According to Hindu belief, a trinity rules the pantheon. There is the Creator, Brahma; the Preserver, Vishnu; and the Destroyer, Brahma. Oddly enough, while Shiva and Vishnu—and even other deities of the pantheon—have plenty of temples dedicated to them across India, Brahma has only one major temple—and it’s in Pushkar, 12 km from Ajmer. There are various myths to explain this strange fact—one claims that Brahma’s wife Savitri cursed him for having married another; a second myth ascribes the curse to Shiva, who is said to have punished Brahma for lying.
Whatever it may be, Pushkar is home to India’s only major Brahma temple.
And Brahma is not the only deity who is worshipped in Pushkar. This is a holy place, a place of pilgrimage. The Pushkar Sarovar—the tiny lake that is at the heart of the town—is supposed to be blessed, so that taking a dip in its waters is a preliminary to entering a temple to worship. Around the rim of the lake are 52 ghats, sets of shallow steps that lead down to the water, allowing a paved space for pilgrims to leave shoes, clothing etc before they enter the water. These 52 ghats were made by various people, most of them kings and nobility from across Rajasthan. The Jaipur Ghat, for example, was made by the Maharaja of Jaipur; similarly, the Jodhpur Ghat. Each ghat has its own temple at the top of the steps, often a grand gateway too leading onto the ghats.
Priests are a dime a dozen in Pushkar, sitting at the ghats and looking out for likely worshippers whom they can lead through a quick ritual in exchange for money. During the peak season—November and December—they make good money. That’s also when the annual Pushkar cattle fair, a big event in the tourism calendar, takes place, with camels and horses and cattle being sold, and much festivity, music and dancing. The rest of the year, things are quieter.
We arrive in Pushkar on a warm spring afternoon, just in time for lunch. We come armed with the names of two recommended cafés (cafés are popular in Pushkar, which has a huge backpacker community). One of them, Sunset Café, is right by the lake. While having lunch, we look out and admire the view. The lake is still, peaceful, free of any visible life. Ringing it are the 52 ghats, all bare steps right now, not a single devotee bather in sight. Photographing bathing devotees, by the way, is a punishable offence. There is in fact, a long list of acts that may be construed as offences. It’s up, written in white on a very visible red board, signed by the Sub-Divisional Magistrate at Ajmer:
Do not let your cattle to come into streets.
Dress up decently in public places and do not embrace.
Consumption of alcohol, drugs and non-vegetarian food is strictly prohibited.
No vulgarity, no smooching and no hugging at ghats. (Unfortunately, this one had been painted wrong, with a space at the wrong place, so it appeared as "No smoochin gand…". Gand is a very obscene word in Hindi for an intimate part of the human anatomy.
But they mean well. And Pushkar, at least to the daytripper from Ajmer, is a quiet and lovely place to visit. The foreign tourists, instead of smooching and hugging, were sitting in cafés and reading The Rough Guide to India, or walking along the shores of the lake, or paying obeisance at the Brahma Temple. We went down to the rim of the lake—where a trio of elegant blackwinged stilts were pecking about, along with a few blue rock pigeons. A priest managed to grab Tarun and bully him into getting some prayers said for his ancestors, his family, me, and any future children we might have. He grumbled a bit at the payment Tarun offered for his services, but we escaped soon enough.
A circuit of the Pushkar lake, known as a parikrama, is believed to be very auspicious. It is also a great way of seeing the town up close—which was why we decided on doing a parikrama. You simply begin walking from any point on the shore of the lake, and then walk clockwise right round the lake until you end up where you began. We started at the Jaipur Ghat. It was a fascinating walk, large sections of the route leading through quiet old temples set in tree-shaded courtyards, past small hotels, handicrafts shops and sleepy cafés which may have done roaring business in the winter, but are now deserted. Along the way are glimpses of Pushkar as its own population knows it: cows grazing in a small yard, a camel pushing out its lip as it pulls a cart down a street, dogs sleeping by a ghat. Women with bright red or orange veils walk down the lanes, carrying firewood on their heads; a man sells vegetables from a cart while his neighbour sells henna. Someone further down the street had set up a bangle stall in the large, beautifully decorated doorway of an old mansion. There are some lovely old mansions here. I don’t know what condition they are on the inside, but the exteriors are fascinating: painted, tiled, carved, with gorgeously worked plaster—this is the ultimate grand mix of Rajasthani, Mughal and colonial architecture.
Pushkar may seem very touristy to the jaded palate; but I liked it a lot. Possibly that’s because we visited at a time when the weather was great but the hordes of tourists had gone. It was a quiet, relaxed place with a charm all its own, and it was surprisingly clean for a place so popular.
According to Hindu belief, one day—12 hours—in the life of Brahma equals 4 billion and 320 million years for a human being. I couldn’t imagine spending that much time in any one place, but if Pushkar is where Brahma resides, I think he’d probably be liking it a lot. I would.