The girl in the purple turban and flowing layered dress introduces herself to me as Bird. I try not to choke on my chapatti, shake her silver-encrusted hand, and ask where she’s from.
“Originally the UK, but I’m a nomad now,” Bird says with a sigh, taking a long pull on her joint. She came to this northern Indian pilgrimage town for a week, she says, but that was three months ago now. “It’s just that kinda place,” says Bird, shrugging and taking another hit from her joint. “Sucks you right in.”
One of her dreadlocked companions, sprawled beside her across the floor cushions of the candlelit rooftop restaurant, looks pointedly at my feet with a rumpled brow. I’m wearing shoes, you see, which none of them are. And yet they are, I notice, wearing rather expensive-looking jewellery and holding rather expensive-looking mobile phones.
They’re a contradictory bunch, to be sure. But then that’s Pushkar for you. One of the oldest and most holy cities in India, it’s a place that melds enlightenment and capitalism in a way that’s as perplexing as it is irresistible.
The next morning at sunrise I take a walk to Pushkar Lake, which sits right at the town’s geographical centre. No Hindu pilgrimage is considered complete without a dip in this holy lake, my guidebook tells me, said to have come into existence when the creator of the Hindu universe Lord Brahma dropped a lotus flower on the ground.
I make my way down one of the 52 ghats, the short flights of stairs leading to the lake, dodging a couple of bony white cows along the way. Within seconds I’m confronted by a bearded, saffron-robed sadhu, or holy man, offering me a deep pink Pushkar rose. I stretch my hand out to accept, but remember a friend’s warning just in time. Most of the sadhus you’ll see by the lake aren’t legit, said friend had emailed me two days before I left home. You could end up losing your body weight in rupees to one of them if you aren’t careful.
I pull my hand back and gently shake my head at the man, walking on to find a lakeside spot free of enterprising sadhus. A few metres away a group of half a dozen Hindu pilgrims are dunking their bodies in the sacred waters, the women’s sodden saris clinging to their glistening bodies. I consider doing it myself – after all I do have rather a lot of sins to rinse away – but decide that my frail Western immune system probably won’t cope with the chocolate milkshake-hued waters. Instead I gaze out across the lake for a while. It’s so still it perfectly mirrors the elegant white buildings huddled around it and the dozens of pigeons soaring overhead.
Later I wander back up the ghats and through Pushkar’s dusty, winding alleyways. I poke my head into a few of the town’s 400 Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu temples, then mooch through hole-in-the-wall shops selling cheap hippie clothes, silver anklets, prayer beads and crystals. Along the way I pass more barefoot, bearded sadhus; these ones don’t even bother with the guise of offering a blessing but simply shake their tins at the tourists, begging for rupees.
In the milky early morning dawn of the next day I make my way to Pushkar Meditation Temple in the grounds of Old Rangji Temple for a yoga and meditation class. The entrance is through a white arched doorway with “to truth” painted above it and inside, in a white room under another white archway with “to eternity” scrawled across it, sits the swami. Dressed in all white, with a long white beard and grey dreadlocks piled on his head, he’s one cool looking dude. And he’s connected, too. Like not just in a spiritual way, but in a technological way.
Half an hour in, when the three other students and I are in our downward facing dogs, I hear the click of a camera phone – the sadhu collecting imagery for his Facebook and Instagram pages. As he proudly tells me after class, “I am the most connected sadhu in India!” Thankfully, his snapping doesn’t detract from his two-hour class, which includes enough yogic breathing, meditation and warrior one positions to get us all the way to Nirvana and back again.
Outside the dusty laneways are baking in the mid-morning sun. It’s so hot even the stray dogs can’t be bothered to get up and give me a sniff as I pass. I decide to escape the heat by getting a traditional Indian massage at Deepak Ayurveda Massage Centre, which I’ve been hearing rave reviews about. And my goodness, they’re all true. What this man can do with his hands? Oooh Shiva.
But my ecstasy comes to a grinding halt when Deepak tells me he’s been “reading my chakras” while massaging, and that they’ve told him I need to release my ego. Luckily, says Deepak, it’s an easy fix: I just need to book another three massages with him.
Nina Karnikowski travelled at her own expense.
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED ONLINE HERE
Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi via Hong Kong from about $1000 return. From Delhi you can take a train to Ajmer for about $20 for a first-class ticket, which takes between six and nine hours. From Ajmer station it’s a half-hour taxi ride into Pushkar, for about $7. See cathaypacific.com ; erail.inSTAYING THERE
Inn Seventh Heaven is a hundred year-old mansion and possibly Pushkar’s most luxe, yet still highly affordable, digs. Spread over five floors built around a central courtyard, it has a secret garden vibe thanks to loads of indoor plants and lush vines hanging from the balconies. The top floor functions as one of the best restaurants in town, Sixth Sense, and the owner Anoop offers fun private tours through the desert on his Royal Enfield motorbike. Rooms from $27 a night; inn-seventh-heaven.comNEED TO KNOW
Vedic Walks’ three-hour Pushkar Spiritual Walk explores the four main religions of India, and includes a ceremony conducted by a priest at the holy Pushkar Lake. $44 per person; see vedicwalks.com