Pushkar, the City of Brahma

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Pushkar is one of the oldest existing cities of India. It lies on the shore of Pushkar Lake. We visited Pushkar to attend the annual (and ancient) Camel Fair, the Pushkar Mela (shown in this post).

According to SacredSites.com:

The description of pilgrimage places in the Tirtha-Yatra section of India’s great epic, the Mahabharata, suggests a grand tour of the entire country. The pilgrimage begins in Pushkar, sacred to the god Brahma, and continues in a rambling clockwise direction throughout the subcontinent, ending in Prayaga (modern day Allahabad). As indicated by Pushkar’s position as the starting point of the grand pilgrimage, the worship of Brahma was considered highly important at the end of the 1st millennium BC.

That Pushkar was so documented in the ancient Mahabharata speaks to the antiquity of the site.

Pushkar, from SacredSites.com:

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The date of the city’s actual origin is not known, but legend associates Lord Brahma with its creation. There are many forms of the story. A common element is that Brahma dropped a flower and Pushkar Lake formed where the flower fell. (Naturally, being from Tiruvannamalai where too there is a story about Brahma – and Siva and Arunachala – we wonder if maybe this is the same flower that Brahma showed Siva to pretend that he – Brahma – had gotten to the end of Siva’s endless column of light.)

When Brahma came down to the earth, he named the place where the flower ("pushpa") fell from Brahma’s hand ("kar") as “Pushkar.” Brahma then decided to perform a yajna (fire-sacrifice) at the main Pushkar Lake.There was a problem, though: Brahma’s wife, Savitri (or Sarasvati in some versions) could not attend this yajna, and the husband and wife were required. Brahma was a smart god, though, and quickly solved the problem. He married a Gurjar girl, Gayatri and completed the yajna with his new wife sitting beside him, holding the pot of amrita (elixir of life) on her head and giving ahuti (offering to the sacrificial fire). Well, as you might imagine, this did not so so well with Savitri. From Wikipedia:

She cursed Brahma that he would be never worshipped, but then reduced the curse permitting his worship in Pushkar. Savitri also cursed Indra to be easily defeated in battles, Vishnu to suffer the separation from his wife as a human, the fire-god Agni who was offered the yajna to be all-devouring, and the priests officiating the yajna to be poor. Endowed (though) by the powers of yajna, Gayatri diluted Savitri’s curse, blessing Pushkar to be the king of pilgrimages, Indra would always retain his heaven, Vishnu would be born as the human Rama and finally unite with his consort, and the priests would become scholars and be venerated. Thus, the Pushkar temple is regarded the only temple dedicated to Brahma. Savitri, thereafter, moved into the Ratnagiri hill (which overlooks Pushkar) and became a part of it by emerging as a spring known as the Savitri Jharna (stream); a temple in her honor exists here.

During the month of our visit, the month of Kartik and the time of the Pushkar Mela, it is said that all the gods and goddesses are here to bestow their blessings. 100,000s of pilgrims from all over India come to attend the fair, take a holy dip, perform various religious activities and pay obeisance to the Brahma Temple. Western tourists do some of this, but are more interested in the Camel Fair than the holy time at Pushkar.

So Pushkar is a famous and auspicious place to visit, and this is festival time. Many Indian families are here. One is shown below. I think maybe these are wives and children from a family that has come with animals to the Pushkar Fair. From the way they wear their sarees over their heads, they look like they are from Rajasthan.

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They are sitting, having a drink outside a drink stall.

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They sit just outside the Fair’s arena entrance.

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A donkey pulling a cart. The donkey is colored from his decoration for the recently held Diwali festival.

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Pushkar is an ancient temple town, so there are many temples, though these urban temples look nothing like what we are used to in Tamil Nadu. This is one below. Pushkar is said to have over 500 temples (80 are large and the rest are small); of these many are so old that they were destroyed or desecrated by Muslims during Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s rule (1658–1707) but were re-built subsequently.

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You can see into an altar.

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This is a private building. Clearly Rajasthani style with its cupolas above the entrance and shaded windows that protrude from the side of the building. The building has had better, more prosperous, days.

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Brahma Temple

We came first to the famous Brahma Temple. This is said by many to be the only Brahma temple in India. (Actually there are a few others, and this certainly the most prominent among them.)

There is a big crowd entering the temple today. This crowd will only get larger over the next days of the Mela. The temple is visited by pilgrims and also by the holy men and sages, after taking a ceremonial sacred bath in the Pushkar lake.

The temple now has guards, and lockers where you lock your cell phones and cameras. No photos inside, as is pretty common, but frustrating to Carol and me who see each place as an opportunity to take photos for the blog. Guards are standing on the stairway, on the left.

