[More adventures with Matt Faherty. Bored with the Nepali agricultural experience, he’s since left Nepal, and gone back to India.]
Pushkar and Ajmer – The Religious Good, Bad, and Ugly
I am writing this while sitting in my sleeper bunk on a bus in Ajmer which will take me to Jaipur. The bus doesn’t have a separate compartment or space for luggage, so about half of my tiny bunk is filled up with my two bags. The double bunks across the aisle actually look pretty spacious. Maybe I’ll put my bags on the ground after the bus gets moving.
Four days ago I was in a similar position while taking a bus from Delhi to Pushkar. I was accompanied by a group I had met in Delhi, consisting of four Indians and an American. The Indians were three young women (Swetha, Sarah, and Saawani) and Kailash (a guy). The American was Ken, a Washington DC native and a recent graduate of Yale, currently interning at a think in Delhi. I tagged along with them because I wanted to go to a Western desert city and they happened to be going to Pushkar.
At this point I have firmly established the principle, “transportation in Asia is always interesting,” and this bus ride was no exception. We were scheduled to leave Delhi at 11 PM and arrive in Pushkar at 8:30 AM. I slept most of the way through the use of my comfy parka jacket and a dirty blanket I had to rent for 20 rupees, but I was awoken periodically at various rest stops. By my calculations, the bus stopped at an astounding rate of once every two hours. The only explanation that I can think of for this frequency is that driving in India must be exhausting. It’s not like driving in the US where you can just zone out and trust your memory muscle to stop at lights and maintain the speed limit. Rather, driving in India is a constant struggle to pass the car in front of you and create noise pollution with wholly unnecessary and redundant honks. Zoning out is a proverbial death sentence, so I guess drivers need a lot of breaks.
All of the rest stops had the worst bathrooms I’ve ever seen. They can’t be ranked against each other; they were all tied for the worst. They all had swarms of flies, urine, water, and feces all over the place and smelled like the streets of Dhaka. When I had to urinate, I opted for whatever tall shrubs I could find. When I had to do more than urinate, I experienced the real India.
We arrived in Pushkar by 9:30 AM. Our hotel was a five minute ride away, and of course we got ripped off at the price of 100 rupees. I assumed my native companions would know how to negotiate, but honestly they seemed more inept at it than I am, despite my non-native whiteness.
Our hotel was rather suspect. Shockingly the pictures on their website were actually of the adjacent hotel and ours didn’t actually have a pool (though we were allowed to use the other hotel’s pool). After being forced to wait outside for more than 30 minutes for a room with no apparent end in sight, we opted for another adjacent hotel which looked much nicer but was slightly more expensive.
Swetha, a Banglaore native who grew up speaking English and Tamil and had only recently learned Hindi, complained that the locals in Pushkar kept trying to speak English to her instead of Hindi. They were terrible at English, but just assumed she couldn’t speak Hindi because her dark skin implied she was from the south where Hindi is not common. India is complicated.
Pushkar is a nice change of pace. It’s a tiny town nestled in between a small group of mountains in the desert. The surrounding area looks a lot like Arizona with lots of small shrubs spread over the cracked dirt ground. A light layer of sand covers the city itself and made me wish I wore glasses on occasion. Pushkar looks nothing like Delhi or Calcutta in the sense that it is both secluded and more primitive. The whole town only has four or five ATMs and no meat, or should I say no dead meat since the city as positively crawling with cows which went sadly uneaten. At the same time, it’s a relatively popular travel destination, especially of the dreadlocked hippy variety.
At the center of Pushkar is Pushkar Lake, which I would have guessed was artificial if I hadn’t been told otherwise. The entire circumference, except for one part where an external stream feeds into it, is surrounded by stone steps which ascend two stories to a complimentary circle of white, stone, Muhgalish buildings which also surround the lake. As a result, the whole lake is a giant ghat which is never free of locals bathing. At night there are various Hindu ceremonies where come priests go to the shore, wave some candles around and say some prayers while bystanders look solemnly on.
