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Bathing Festival of the Full Moon

P  U  S  H  K  A  R
Hugh  &  Colleen  Gantzer

In the long, blue, evenings of Autumn, when the moon begins to fatten for the brightest night of the year, the tribes start to move.

They stream out from all over Rajasthan, winding through the scrub-lands and deserts, the thickets of thorn trees and bristly fields of bajra, in rivuletsof  kaleidoscopic, plodding, caravans. They are people of many communities, varied professions. Camel-herding Raikars trudgewith their supercilious beasts, and turbans of smouldering sunsets; wandering Gujjars stalk,their women gossiping in laughing groups,  gypsy-bright skirts swaying like flowers in a breeze, silver jewellery clinking and glittering in the sun; itinerant Lohars plod beside their creaking, nail-studded carts; and martial Bhils  whose ancestors, not so long ago, foraged as dreaded bandits in the scrub-covered ravines, stride proudly.

Fascinated, we join then. We drive out from the holy town of Ajmer and head for the brassy desert around the three sacred lakes of Pushkar. Once, a legendary time ago, Lord Brahma, the Creator of the Hindu Trinity, had flown over this land. Three petals had fallen from the lotus he carried and touched three places on the earth below. Miraculously, three lakes had appeared: Kanishtha Pushkar, the youngest; Madhyam Pushkar, the middle one; and the great elder, Jayeshtha Pushkar. Recognising this as an auspicious omen, the Creator had landed and performed a powerful yagna, a fire sacrifice. Some of the colourful tribal folk claim that he had married a tribal girl, just before, because he had to have a wife at his side to make the yagna efficacious. Ever since then, people have gathered here in their thousands to bathe and worship on the anniversary of the Creator’s sacrifice.

In fact, regardless of its legendary origins, Pushkar has grown into one of the world’s largest and most colourful livestock fairs. Cattle, sheep, goats, camels and thoroughbred horses are bought and sold in good-natured haggling encounters. Families, separated by arid stretches of desert, meet relatives; bright-eyed maidens exchange glances with handsome young men and the prolonged negotiations for marriages are begun; and there is a great deal of shopping and eating, and  swirling on the giant-wheels.

But for us, as our car breasts a hill, magic unfolds. In the distance, below, glint the three lakes, their stepped shores rising to the massed old town of Pushkar: flat-roofed in shades of yellow and white. And through the soft ochre, dust-and-sunset, haze, campfires twinkle on the plain, each fire marking the resting caravan of a family, a community, a tribe, with their animals tethered around them.

We manoeuvre our way through crowded roads lined with open-fronted shops, and blaring music, and into the comparative serenity of the Tourist Village set up by the state’s Tourism Development  Corporation. Our seemingly rustic hut has all the comforts that a weary traveller looks forward to. There is a marquee-restaurant serving buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners. And a packed-earth stadium for performances by folk artistes.

We sleep early, looking forward to having breakfast while desert-dew still sparkles on the plain. And then walking across the road, from our secure campus, and becoming one with the razzmatazz, colour and ordered chaos of the fair. And that is what we did.

Pushkar is a shifting kaleidoscope, a flicker-glitter of swift impressions on the six senses. Yes, even the protective sixth one: jink, instinctively, out of the camel’s path; turn fast to frame that smiling face; avert your eyes from that fearsome mendicant who seems to be high on holy hash. A Tourist Police officer smiles reassuringly. The fearsome mendicant grins, showing a set of brilliant, white, teeth. He says “You’re shooting into the sun. You might damage your exposure meter with overload!” His accent is a curious mixture of Bengali and German. Pushkar attracts an eclectic mix of people.

The bustling, central, area of the fair is crowded with visitors thronging the shops, entertainment booths and eateries. The farmers and their animals are camped on the dun-coloured plain all around. They know that the major transactions take place on their plain, redolent of animals and cooking fires. We decide to visit that area later because it is already midday and we’re hungry.

