By Onaiza Drabu

An eight hour drive from Delhi lies Pushkar; a quaint little town bathed in colour, tradition and spirituality. Beautifully co-existing within this small town is a strong hippie sub-culture. At first glance, this place seems like a larger, more exotic Paharganj. Soon enough, you discover more layers to this mystical town. Legend has it that Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India; legend also associates Lord Brahma with its creation. This explains the presence of, what is possibly, the only Brahma temple in India in this vibrant little town.

The Pushkar Fair

After hearing stories and reading a few online blogs, we were sold on the idea of attending the Pushkar Mela and, crew in tow, a few of us set out to make a film, documenting this cultural extravaganza. Usually held in October/November and this year in the second week of November, this Annual Fair draws large crowds from all over the country for two reasons; the cattle and camel fair and the pooja at the Brahma Temple, in honor of Kartik Poornima.

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Arriving into a huge dusty maidan, a sea of turbans greets you and you need to take a step back and pause to see where to head. The area is scattered with small groups of audiences around what seem to be performers. On the periphery, proudly caressing and flaunting their moustaches, are contestants for the moustache competition. A little to their left is a young girl, not more than 7 years old, balancing herself on a glass bottle while another one walks a tightrope on a wheel while balancing a brass pot on her head. The audience cheers these girls on while blaring music plays with commentary urging you to witness their performance. The rest of the maidan is full of madaris and snake charmers; the former often accompany the stunts of their monkeys with fascinating stories, while the latter have their occasional toddlers with painted faces play with the snake in the basket. All these performers, including the brightly decked up and painted individuals who are there just for photo props, ask for money. As is customary of carnivals and fairs, there are giant Ferris Wheels, a circus and an utterly fascinating performance called Maut Ka Kuan. Driving two Maruti 800s and two motorcycles on the walls of a large pit, these stuntmen make you forget to breathe. They steal the show when they ride hands free, parallel to the ground below, with casual nonchalance on their faces, skillfully grabbing money the audience hands out. For twenty rupees a show, this one is a must watch.

Behind the maidan where all the antics and excitement of the fair take place are the horse stables and the cattle sheds. Dotting the vast, arid region are more camels than you have ever seen together. There are sweet shops and stalls selling camel accessories; from whips, to bells and ornaments. The camels at the fair are tattooed and made up; making them just as colorful as the fair all around.

Surprisingly, majority of people who crowd the fair are locals and foreigners. A lot of the events in the fair are targeted at foreign passport holders, the most hilarious of which is the Indian Bride and Groom competition. Foreigners dress up as Indian brides and grooms, and are judged by an amused crowed in the maidan. Orientalism, you think; you see this whole spectacle as one that creates an aura of the mystical orient to attract foreigners to this spiritual wonderland. Throughout the course of the day you recognize your own ignorance. In our peacefully tucked lives in the cities of India, we often fail to acknowledge the existence of a Bharat which still lives; soaked in this spirituality we often label a spectacle. For them, it is their way of life they put on show.

Beyond the Fair | Discovering the Hamlet

It is the town of Pushkar, grown around the lake with its 52 ghats that witnesses the confluence of the two cultures in the town. The maidan where the fair happens is linked to the main market of Pushkar through the Brahma Temple. This long stretch is scattered with ghats, cafes, tiny stores and houses converted into hotels and captures the essence of Pushkar.

Pushkar is fairly close to Delhi and a respite from your usual weekend getaway to the hills. Add to it pleasant weather during days and chilly nights with lots of good food. The experience isn’t hollow; it enriches. You leave this magical place with more sensitivity towards your culture, more appreciation of traditions and a little more marveled at how effortlessly this country has accepted external cultural influences and evolved as a town with a life unto itself.

pushkar in its contradictions

You will meet interesting people, you will have kitsch to shop for and you can kick back and embrace the hippy life for those two days. It is a different experience to be immersed in culture, yet so removed from it. Just like every other place, Pushkar has its own stories fantastically told by the locals; go hear them out. Go for the culture, the conversation and the visuals, but make sure you do because it is different; because it is a confluence of east and west in the spirit of devotion, spirituality and the little pleasures in life. And while you’re there, make sure you have the following in your little black book – where to eat, shop and generally browse through during your stay in the town.