Pushkar and Lake: Wikipedia
The next ring around the Mughalish buildings is Pushkar’s main street and primary market. I’m sure at one time it sold something important, but today the street stalls exclusively cater to the aforementioned hippie travelers by selling little statues, pipes, rugs, cheap jewelry, and of course stretchy pants complimented by draping V-necks, the official outfit of all Asian hippies. Nevertheless, it’s a nice street to walk down, made better by its rooftop cafes and occasional branching alcove.
After that starts the real city of Pushkar. It consists entirely of windy back allies packed with two stories residencies and small shops. They architectural style isn’t quite Mughal, it looks more like a combination of what I think of as stereotypically Indian style mixed with a desert aesthetic of white sandstone to prevent the whole city from becoming a giant oven. It actually wasn’t too hot when I was there–it may have brushed the low 90s–but in the summer it easily gets up to 110 degrees.
Pushkar is best known for its annual camel market. Thousands of camels flood into the town of less than 15,000 occupants. Our hotel owner said there is enough demand during the market that he charges people to sleep under tents on top of his roof. Unfortunately, I was not able to see the market, but I did see a handful of camels walking around.
There are not too many sights in Pushkar, so I spent most of the time hanging out near the central lake or walking down the narrow streets, but there were a few memorable areas. My first big stop was a temple based on the lake. The central shrine is quite small, but as many as ten priests patrol the area between the main street and the steps leading down to the water. I would soon discover why such a small temple required such a large staff.
My five companions and I approached the temple around noon. It wasn’t clear where the temple grounds began, so no one knew where to take off their shoes. There were numerous piles of footwear scattered throughout the steps leading up and away from the main street. I opted to keep my shoes on until the central shrine was in sight because I cannot stand this annoying custom.
The priests leapt on to us like wild dogs. Or maybe leeches are better metaphorical animals for them. Wild dogs just kill things and eat their bodies; leeches attach and draw blood for as long as they can. They approached carrying small plates with various powdered dyes and flowers on them and insisted that we take the flowers (we were not told until much later that this was not only optional, but also cost 10 rupees per person). Then each of us was grabbed by a single priest and led down to the water. They sat us down in isolation, out of communication distance from our comrades, and proceeded to rush through a prayer.
I was again asked for the names of my father and mother, though I guess he got lazy on the sibling part since he made a prayer for my “brothers” (I have one) and my “sisters” (I have none). He made me repeat everything he said, word for word, and did not seem anywhere near as amused as I was when I kept laughing at my inability to pronounce Hindi words. I don’t think his lack of humor was due to some solemn reverence for this ancient ritual, since he seemed to be rushing through the prayer at lightning speed, and even cut off my awful parroting a few times.
After two minutes of this he moved in for the kill. He told me that everyone donates to the temple when they come here. “They donate 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 rupees. Sometimes they even bring gold or gems.” Wow, if all of these people are donating 1,000 rupees at least, than I should too right? Keep in mind that an average street meal in India costs about 50 rupees, and a decent meal at a western restaurant costs around 200 rupees. So while this guy’s pitch wasn’t as insane as the Calcutta priest’s which asked for over $30, it was still laughably ridiculous. I politely declined.
But he was not done. He literally repeated the same money pitch three times right to my face. I answered the same exact way every time. Eventually he went into desperation mode and just asked for whatever he could get, but I shut that down too. I walked away with my wallet intact.
I’m not religious, and have never been, but the behavior of Hindu priests still strikes me as ridiculously undignified. This type of desperate panhandling combined with guilt-inducing charity terrorism is pretty much unheard of in my experience in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sihkism, and Shintoism. These Hindu priests really come off as charlatans. They pull in random passersby, quickly mutter some blessings which I can’t comprehend and then demand payment for their holy work. I have never seen a Christian priest, Muslim imam, or Buddhist monk do anything remotely similar. It’s pathetic.
Could this behavior have something to do with donation patterns? Christians give their tithes every Sunday when they go to church. I assume Muslims do the same thing on their holy day. I’m not sure what Buddhists do. Apparently Hindus don’t have a set donation time, so they must always be on the prowl for funds. This tourist attack strategy is probably pretty effective. Then again, as I will describe later, even Pushkar Lake’s priests have nothing on the Muslims running a certain tomb in Ajmer.
