Pushkar is a place where people with names like Bird and Fern tend to congregate. A place where wearing shoes is considered the height of dorkiness; where people, when asked where they’re from, are likely to respond with: “Originally the UK, but I’m a nomad now,” or more simply, “Planet Love.” A place in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan that’s home to more than 400 temples and the annual Pushkar Camel Fair, where rupees and redemption walk hand in hand.
Here, devout Hindus flock to take a dip in the holy Pushkar Lake, around which the town is wrapped and which is said to have appeared when Lord Brahma – the creator of the Hindu universe – dropped a lotus flower on the ground. And here, those barefooted, dreadlocked, poo catcher pant-wearing travelers also flock. Sure, they want to wash their sins away as much as the next guy, but mostly they just want to drop out and get a bit mystical. To roam the maze of small laneways that weave through the town, mooching through tiny shops picking up cheap hippie clothes, silver anklets, prayer beads and crystals. To drink cheap masala chai, take cheap yoga classes and get cheap Ayurvedic massages. To pick a rooftop cafe, blaze up a doobie, and soak up the hum of chanting, drumming, and horn beeping drifting up from below, all day long.
Yes, Pushkar is a place to get lost and get found, one of the oldest cities in India that mishmashes its religious and tourist scenes, its enlightenment and its capitalism, in a way that’s as flummoxing as it is irresistible.
The first thing you’ll want to do in Pushkar is get spiritual by the holy lake. As you make your way down one of the 52 ghats (short flights of stairs leading to the lake), dodging holy cows along the way, you’ll be tempted to accept a blessing from one of the sadhus, or holy men, who approach you. After all they look so fly with their long beards, saffron robes and prayer bead necklaces, and when someone offers you a rose – especially a famous Pushkar rose – you take it, right? Wrong. Most of these sadhus aren’t legit, and you could end up losing your body weight in rupees to one of them if you aren’t careful. To be on the safe side and to see the lake in its most flattering light, arrive at sunrise to meditate by the sacred waters. If the pigeon poo and enormous carp turn you off dunking your body in the holy water like the pilgrims do, a drizzle of it to the head should suffice.
You can continue the purification process in any one of the town’s 400 temples. If navigating them seems daunting, take a tour with local company Vedic Walks through a handful of the Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu temples, including the only temple in India dedicated to Lord Brahma. Or, for an experience that’ll leave you feeling more spiro than the Dalai Lama drinking a green juice while meditating in the lotus position, take the 20-minute dawn hike up to the hilltop Savitri Temple at sunrise. The views over Pushkar and the surrounding desert will be so good you’ll forget all about that bad lassi you had last night.
If the thought of tens of thousands of camels dressed in outfits that would put Carmen Miranda to shame makes you wobble your head with delight and slap on a bindi, then make your Pushkar pilgrimage in early November to coincide with the annual Pushkar Camel Fair. If the thought terrifies the chapattis out of you, stay well away because at fair time Pushkar bloats with about 20,000 people and 50,000 camels, horses and cattle.
The actual trading of the delightful dromedaries happens the week before, then the real show starts. There’ll be singing and dancing, drumming and processions. Snake charmers, ferris wheels and kids balancing on poles. Contests for best moustache and best dressed camel, and of course the camels themselves covered in bells, mirrors and pompoms.
If you miss the fair itself fret not: a gaggle of camels and their cameleers hang around town all year to take travelers on safari through the surrounding deserts, ending if you wish in a night of alfresco camping, Lawrence of Arabia-style.
Jaipur Wala Tailor. That is all. Ok that is not all, but it could be all, such is the utter fabulouness of this little vintage Bollywood shop that could. Enter at your own risk, and when you do, resist the urge to dive headfirst into the mountain of colourful fabric that’s exploded on the floor, which tempts in the same way those rooms full of colourful balls in kids’ playgrounds do. Instead, take your time picking through the mountains of vintage bejeweled jackets and capes, embroidered Indian dresses, skirts, crop tops and more, which the owner sources from Mumbai, the home of Bollywood. Two hours should suffice; two days would be ideal. And if you’re lucky, you’ll come out with change from $50 for 10 pieces.
For more bejeweled fabulousness, and some of the best horse and camel dressings in town (because really, when do you not need fabulous dressings for your camel?), head to the Collector’s Paradise Museum of Ashok Tak, known locally as “the camel man” who with his beloved pet camel Raja has won the prize for best dressed camel at the camel fair 10 times.
Oh and whatever you do, don’t miss Robin silver shop. For vintage rupee rings and necklaces, handmade earrings and cuffs, antique anklets and so much more, this place is, quite simply, the shit.
HIPPIE HIPPIE SHAKE
So you bought 15 vintage Bollywood outfits that you’ll never wear again. It’s ok! Because you’re going to yoga. And yoga fixes everything, doesn’t it? Well, if you’re talking about the yoga at Pushkar Meditation Temple, then maybe.
You’ll find it in the grounds of Old Rangji Temple, through the white doorway with “to truth” painted above it. The swami who runs it is one cool looking dude, with his all-white outfit, long white beard and grey dreads piled on his head. And he’s connected too, like not just in a spiro way but in a technological way. Don’t be alarmed if, while you’re in downward dog, you hear the click of his camera phone then see your sweaty butt on his Facebook and Instagram pages a couple of hours later. As he will proudly tell you, “I am the most connected sadhu in India.” Thankfully, this doesn’t take away from his two-hour class, which includes enough yogic breathing, meditation, warrior ones and corpse poses to get you all the way to Nirvana and back again. Twice.
By this point, all you’ll have left to do is get an Ayurvedic massage. Ayur-what? Ayurveda, man, an ancient Indian medicine system that, when it comes to massage, means long sweepy strokes and enough oil to leave you looking like an extra in a Soul Glo ad. Try Deepak Ayurveda Massage Centre. The things this man can do with his hands, oooh mama. But be warned: Deepak “reads your chakras” as he massages, so a session may well end with him telling you you need to release your ego… before convincing you to book another three sessions with him in order to do so. See? Enlightenment and capitalism, perfectly mishmashed.
Inn Seventh Heaven (see what they did there?) 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 slithering off the balconies. The top floor functions as one of the best restaurants in town, Sixth Sense, and if you’re nice to him, the owner Anoop just might take you out for a spin through the desert on his Royal Enfield motorbike.
The 2016 Pushkar Camel Fair runs 8 to 15 November.