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Eating in Pushkar

Being a holy city of Hindus {as was continuously reaffirmed by the guides we met who insisted we hire them because they were Brahmin} the city is vegetarian and no alcohol is served.

Pink Floyd Café | The most popular destination, this is in a tiny alley before the market starts. You enter into a typical Rajasthani household where women with dupattas on their heads guide you to the top floor {where the café is located}. On your way up, you pass pop art posters and lovely interiors of a place done up in the Pink Floyd theme. Each of the rooms is named after a different song and it is all very exciting. The food is comforting and the ambience interesting.

Doctor Alone Café | This has a garden in front and is done up in an interesting Rastafarian theme by the guy who owns it, and he insists on being called the ‘Doctor’.

Sun n Moon Hotel | Situated next to Doctor Alone Café, this is a traditional house with a courtyard et al which was converted into a hotel with a pleasant looking rooftop café.

Hard Rock Café | Nothing like its namesake but quite a delight since it stays open late night. Do chat up the owner there who prefers to be called by a name one of his Spanish customers gave him; Mango. Mango speaks five languages and will engage you with interesting tales about travelers he meets, the café he runs and life in Pushkar.

U Turn | For breakfast try out a café located right above one of the ghats called U Turn. The place offers a majestic view of the lake and at night, you can see the aarti happen right under while atop a makeshift roof.

Other places include Out of the Blue, Laughing Buddha, the Tibetian Café and on the other side, Sunset Café, which claims to offer a glorious view of an already beautiful sunset in Pushkar. If you don’t feel too hungry and want to grab a bite on the go, don’t miss the tiny stalls selling falafel and taco’s in the market. Some of them are just exquisite and at the price they come, quite a steal.

While walking through the market, try the gulkand lassi from a street vendor. It is quite a treat. Most of these café’s serve brilliant Italian and Israeli food, catering to the foreign population demand in this area. Go for the cheesiest meals – lasagnas, pastas and pizzas and stay away from the bakery, products of which are usually not fresh. For breakfast, don’t miss the pancakes or anything with dollops of Nutella.

Shopping in Pushkar

From bright knick knacks and lovely jewelry, to beautiful leather bags, the Pushkar market is attractive enough for you to want to spend an entire day there. Here’s what you should keep a look out for |

– Jewelry stores, especially the ones that look slightly more organized and are unwilling to bargain; their stuff is beautiful.

Leather bags you’ll find are durable and reasonably priced, subject to heavy bargain. Make sure you check the quality and other options before purchasing.

– Footwear, clothing and similar items are worth taking a look at.

– Other than the usual, do not miss the wonderful art stores; they pop up occasionally. A store themed around Dali has a wonderful collection of surrealist paintings, Dali reproductions and other pop art which is exciting enough for you to engage the store owner in a conversation. Ask him to show you his studio right above the shop. He has hand painted the walls and ceiling in acrylic and luminous paint which, viewed in the dark, makes for a trippy experience. Most of these paintings on sale are for INR 600+ but even if you don’t plan to buy any, the store is worth a visit.  Also do not miss a fairly large shop selling ceramic items; tiny tiles, plates etc. These make for nice household items or gifts.

At sundown, wherever you are in Pushkar, stop and find a rooftop or an open area to watch the sunset. In this hedonistic little town, this dreamy experience will amaze you. With all its dualities, Pushkar is otherworldly. And as you sit watching the sunset from the insides of a café, glance at the ghats where the aarti is happening in full flow. Loud clanging music plays downstairs, in contrast to the conversation happening over a smoke and pizza inside a European café. You hear the sounds of both these worlds and smile at the dualities this tiny, surreal town imbibes in itself and lives calmly with; day in and day out.

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About the Author | Onaiza is a business graduate who gave up a job with McKinsey to study/chill for a year at the Young India Fellowship, while simultaneously trying to find something she could potentially enjoy for a living.