Another cool spot in Pushkar was this mountain behind our hotel area. If you put a cross on top of the hill top temple, you could probably trick yourself into thinking you were looking at a hill in New Mexico. I heard some confusing reports on the actual purpose of the hilltop temple. One person said it was a place to perform animal sacrifices, while another said it was a place to repent for accidentally killing animals. If it’s both, then Hinduism is even worse than I thought.
I walked up the hill and got a great view of Pushkar. The mountain was on the opposite side of a row of similarly sized desert mountains on the opposite side of Pushkar. To the left and right of the town stretched the desert to the horizon, or more accurately, to the point where some odd haze covered the horizon. I didn’t think the haze was smog because Pushkar isn’t an industrial town and is pretty far from any major cities. But it also rained that night, so maybe it was some weather effect.
The Hindu temples in Pushkar look different from those in Delhi or Calcutta. They tend to be based in walled-off areas, and are always entirely grey. I went to a few and saw some slightly different architectural styles. I was informed that one of the temples had an odd mix of Mughal and southern Indian aesthetics. I guess I’ll be confirming that assertion when I travel south in the coming weeks.
The most interesting Hindu temple in Pushkar was discovered accidentally. I was walking around the windy streets when I spotted another walled off area and decided to take a look. At first it looked like any other temple in Pushkar, but then I noticed that the entire back half of the walled in area was covered with rose petals. As in, I literally could not see the ground, I could only see a carpet of petals.
I have no idea what these petals were for, but the effect was quite beautiful, especially since the red color really popped out against the grey backdrop. I’m less curious about the reason and more curious about the logistics. How long did it take to create this sea of petals? How long until these petals wilt and the ground gets covered with plant detritus? Why is something so elaborate done at a remote temple? Reader, I honestly don’t know.
The best sight in Pushkar was the Jhulelar Mandir, a stunning Sikh temple built fifteen years ago. Just as I have Mughal fatigue, I am well into the territory of temple fatigue, but this was a nice change of temple pace. It was my first Sikh temple, and so far I’m impressed with the religion.*
The building itself is a clean, pure white which reflects wonderfully in the desert sunlight. It has a staircase leading up to a mosque-like court yard which proceeds into the central shrine. The shrine room also looks vaguely like the inside of a mosque, but with no dome and more pillars based around a bunch of metal symbols and statues. The temple’ style is far more elegant than the usual Hindu temple. The latter has a strong “more is more” sentiment and tends to just pack as many squiggly designs and idols in as small a space as possible, thereby creating a chaotic and clustered aesthetic. But this Sikh temple uses rounded lines, lots of arches and domes, too be complimented by only the occasional decoration. It manages to be luxurious without being gaudy.
Maybe it’s because I’m so used to the unholy behavior of Hindu priests, but I was happy to see the Sikhs acting so respectfully. Were I in a different mood, I would probably rant about how annoying it is not only have to take off my shoes outside of the temple, but to wash my feet as well. But it’s nice to see a religious group going all out with the “keep the holy places” clean philosophy, plus the whole temple really was spotless. The small water pool integrated with front steps was a nice touch too. It makes the cleansing seem more powerful than merely spraying my feet down with a hose.
The temple also required me to cover my head. That’s a first for me. Women have to do that at mosques, but men can usually let their hair run free, even if a lot of Muslims wear their special hats too. Fortunately, the priests provided me with a bandanna for my hair.
Ironically, shortly after leaving the Sikh temple I stepped in a giant pile of cow shit. I knew this would inevitably occur ever since I set foot in India. It took me about a month, but it finally happen. I didn’t bother asking the Sikhs if I could dip my shoes in their pool.
Before I parted with the rest of the group, we took a day trip to the nearby city of Ajmer, which has a population of over 550,000. We were able to easily cover the whole city in a few hours.
The first stop was Akbar’s Fort, which is unworthy of sustained discussion. It’s a small enclosure with Mughal architecture. There are a bunch of random, unexplained artifacts inside. Great.
