Pushkar – The Musical Abode of Lord Brahma
Legend has it that Lord Brahma was looking for a place to perform a Maha-yagna. A swan was assigned the task to look for the right place as it took off carrying a lotus in its beak – it was decided that wherever the lotus fell – that place would be the abode for the major fire ceremony. The lotus flower fell here and it came to be known as Pushkar (Pushkarni means lake and Pushp means flower). As we read this legend on our way to Pushkar from Udaipur, many things came to our mind. One of them was the dreamy thought that a story around a place gains prominence when people actually have so much faith in it that it is retold over and over again for generations. Another thought that we wondered about was that who would benefit from such stories, why were they repeated in the first place? We discussed such pensive and wistful thoughts as our bus passed Alwar and made its way to the Pushkar valley. The ride was smooth as we had come to expect on our travels thus far in Rajasthan, and the weather cooled further as Pushkar, nestled between the hills, dawned on us.
Touchdown in Pushkar was at 8 AM. We got down on the end of the market street with shops on either side. This road led straight to the Brahma temple. Our hotel was further ahead on the road, next to a small temple. Pushkar has more than 500 temples and with a population close to ten thousand, most of these temples cater to pilgrims and tourists. Our hotel was a nice little dwelling which had only 10 rooms and was managed by 4 smiling staff members. We checked into our room which had fresh, clean bedsheets, cozy beds and a spacious bathroom. Adept at getting full night’s sleep in the sleeper buses in Rajasthan, we were pretty fresh by the time we got to the hotel, and were ready for the city after a quick shower. We could have had breakfast in the hotel itself but wanted to get a head start exploring the city, so started walking along the busy market road and compared the names of the café’s along the way. There were so many of them, and not one sounded Indian! From Lebanese cuisine to Israeli delicacies, from German bakeries to Italian pizzerias offering wood fired pizzas, the quaint Pushkar street had them all! We finally decided on a German bakery on the main road and ordered Lasagna. An Italian dish in a restaurant known as German bakery – talk of inter country camaraderie ! All our attempts at enjoying our own sense of humor of having ordered Lasagna for breakfast turned into hungry smiles when it did arrive. It was lip-smacking – totally out of this world. The cheese melted in our mouths and the cold coffee we had ordered was totally worth it as well. Excited that our morning had begun on such a positive note, we tipped the waiter and got going.
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We found many foreigners in search of spirituality on the street, with teekas on their foreheads and dressed in casual attires, they prodded along absorbing the sights and the sounds of Pushkar. With their backpacks on, a lot of them come to India and some even make it their home. This explained the many International cuisine restaurants. This was reminiscent of Rishikesh in so many ways; the Ganges there is replaced here by the Pushkar Lake here. As my husband and I ambled along the Gwalior Ghat, we heard drums being played in a distance. There was a group of people sitting some 10 flights of stairs above the lake and were playing a rhythmic melody. The group was a mix of foreign nationals and locals. I just looked at K, he nodded and off I went to join them. There were some small extra drums for people like me and I sat down with what looked like a half cut “dholak” in my lap. The piece that the group played was simple in rounds of 2-2-1 while the leader improvised now and then, while we continued with the simple beat. K started taking a video and a small crowd had gathered around looking at the group curiously. As we played the drum beats I could feel a sense of oneness being developed among the players. Everyone would look at each other and smile every now and then, with hands in steady motion. Among the crowd that had gathered a couple of teenage kids started dancing to the beat. The crowd started clapping and cheering us on as we increased the tempo. The leader, a graying old man with a HUGE mustache, started improvising sounds from his mouth and the effect was electric. It was an invocation of sorts to the lake god to sanctify all those who come to her for her blessings. With tiring hands but determined spirit, I continued to play for another 10 minutes. People left and joined the group in between and when I finally left my space, I heard someone in the crowd saying that this performance happened every day at the same time. What an experience I must say – an impromptu community music project which would last an hour, everyday, where anyone could contribute and the performers would keep changing. We were lucky about this chance encounter, and thanking the group with our huge smiles and silent Namaste, we went a further ahead and sat on the ghaat. With the music in the background and warm winter sun cozying us, we enjoyed the sight of pilgrims dipping in the holy waters of the lake. After enjoying the post breakfast morning under the influence of music and sun, we chose to move ahead for some much awaited shopping.