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On one hand, inside is not really special like some temples are. It is not a big space. The architecture is not grand. Below is a picture of the main temple, pillars painted a sky-blue with a red painted roof and tower (shikhara). Photo below is from TripAdvisor since we could not shoot ourselves. It is a pretty small space. There is room to walk around the main shine, an essential in any Hindu temple.

Although the present temple structure dates to the 14th century, the temple is believed to be 2000 years old. The temple is mainly built of marble and stone stabs.

What is special is the dedication to and worship of the creator-god Brahma. The temple is one  of only a few sacred dhams (abodes of Hindu gods) for devout Hindus.This temple is often called "Tirth Raj" – the king of pilgrimage sites – and has in recent years become a popular destination for foreign tourists. The biggest festival of the year will be in a few days, to mark the full moon at the end of the Pushkar Mela. So if you come with the right spirit, recognizing this as a most special place, the abode of God (Brahma), then this a great temple to visit.

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Below is the altar of Brahma, from www.flickr.com, photo by Richard Mortel.

The priests at the Brahma temple follow a strict regime. House-holders (married men) are not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum to worship the deity. Only ascetics (sanyasis) can perform the puja to the deity. So all offerings by pilgrims are given, from the outer hall of the temple, to a priest who is a sanyasi, who will offer them to Brahma. The priests of temples in Pushkar usually belong to the Parashar gotra (lineage).

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Below is the Lord Brahma, with his four faces. Brahma is said to have created the Veda-s as well as the world. Each of his four faces is always reciting its one of the four vedas.

Unlike most other Hindu gods, Brahma holds no weapons. One of his hands holds a scepter. Another of his hands holds a book. Brahma also holds a string of prayer beads called the ‘akṣamālā’ (literally "garland of eyes"), which He uses to keep track of the Universe’s time. He is shown holding the Vedas.

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When we leave the temple, we plunge into the biggest crowd of the day in the nearby shopping area. Again, however big is the crowd today, it will get successively larger each day until the Mela’s climax on full moon night.

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Colors and clothes.

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Colorful Rajasthani women in their gauzy veils.

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Pushkar Lake

To me, Pushkar Lake (also known as Pushkar Sarovar) is the center of this city, not the temple. First was the lake, then everything else came.  We walk out of the market district and we come to Pushkar Lake, entering into Brahma Ghat. 

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On every side of the lake are many temples and shrines. We walk through one to get to the lake.

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On this side there is a broad area next to the lake. This is the main bathing area. Bathing in the lake is one of the big activities here, needed before visiting the temple, and done as a purification rite on its own.

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In the middle of the lake is a small island, the location of Brahma’s yajna.

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When the water level of the lake is low, you can walk right out to  it.

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An altar, all carved from white marble, stained from kumkum.

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There is a walking route around the lake. We have our shoes on. If you are within about 20 feet of the lake you are supposed to take them off.

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We walk through several temples.

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Many ghats surround the lake

All around the lake are ghats, a series of steps leading down to the water. Each section is named. There are 52 in all, and worship is focused on a different ghat each week of the year.

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We pass by Gandhi Ghat. It was here that a portion of his ashes were put into Pushkar lake after his assassination on January 30, 1948, in New Delhi. Pushkar Lake is considered so holy that this was a place for these most revered remains.

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Another small shrine by the side of the lake with a lingam in the center. I can make out a Ganesh to the left of the lingam.

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A five-headed figure, Hanuman. You can tell by the five animal faces; an eagle (garud), a boar (varaha), a horse (hayagriv), a lion and a monkey, and the ten arms and hands.  He holds his mace in one of them.

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We see across the lake now, looking west. Ratnagiri hill is the highest one, to the right. From here Savitri can watch everything Brahma does from her Savitri Temple atop the hill.

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Pushkar Lake Traditional Pooja

This is something that every visitor to Pushkar is asked to do, the special Pushkar Pooja at Pushkar Lake to benefit you and your entire family. A priest is the only one who can perform this pooja. There are many white-clad men near the lake who say they are priests. I think they are Brahmins of a specific caste, I imagine the local Parashar gotra priestly caste. This is a big activity around the lake, and when you first come to it you will be approached to have this pooja performed and told that really it is necessary. When the pooja is complete you will be given and red and yellow thread to tie around your wrist. Some call this the “Pushkar Passport.” When you have this, you are no longer approached for the lakeside pooja.

After the pooja you will be asked for money, probably more than you think is appropriate. If you do not donate they will at times get argumentative. I have read on the Internet enough about this to know that people feel ripped off by the practice; some “priests” are frauds; money donated – even with receipts given – may not get to the charity intended. One major activity for which money is collected is the daily feeding for the poor, for whoever comes. Hundreds of meals are given every day, so you can actually see that some of the money goes to real service of the local poor. For the people who depend on these donations, most are given during the week or so around the Pushkar Mela, so this is where you must get your year’s income. This goes for the tourist business as well, two busy weeks, and the rest of the year, almost nothing. You have to decide whether this bothers you or not.