The second stop was the Golden Temple, though not the far more famous one in Amritsar. This was a Jain Temple, I think. I’m sure it was a Jain something, but I’m not sure it was a temple. It looked like some old colonial building which had a big Indian renovation but was still under construction. After paying to enter, we went through a series of hallways surrounding one central room which was two stories tall. The hallways all had windows into the central room.
Golden Temple of Ajmer: Wikipedia
In the central room itself was the Jain’s version of the afterlife. Or maybe it was some other spiritual world, the explanation wasn’t very clear. Either way, it was pretty damn awesome. It’s an enormous model, kind of like a model train set, which portrays two complexes with central towers. The model contains thousands of human and animals figures walking in between absurdly elaborate walls, bridges, pathways, and ethereal elevator thingies. Above the towers fly steam punk looking boats modeled after various animals and piloted by people. It all looks vaguely like an Indian Lord of the Rings set up, except that it is 100% gold colored. I am 99% it is not made of real gold though. I highly recommend Google images.
Our final stop in Ajmer was the Dargah Sharif, the shrine of Moinuddin Chishti, a Sufi saint. I had never heard of this thing prior to arrival, and I thought Sufis only existed between the Mediterranean Sea and Iran.** Wikipedia tells me this guy Chishti brought Sufism to India and is kind of a big deal. Though Muslim, his shrine, which is also his tomb, is a big pilgrimage site for Muslims and Hindus alike in India. Maybe that explains why it’s the Al Qaida of charity terrorism in India.
The first hassle began on approach to the shrine. There is a half kilometer road lined with hotels and cheap restaurants in front of the shrine entrance. The Sufi guy was supposed to be a great patron to the poor, so now this place is completely mobbed with beggars, of which I was an obvious target. Nothing adds to a holy place like a crowded Indian street filled with both foot and automobile traffic. Speaking of which, I came up with a good analogy to simulate the experience of this type of road.
Shrine of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti: VRMuslim, Wikipedia
Imagine that you are walking down the side walk of some city minding your own business. Some guy is walking behind you at a faster pace. You are walking on one side of the sidewalk, so he has plenty of room to pass you. Despite this fact, as he gets within a few feet of you, and guy screams “MOOVE!!!” at the top of his lungs. Startled, you go even further to the side of the path. As he is passing you, the guy against screams “MOOVE!!!” at the top of his lungs. You are so shocked that you look around you to see if anyone else noticed this insane behavior. To your horror, you see that everyone is doing it. Everyone is screaming “MOOVE!!!” as loudly as they can any time they get anywhere near any other person. That is the Indian street experience.***
Anyway, once we got about fifty feet from the temple, we bought a bandana to cover our heads, since apparently these guys don’t provide complimentary ones like the Sikhs do. They we had to take off our shoes and walk the remaining fifty feet of disgusting Indian road in our socks or bare feet (I had socks on of course).
We passed through metal detectors at the front entrance and had to endure pat downs. The guy in front of me had a camera which would have to be left with the guards at the entrance. I didn’t want to go through that process so I slyly snuck by. This is India after all, I wouldn’t try that crap in a Saudi Arabian mosque, but here none of the police or private security guards care enough to do their jobs well.
After we passed through the entrance gate, I had a mini panic attack as I glanced at an enormous hill in front of me and briefly feared I would have to climb that thing, in socks no less. Fortunately the fears were unfounded, and I continued into some sort of marble Muslim complex. I’m not sure how to describe the place, but it was completely mobbed with people. It was also prayer time (mosques don’t let non-Muslims in during prayer time, so I guess this doesn’t count as a mosque) so I had to dodge random Muslims in mid kneel.
The central structure is surprisingly small, probably no bigger than most people’s bedrooms. There was a jumbled line of people trying to get into the building. They were literally packed together. As in, each person was leaning on every other person, while trying to shove their way into the room.
Before my five companions and I could enter, we were intercepted by… I’m not sure what he was. I don’t think he was an imam. I guess he was some sort of holy shrine watcher. But once again I was forced to go through another process to get into a holy structure which seemingly no one else was going through. In this case, my group sat down on a rug in front of this guy, while he raised his hands and said some prayer in Hindi while holding his hands up in front of his face. The others in my group followed suit. A minute later he put his hands down and I inferred by his interaction with the others in my group that he was asking for a monetary donation in exchange for the privilege of writing our names in a ledger (first solicitation).