Shopping in Pushkar is a treat. From embroidered clothes to silver jewelry, from rose products to leather goods to decorative sculptures, miniature paintings, wall hangings – everything can be found here and with great negotiation skills, you can get great bargains. Being animal lovers, we were against animal products so leather was a strict no – we skipped the (many) leather shops and moved on to the ones which stored clothes. From ethnic wears to hippie attires – we saw them all – harem pants, kurtis, dupattas, wraparounds and saris, everything in spellbinding vivid colours. I must admit I went a little bonkers here! But after much consideration (and a lot of nagging by K), I ended up buying just a few knick knacks – mainly a beautifully embroidered bag and an equally beautiful wallet, a gypsy skirt, some jewelry, a traditional Rajasthani jacket and a kurta (yup, that was me being retrained). Hubby bought a couple of Shiva, Ganesha T-Shirts. An interesting feature in the garment shops was that you could choose the cloth and get your attire made from the shop’s tailor there and then. Eventually, we took a break from the shopping to satisfy our appetite, and this time decided on authentic Indian food. We savored the Daal Makhni and Kadhai Paneer with Garlic Naan and fresh lime soda at a simple restaurant. The waiters were constantly smiling as they served us piping hot food with quick service. We tipped them and were on our way for some more wandering on the market street when K had a change of heart. He remembered that he had watched some videos before coming to Pushkar about a barber called Baba Sen. Made famous world over by entertainers Gavin Free and Burnie Burns who had made a documentary on him, Baba Sen is also known as the Cosmic Barber. So that was that, hubby wanted to try it out and off we went to get , what some people had called as the world’s best champi maalish! We asked around and found his shop easily enough. Baba was relaxing on his back in his small shop. He got up and greeted us by bowing low and welcomed us in with a genuinely warm smile. After a round of small talk where my husband acted all starry eyed meeting the celebrated Barber, Baba Sen got down to business. He applied a little oil and sprayed a lot of water on K’s head and began his – dance! He massaged K’s head with one hand while pulling out the negative energy from his head with the other hand. He kept changing his hands, vigorously massaging and waving his hands over K’s body and kept chanting ‘Negative energy out!’ It was a little humorous and intriguing at the same time, but I could make out from K’s face that he was enjoying every bit of it. Baba kept spinning and moving around the chair and by the end of it was sweating profusely. He finished the massage by spraying copious amounts of water on K’s face and then tidied him up. We clicked pictures with the Baba in the end and as we were going out, he said to K, “You have good energy my friend!”
Having had his ‘spiritual’ experience, and with the Baba’s declaration that he had “good energy”, K was super excited as we moved towards the Brahma temple. The crowds thickened as we approached the end of the market street. We folded our hands in a Namaste as soon as we saw the temple. The temple is mainly built of marbles and stone stabs. We climbed the stairs and K told me that originally this temple is supposed to be more than 2000 years old while the current structure was built in the 14th century. The marbled floor of the temple is ornamented with silver coins of the devotees as a mark of offering to Lord Brahma. We reached the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and had darshan of the four-faced idol of Brahma in there atop Hamsa – his chosen mount. Next to Brahma sits the idol of Gayatri. Legend has it that Brahma married Gayatri, as Savitri was not in time for him to perform the Maha-yagna – that is when Brahma got cursed by Savitri that he could only be worshiped in Pushkar. Experiencing the temple with the sea of humanity by our side we couldn’t help but empathize with all the people who would come to visit this holy place. Their faith and devout nature rubbed on us and with God in our hearts we finished visiting the remainder of the temple.
