On the eastern edge of the vast Thar Desert, with a beautiful backdrop in the embracing arms of the Aravalli Hills, Pushkar is one of the most sacred—and atmospheric— towns in India. Legend has it that the holy lake at its center was created when Brahma dropped the petals of a lotus flower (pushpa) from his hand (kar). The tiny temple town that sprung up on the lake shores remains an important pilgrimage site for Hindus, its population swollen in recent years by the hippies who came for a few days and never left—a sore point for visitors who remember its untouched charm, but happily a matter of indifference to the first-time visitor. Their presence has transformed the sleepy desert town into a semi-permanent trance party, however, with bhang (marijuana) lassis imbibed at the myriad tiny eateries, falafels on every menu, long-bearded rabbis on bicycles, and world music pumping from speakers that line the street bazaar that runs along the lake’s northern edge. This street bazaar is the center of all activity in Pushkar and incidentally one of the best shopping experiences in Rajasthan, where you can pick up the most gorgeous throwaway gear, great secondhand books, and a huge selection of CDs at bargain prices.
Pushkar is somewhat of a mini-Varanasi, only more charming—it really is possible to explore the town entirely on foot, and outside the annual camel mela (fair) it doesn’t have the same claustrophobic crowds you find at Varanasi. It takes about 45 minutes to walk around the holy lake and its 52 ghats. Built to represent each of the Rajput Maharajas who constructed their “holiday homes” on its banks, ghats are broad sets of stairs from where Hindus pilgrims take ritual baths to cleanse their souls. Note that you will need a “Pushkar Passport” to perambulate without harassment (see “Passport to Pushkar: Saying Your Prayers,” below), that shoes need to be removed 9m (30 ft.) from the holy lake (bring cheap flip-flops if you’re worried about losing them), and that photography of bathers is prohibited.
Surrounding the lake and encroaching on the hills that enhance the town’s wonderful sense of remoteness are some 500 temples, of which the one dedicated to Brahma, said to be 2,000 years old, is the most famous, not least because it’s one of only a handful in India dedicated to the Hindu Lord of Creation. The doors to the enshrined deity are shut between 1:30 and 3pm, but you can wander around the temple courtyard during these hours. The other two worth noting (but a stiff 50-min. climb to reach) are dedicated to his consorts: It is said that Brahma was cursed by his first wife, Savitri, when he briefly took up with another woman, Gayatri—to this day, the temple of Savitri sits sulking on a hill overlooking the temple town, while across the lake, on another hill, no doubt nervous of retribution, the Gayatri Temple keeps a lookout. Ideally, Savitri should be visited at sunset, while a visit to Gayatri should coincide with the beautiful sunrise. Note: The Vishnu temple, encountered as you enter town, is the only temple off-limits to non-Hindus, but photography is permitted from outside the temple gates.
Unless you’re expecting authentic untouched India, Pushkar is a delight to visit any time of the year, with its laid-back, almost European atmosphere offset by the unique aromas of India and tons of tiny shops, temples, Brahmin eateries, and operators offering camel- and horseback safaris into the surrounding desert (about Rs 100/ $2.30 per hour, Rs 350/$8 full day). But the town is most famous for its annual mela—the largest camel fair in Asia. Attracting an estimated 200,000 rural traders, red-turbaned Rabari and Bhil tribal folk, pilgrims, and tourists, the mela stretches tiny Pushkar into sprawling villages of temporary campsites—interspersed with food stalls and open-air theaters—created solely to house, feed, and entertain the swollen population that flocks to the specially built amphitheater on the outskirts of the town to watch the races and attend the auctions. Like most desert destinations, however, it is at night that the atmosphere takes on an unreal intimacy, as pilgrims and tourists get to know each other around the many campfires, and Rajasthani dancers and traditional folk singers create a timeless backdrop. The Pushkar mela takes place in the Hindu month of Kartik, over the waxing and waning of the full moon that occurs in late October or in November.
On the evening of the full mela moon, as the desert sun sets behind the low-slung hills (a spectacular sight at the best of times), temple bells and drums call the devout to puja, and hundreds of pilgrims wade into the lake—believed to miraculously cleanse the soul—before lighting clay lamps and setting them afloat on its holy waters, the twinkling lights a surreal reflection of the desert night sky. If you’re lucky enough to have booked a room at Pushkar Palace, you can watch this ancient ritual from a deck chair on the terrace (it can be quite a scramble to get a view from the ghats themselves)— a wonderful sight and one of those mystic moments that make a trip to India among the most memorable of your life.