I said “no,” of course, but once again my companions folded like origami. Once of them gave 100 rupees for herself, and the other gave 100 rupees “for the rest of us.” Though I never wrote my name in the book, so I guess I opted out.
It is also worth noting that this guy’s official job may have been “hair enforcer.” Three or four times during his prayer, he stopped, pointed at some poor lady on line, and yelled something until she moved her veil or bandana around until not a single hair was poking out. I have never seen such a strict enforcement of this rule.****
We joined the pile of humans trying to force themselves through a single file door into a tiny room, 50% of which was taken up by the “coffin” (do Muslims use coffins? I don’t know what this thing is called). I was at the back of my group, so behind me was a very old lady, she had to be about seventy, but she had the strength of a twenty five year old, as I can attest due to her constant shoving. Seriously, we were in a single file line and my chest was pressed up against the guy in front of me, but this lady shoved me forward every thirty seconds, as if I had some control over the line and was constantly slowing it down on purpose. Actually, this strategy is very reminiscent of Indian roads and sidewalks, where people constantly aggressively try to move forward, sometimes at great discomfort and risk, for the sake of getting barely closer to their destination.
I miss America.
Before I could enter the shrine room, there was yet another shrine guardian guy, with an even more bizarre role. He held what was either a bunch of peacock feathers or a light stick with feathers tied to the end. He would wave it over people’s heads as they filed towards the temple entrance. Sometimes he would hit them in the head. Sometimes he would block their path. In my case, he blocked my path and held out his hand for money (second solicitation). When I repeatedly refused, he lifted the stick and hit me in the head with it twice. It didn’t hurt because it was light, but still, WTF?
I bravely pressed onwards, until I had finally been shoved by the old lady enough to stumble inside of the shrine room. There wasn’t much to see. The coffin thing was covered in cloth. The walls and ceiling were made of unremarkable stone and I don’t remember any of the meager decorations. What I do remember were four men standing in front of the coffin. They would look at the crowd (which would not stop shoving), and then grab people’s hands to pull them closer and then ask for money. This happened to me twice (third and fourth solicitations).
The coffin was surrounded by a metal cage. I got pushed with the flow of the crowd around the metal cage until I was to the side of it where I saw a new level of insanity. The temple guardians were equipped with colored ropes which they would use to wrap around random people’s heads to pull them over to the metal cage to ask for money. Yes, they would literally yank people by the neck. It happened to someone in my group, and I saw it occur numerous times. I myself stayed clear but I still had my hand grabbed and was again asked for money (fifth solicitation).
Finally I stumbled out the rear entrance and once more entered the light. The shrine was disgusting. The treatment of the pious people who came here was astounding. The arrogance and shamelessness of the guardians or whatever they are was literally criminal. But once again, I escaped a holy place with my wallet intact.
*Irfan: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find Wiki-commons images I was able to put on the site.
**Irfan: (!) Dude. Does the name Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan not ring a bell on the subcontinental Sufi front? Soundtracks for “Last Temptation of Christ,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Natural Born Killers”….
Incidentally, it’s worth adding that the saint’s full name is Khawaja Moinuddin Chishthi. Am I related to him? Probably.
Amusingly, my cousins Saad and Salman Rafiq went to the same shrine in January 2012, didn’t encounter any of the difficulties Matt describes here, and generally described their experience as a transcendent encounter with the divine.
***Irfan: It almost sounds like the traffic here in New Jersey.
****Irfan: I have, in Saudi Arabia. Anyone who goes on the pilgrimage to Mecca can expect random pilgrims to set themselves up as guardians of ritual and sartorial purity, calling their fellow Muslims out for the most minute deviations from ritual orthodoxy, including trivial failures of the sort Matt describes here. After the pilgrimage, my mother was almost run down in the city of Jidda by a car whose driver took offense at her failure to cover her hair fully (the wind had blown her hijab back off of her forehead). Though she wasn’t badly hurt, his car did in fact make physical contact with her. I was, of course, too paralyzed by the situation to lift a finger to help her.