We had a nice pooja, done by our guide. He said he was a Brahmin and could perform the pooja for us, so we did not need to use one of the men in white.

He lays out the pooja materials.  

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These include a coconut (naturally, these seem to be in every pooja), and some flower petals.

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The coconut and yellow and red strings that will become our Pushkar Passports.

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Water is ritually passed through our hands, back into the lake.

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We use lake water to bathe our face, in a ritual order.

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We are given handfuls of flower petals. While all of this is going on, our guide is chanting. Sometimes we are given things to say. He asks our names, and repeats them in his chant.

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We threw the petals into the water.

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At the end he ties a string around our wrists and tells us that not only have our families been blessed, but we have renewed our marriage vows today. This makes us happy.

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Then we started negotiating for the size of the donation. According to our guide, there were certain levels of donation, in increments of Rs. 1,500 for 1 feeding. We offered Rs. 3,000, but he thought Rs. 4,500 was better. So we gave money for the daily poor feeding, Rs. 4,500, way more than we had intended, and got an official-looking receipt. Then he was asking for his tip. He pushed us so much on the donation that we did not have much left we were willing to give him as a tip. A negative note in an otherwise magical ceremony.

I am still glad we did this, since this is a thing that seems good to do here.

Lights present a festive atmosphere

Many people are here now. The areas that appeal to tourists are gaily lit.

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This was in the eating place at the top of the hotel we stayed in.

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Morning Pradakshina of Pushkar Lake

The next day we started out early by Pushkar Lake, wanting to walk around it. Parikrama seems to be a word in North India for this. Pradakshina is the word chiefly used where we are in South India.

You can see how early we were by the height of the sun when we started.

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People are here already to bathe in the holy lake. They are mainly in family groups.

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Local cows and pigeons greet the morning at the lake.

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Looking north as we walk around the lake. We are on the opposite side from Brahma Ghat.

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A family of Indian girls wanted their photo taken with Carol, a common occurrence.

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Shrine and sadhus under a sacred tree.

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Men and monkeys gather in a group beside the lake.

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Mother and child, a monkey “Madonna.”

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Just look at this sweet face!

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Richard and the monkeys. Richard is the one with the maroon pants.

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Scattered around the lake is rubble from earlier gods and idols that have been brought here.

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Near every temple and holy bathing place is a holy tree, Sthala Vriksha. Several of the Sthala Vriksha by the lake look dead.

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Brightly colored women on the bathing ghats greet the early morning sunlight.

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Another sacred tree near the lake, adorned with many gods.

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A lingam, but with four faces, like Brahma. This seems to mix Siva and Brahma in the same object. Unless there is a class a Brahma-lingams that I know nothing about.

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Cow standing in front of sign. Ah India.

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Is it Brahma, with four heads? With Nandi (Siva’s vehicle?)

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Walking streets near the lake

After our circumambulation of the lake we walked in the city, looking for a place for breakfast.

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It was still early and shops and restaurants still opening, but some vendors were ready for the days’ business, like this color seller. The colors are used in South India for drawings in front of houses, used to ward of evil spirits (kolams). I don’t know what the color is used for here in Rajasthan.

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Ropes of what, jewelry? hang from the front of a shop.

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We found a nice place to eat. We were the first ones here today.

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Is this Nandi? Who ever it is, we like it! All over Rajasthan we saw these metallic painted idols.

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A chaiwallah, walking with his wares.

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Back on the street, walking past vegetable sellers.

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A man drives a small herd of donkeys, pack animals, past us.

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It was recently Diwali, so the animals are still decorated with spots of color.

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Looking down one of the ancient streets into an open doorway.

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Near the Temple, through the market

We headed into the throng again. A good place to watch people.

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A pretty Rajasthani woman, nicely dressed for the day.

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They like to wear red.

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This young girl wears a fancy dress.

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Lunch at the Aroma Royal

We looked for a place for lunch. The Aroma Royal was near the fairgrounds, and we thought we would try it.

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It was a nice ambience, but we could not get a waiter to come and take our order. But across the way, near the paintings shown below, there was a buffet set out, so we joined it and served ourselves right away.

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On the walls are painted Rajasthani scenes. Krishna and some Gopis below.

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A camel struts.

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Back into the day

Fried things at beside the street. Indians like fried  things. So do we.

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We walk through many narrow alleys.

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Past small shopping districts once we get off the main streets. Pushkar is a small town, about 15,000 year-round population, and easy to walk around.

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To the lake for sunset

We returned to the lake for sunset, knowing that something must be going on there.

Sure enough, there were many people lighting oil lamps.

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Maybe a priest and pooja here.

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Om to Lake Pushkar.