The irresistible aroma of frying pakoras and sizzling, succulent, golden jelabis emerges from a dhaba presided over by a man who has the build of a wrestler and the expression of a buccaneer. We risk his appearance and indulge ourselves not wisely but too well. The high-calorie snack seems to sharpen our perceptions. We spot a tourist perched awkwardly on a camel, looking rather nervous, while, in the foreground a man lies near a sharp pile of pitchforks, called  chaukni, a mobile phone plastered to his ear.  Pushkar bridges time and equipment: chaukni  and cell-phone perfectly matched.

We drift through the crowd, applaud at camel races and turban-tying competitions, thrill at the roaring tension of the Well of Death, delight at children tumbling out of an inflatable Mickey Mouse. We visit a stall with superb white horses with pink ears. A young Haryanvi farmer has himself photographed beside the tallest and most expensive of the steeds the way a Formula 1 fan might stand beside a Ferrari. He says that the superb animal was of the Nukra breed and that it had originally been sold for 13 lakhs but was now priced at 51 lakhs.  He is convinced that the owner does not really want to sell it but has put a price tag on it only to attract attention to his other horses.

We move on.

It is only when we notice the lengthening shadows that we realize that we have been here the whole day. We stroll past women shopping for bangles while their lone male companion stands behind, frowning unhappily. Camels slurp water from a trough, dipping into their own reflections. The great tented camp on the plain, and its cooking fires, mottle the dusk, touched by the orange disc of the setting sun. When we weave our way through them, many look up, smile, and offer to share their meal with us: charcoal baked bajra rotlas and the lightly fried beans of a desert shrub with a delicately bitter flavour, accompanied bya brass tumbler of chas: a yoghurt drink spiced with chillies. Most desert people have a strong tradition of hospitality.We sit cross-legged around a fire, on sheepskin rugs, smile at their near awe when they learn we live in the Himalayas.  We return to our Tourist Village and take in an amusing rural play about two women trying to drive reluctant cattle; men play the driven beasts much to the delight of the audience.

We rise before dawn the next morning and merge into a river of humanity flowing towards the Jayeshtha Pushkar. We are caught in an irresistible current for almost an hour. We can’t slow down; we can’t speed up; we can’t move right or left. Then people begin peeling off and veering into lanes that lead down to their favourite bathing ghats. Placing ourselves on the flat roof of a lake-side temple, we look around. What an incredible sight!

On three sides spreads the Jayeshtha Pushkar lake, metallic in the pre-dawn light. The steps leading down to the lake are crowded with bare-chested man and brightly dressed women. All eyes are fixed on the glowing, eastern, horizon. And then, as a chip of  the sun thrusts over the edge, the temple bells begin to ring. Men and women plunge into the water, chants surge out from a thousand throats as the bathers raise water in their cupped hands and let it fall as a libation to the sun and a new day. Priests wade into the bathing pilgrims carrying brass thalis containing coconuts, rice, vermillion powder and roses. Soon, a floating carpet of pink rose petals starts to spread out from the bathing ghats across the lake. 

Later that morning, we tread carefully along the water-slicked streets and follow the pilgrims as they climb the steps of one of the very few Brahma temples in our land, and pay their homage to him. We then go round the fair again but though it is still colourful, it had clearly lost its zest. That night, while the great full moon of Autumn silvers the lake, we stand on our temple terrace and look out over the water. Thousands of tiny oil lamps flicker like gold fireflies on the steps of the ghats. Slowly, while temple bells chime and incense rises in fragrant blue clouds, pilgrims carry their lamps to the water’s edge and set them afloat in homage to the lake of the Creator.

We know that, when dawn comes, bright and flaming over the desert, most of the lamps would have flickered out, the tents would have been struck, and the pilgrims and their camels and cattle and caravans would be trudging back across the sands. But next autumn, before the huge Purnima moon brightens the sky, the tribes will be back, lured by the irresistible spell of Pushkar.

Hugh  &  Colleen  Gantzer

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