept it and see what would happen, but to my surprise he just thrust it in my hand and walked off immidiately. He wasn't after money at all, he was just a man trying to make sure I paid my respects to his religion. In order to pay your respects at the ghats you also have to remove your shoes. On the dusty lake bed this was not a problem, but on the stone paths and steps it very much was. Quite how all the Indians were comfortably walking about barefooted I don't know, as the stone was absolutely red hot. I had to sprint and I still felt like I burned my soles!
Having seen all of Pushkar by about 1pm I've had the afternoon to relax by the neighouring hotels pool, and now use the internet. British Airways announced their flight schedule for the opening period of strikes yesterday, so I was eager to look at that. All but one London-Delhi flight has been cancelled, but the four Delhi-London flights over the weekend are not. I fly on a Sunday, which will again be the second day of the strikes, so I could see this as a good omen. However the Monday Delhi-London flights are cancelled, and there will be so much disruption in the week between the strikes I'd be surprised if they were able to implement the same schedule. I will find out on March 22nd at the earliest whether I can come home, which leaves me with an uncomfortably long wait in the meantime. I just want to find out so I can enjoy the rest of my trip - this is really pre-occupying me.
Tomorrow morning at 8am we are departing Pushkar and heading to Rajasthan's capital Jaipur by means of a 4 hour bus. Lets hope this bus doesn't meet the same fate as another Rajasthani coach filled with school children, which 2 days ago plunged off a bridge, killing 26. Having experienced Indian roads I can well imagine this happening, so lets hope I make it alive!