Pushkar is like a Hollywood take on the exotic East – camels, veiled women with kohl-rimmed eyes, sadhus with dreadlocks, bazaars, turbans and temples. But despite the thousands of tourists who arrive here every year, Pushkar is a blithely unselfconscious, unspoilt little town. It  nonchalantly includes the goras (white people) as just another exotic tribe of the many that converge here . It’s a small but significant
temple town in central Rajasthan in the north-west of India. At the very heart of it is a sacred lake called Pushkar, which means lake of the lotus blossom. So sacred, that a statute of the local administrative body forbids smoking and the consumption of alcohol within a radius of 2km of the lake. A disgruntled tippler has scrawled his protest with graffiti that reads – “No spirituality without spirit”.

Foreigners are not allowed to bathe in the lake, but every now and then a blonde skinny-dipper will make local headlines and send an indignant ripple across the Pushkar. Last year, a Swiss couple were married in a traditional Hindu ceremony at a temple in Pushkar . Then, as the pundit pronounced them man and wife, the husband kissed his bride full on the lips, sending the local Brahmin community into a paroxysm of shock and horror. The bewildered groom spent his wedding night in the police
lock-up, in all his wedding finery, until he was rescued the next
morning by the District Collector.

From the air, Pushkar would look like an efflorescence with the lake at its centre; hugging it are
52 ghats – steps leading into the water ,where rituals and holy dips
are performed. These give onto a ring of about 500 whitewashed temples
and ashrams. Circling that are the rocky Aravalli hills glittering with
mica deposits, and beyond that spread hundreds of hectares of rose
fields! Some 324ha of land around Pushkar are under rose cultivation –
not the hothouse variety, but the fragrant desi gulab whose petals are
used to extract rose essence.

People-watching in Pushkar is an exercise that can absorb you for days. That’s best done by making
yourself comfortable at a roadside stall with a cup of the matchless
masala tea. One of the first thing you notice are the unmistakable
hoof-prints of the international budget traveller- the Lonely Planet
brigade that carries its ragtag sub-culture in their backpacks.
Wherever they land, they unload their own unique little world,
instantly recognisable whether in Paharganj, Dharamsala, Leh, Anjuna or
Thamel -the shops selling cheap clothes made of silk scrap, beaded bags
and carved chillums; the rooftop cafés that play trance and serve
Israeli food.

The backpackers are predominantly Israeli, and
unlike their European counterparts, who come for the exotic
tantra-mantra experience, the Israeli’s are here on the marijuana trail
and the cheap living. Here at Pushkar, they are the insiders, zipping
past on two-wheelers, dreadlocks flying over bare, bronzed shoulders,
or lounging at tea-stalls in groups, their tattooed women in silk and
quantities of silver.

This very traditional but inclusive little
town, has about 15 gori-bahus – “white daughters-in-law” – tourists so
enchanted by the Rajasthani romance that they’ve stayed on and married
local boys. Now they veil their faces and scour their pots at the
courtyard tap like any Rajasthani woman. There’s even a Frenchwoman
married to a Gujjar camel herder, who with her husband now tends their
herds, and wears the ornate gear of a nomad: a swirling embroidered
skirt, bone bangles up to her upper arms and heavy silver ornaments
around her waist, ankles and head. Not just a passing whimsy, but one
that has already endured 12 years. The local men most likely to steal
the heart of a gori girl are the tall, handsome tour guides with their
long hair, pierced earlobes and dashing manners.

For most of the
year, Pushkar is a quirky but relaxed temple town. Silversmiths and
cloth merchants lounge about on white bolsters in their small
shopfronts At Ganesh Arts, near the Brahma temple, watched by a family
of langur monkeys, Sudesh pores over a high-quality miniature painting
he’s been working on for a week. It’s a Radha-Krishna theme interpreted
in shades of blue. The fabric is stretched onto a board using
arrowroot, and is painted in stone-colours. There’s much to buy and
shopkeepers will rarely overcharge. In fact, most of Pushkar is
ridiculously cheap except during the annual fair, when all prices are
quadrupled. Women are seldom harassed and tourists hang out in the
rooftop café’s long after the locals have retired for the night.

at Varanasi, arti is performed on the ghats at dawn and dusk. Bells
chime and the hymn is sung as priests turn the oil-lamps with their
corona of burning wicks. Devotees scatter rose petals on the water and
set afloat little earthen oil lamps , turning the water into a
firmament of dancing flames. Prasad, a food offering for the gods, is
prepared in all the 500 or so temples, and is distributed free to
everyone who goes there. All through the year, there is reason to pray,
dress-up and celebrate, as gods and mortals mingle. A god has a
birthday or a marriage, or a devi moves down from her mountain abode to
a winter home in the plains.

Then there are pujas for the souls of ancestors; for mundan – the ceremonial shaving of the head of a
child and janeu – a sacred thread ceremony for initiation into manhood.
There are processions and pageantry for every season and tourists, like
pilgrims, are incorporated without comment into the non-stop stream of
religious activity.

Pushkar has a long tourist season that starts in October and lasts till March. There’s never a dull moment o
the stone-paved lanes. You could walk or take a ride on an
“air-conditioned thela” –  a vegetable cart pushed around by a cheeky
urchin. It’s the only ride available because cars are not allowed on
these narrow streets. Groups of cross-dressing male eunuchs called
Hijras, walk mincingly by, on their way to offer prayers at their own
exclusive shrine. There are men in spotless white dhotis and iridescent
turbans in shades of acid green and flourescent pink. Little urchins
who know rude words in 10 different languages, make foreigners laugh. A
bra-less tourist wears a T-shirt which announces that she doesn’t wear
knickers either.

From another lane a fabulously dressed procession strides in  – it’s the entire cast of the Ramayana, with a
villainous Ravana atop a camel leading the pack, supremely macho in
lustrous moustaches and mobile phone. Following him is Hanuman’s
monkey-army, a jeep-full of men with long tails and body-suits that
don’t do much for their flabby tummies. Inexplicably, there’s even the
goddess Kali on an A/C thela, with a long red metal tongue that wobbles

To the outsider, it would all seem too absurd to be considered serious elements of worship, but religion in India is full of improbable juxtapositions – intense and also funny, classical and
also tacky, holy and also irreverent, devout and also wily. The Pushkar
lifescape is played out in what used to be an ancient settlement that
dates back to the fourth century, though most of the temples and
structures here are between 200 and 300 years old.


154km (three hours by road) from Jaipur. The nearest airport is
Sanganer at Jaipur. Taxi fare from Jaipur would cost roughly Rs1000
(US$21.78) in the
off season. During the Fair, it could be double that. The distance from Delhi is about 400km.

easiest way from Delhi is to catch the early morning train and get to
Ajmer by lunch, a six-and-half hour journey. Ajmer is about 30 minutes
by road from Pushkar, and the taxi fare is Rs300 (US$6.53) for an
air-conditioned car.


The best time to visit is between
October and March. The Fair is usually in November, and accommodation
during that period must be booked well in advance.