We got out into the market again and sauntered along, enjoying the colorful sights and sounds surrounding us. In our wanderings, I found a silver earing shop which was unmanned! How could someone leave their shop open and leave when the market was thronging with people! I started looking at the items on display and shortlisted on a few but as there was no shopkeeper, I couldn’t complete the purchase. There was a leather shop opposite the silver one and seeing us waiting, the leather shop’s owner, Mr. Ram, called the silver shopkeeper on his mobile and got to know it would be quite some time till he would be back. We thanked Mr. Ram, who invited us inside for some tea. We apologized that we were not interested in leather goods, but he embarrassed us by saying that we could have tea even if we did not want to buy anything! We conceded and he ordered tea. The shopkeeper explained that this shop was more than a hundred years old and used to store rose items like perfumes and soaps, but leather being a hot selling item, he saw business sense in changing their offering. There were three helpers in his shop, who were busy playing a game of dice and were chatting incessantly, making plans about the evening. One of them (named Hari), suddenly asked Ram whether it would be appropriate to invite us as well. “Sure!” said Ram excitedly. “Madam, sir!” smiled Hari, “we are planning to go up the hill to visit Aloo Baba; we would love it if you would accompany us!” I was surprised at the unexpected offer and did not know what to say. “Aloo Baba?!”, K asked, curiosity written all over his face. “Yes sir! He has only eaten potatoes for the last 20 years. Today, there is some celebration in his honor – would you want to come? It’s just 8 kms from here and you can come with us on our bikes!” We considered the offer seriously, but as it was already 6 PM, we politely and begrudgingly declined after thanking our hosts generously and left.
Amazed at the welcoming nature of the locals, we got back on the streets. We couldn’t stop talking about how warm, hospitable and openhearted the people here were, and walked away from the temple. As we were walking, a deep nasal sound reverberated through the streets. Curious, we looked around for the source of this hypnotic sound, and realized it was emanating from a dingy auto repair shop. As we peered in through the open door, we saw a person was blowing into a long wooden cylindrical pipe like instrument which was causing the sound we heard. There were a few others (mostly foreigners) sitting around him in the cramped shop, enthralled by the music. We went in ourselves, curious about the strange sound he was producing. He put it rather poetically when he said “This is the sound of the earth!” in one of the breaks he took. He invited people to come and try their hand at the instrument. We later found out that it was called Didgeridoo, an Indigenous Australian instrument. The musician himself, Shiva, was a rather plain looking local, who ran a run-down automotive repair shop during the day, and meditated with this unique instrument through the nights, inviting anyone who would want to listen or learn. The simplicity of his passion, and the serenity which surrounded him even in the decrepit, sooty auto repair shop was hauntingly beautiful. We sat there for a long time, getting lost in the deep, primal sound of didgeridoo.
It was with a somber mood that we walked back with towards our hotel. Neither of us was very hungry, so we didn’t go to any restaurant. We just had a Mediterranean roll each, from a street vendor on the way. The street which had looked maddeningly busy just a few hours earlier was as serene and quiet as our hearts felt in this late hour. We strolled back to the hotel leisurely, savoring every little moment in this precious, mystical city. It was with happy smiles that we drifted to sleep.
We had a relaxing breakfast at the hotel in the morning. Basking in the sun on the terrace, we ordered one dish after the other, while K read a book to me. After this leisurely blissful morning, it was time for us to pack our bags. We had ordered a cab till Ajmer, from where we were to take a bus to Jaipur.
We bid adieu to this beautiful city, so full of surprises and experiences we couldn’t ever forget. Where else would we find a drum circle where we could partake in the drumming with such abandon, where a simple mechanic would play an exotic instrument through the night, not caring if he had an audience or not, where we were invited for random conversations and tea by total strangers, where with a head massage, one could get purged of all negativity. Indeed, Lord Brahma’s city was unique in many ways, and we couldn’t wait to come back!