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Then we make our way home, after finding a rooftop restaurant. Even though Pushkar is officially nonalcoholic, we were able to order a cold beer.

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Street Scenes

Back out the next morning.

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I like all the colorful women.

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The women travel in groups, family groups maybe. This group has stopped in front of a jewelry stall.

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Carol is eyeing the clothes. We want to get some things for the grandkids.

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She finds a shop she likes, and spends some time (and money) here.

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A sadhu, come to town for the Mela.

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Women are buying some kind of vegetable.

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To the Lake for a big pooja

Back to the lake for the evening’s festivities. We have heard there will be some kind of event tonight.

Here is the lake, the east end, where I think the activities will be tonight.

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We see a hot air balloon drift by above the lake. Someone has a great view!

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They are starting to set up. Here is the sound equipment.

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Flowers are being drawn with colored rice powder. Now I know what the colors are used for.

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Decorations are set up next to the lake.

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A man  is receiving his Pushkar Lake Pooja by a priest in white. He has a friend taking pictures with his phone.

He is given flower petals.

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Which he offers to the lake.

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Meanwhile, across the lake, Carol meets and photographs this man. She has separated from me in order to have another spot to photograph the pooja from.

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He has a big mala that he wants to give her. Wary of strangers offering gifts, she politely declines. She tells him that flowers make her sneeze. But he insists that it is a gift from his heart, and he wants her to have it.

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He puts it around her neck.

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He admires her in it.

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The Pushkar Lake Pooja next to me continues.

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The devotee is blessed with a dot on his head. It is almost over.

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More interaction between the man and Carol.

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Next to me people are bathing. Men and women here.

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Just women here.

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So I decide I should too. I am not going to undress, though, just pour some over my head.

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The decorations are set up by the lake.

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They are building what looks like a lingam of food.

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Adding food to a big serving pan.

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Western visitors have started to sit on the steps of the ghat and watch.

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An umbrella is brought out for decoration.

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Much food is brought out. It will be blessed during the pooja, to be prasad, consecrated food to eat afterwards.

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The sun is setting. I think things are going to happen just at sunset.

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The food lingam is ready.

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Candles are set out to be lighted later.

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A big crowd has gathered to watch, almost all Westerners.

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School kids help with the decorations.

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The sun is setting.

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Now behind the tree.

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This man will be one of the poojaris, next to the lake. He is ready to go.

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These men have something I have not seen before, a bag with a candle inside it.

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They turn the bag upside down and light the candle. It starts up in the air.

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In the pooja area, the priest is starting to light things, incense, I think.

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These boys are waving chamaras, fly whisks, traditionally made from white yak hair. These are traditional pooja objects.

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Getting ready for aarti, the ritual waving of fire.

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The big moment has come, tonight’s aarti.

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The white “puff” abve the priest’s arms is one of the chamaras

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Water being offered to the Lake.

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Floating dyas (lamps) are offered to the lake.

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A photo of the crowd, as we leave.

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Pushkar is an interesting place to visit with special Hindu spiritual significance. Its roots are ancient, and much of the modernization that has come to India has missed this small city. For this reason It is even more interesting. If you want to visit you have two basic choices: visit during the busy Camel Fair, or visit anytime else. Outside of the season it is a quiet little holy temple town. During the fair it is spectacle after spectacle. I read that Pushkar is a popular destination for Israelis, who will sit outside in groups and smoke ganja or charas. Both are legal here. We did not see any bhang shops, but we did not look.

Anyway, Pushkar is well worth visiting, and if your spirit is right, go at a time other than the Camel Fair, and see an India that is more like the ancient days than you might see elsewhere. Accommodations are not great, but you will get by OK. And have experience that is unforgettable.

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4 Responses to “Pushkar, the City of Brahma”

  1. marilynsandperl Says:

    What a wonderful time I feel I just had in Pushkar. You writing is so informative and your pictures are exquisite! You also feel the joy you and Carol experience at these sacred and special places. Thank you for posting this! (I LOVE that picture of you and Carol after being told your wedding vows were renewed!)

  2. prakashbsl Says:

    Thanks for the wonderful blog. i liked the one “Richard is the one with the maroon pants.”

    thanks
    Gnana Prakash

  3. Selvaraj V Maruthai Muthuraja Says:

    Wonderful a treat to the eyes and heart. Thank you both for sharing.
    Yes, the maroon pants helped. Love you both. Selvaraj

  4. Sunanda Maldonado Says:

    What a fabulous article, Richard. I never got to Pushkar and now, because of ill health, it looks like I never will so I am hugely grateful for your very full commentary and your lovely photos. Thank you so much.
    Incidentally the photo of the metallic image which you thought may be Nandi – I think it’s Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu.
    Many, many thanks for devoting so much time and effort to your blog. May your travels continue!
    Sunanda

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