How to put this?
We arrived in Pushkar yesterday, the very first town I stayed in during a trip to India forty years ago. In many ways, I had been greatly looking forward to being here again – one of India’s most sacred spots – expecting the occasion might be the highlight of our extended journey through Rajasthan. Especially, I was excited about climbing the sacred hillock rising out of the Thar Desert up to the Savitri temple where…
Well, I’ll get to that.
We hired a car to take us the two-hundred kilometres from Jaipur to Pushkar on account that the hassle of using the public transport system for this particular part of the journey would not have offset the minimal saving in cost.
Our previously booked room was in a haveli – a traditional townhouse from Mughal times – situated pretty much at the entrance to the old town. To tell the truth, I could barely recall arriving last time, so frenetic had been the bus ride from Delhi.
Near the Thar desert we stayed in a nondescript roadside hotel overnight and next morning caught a cab to the bus station. We managed to book the fare to Pushkar okay but when the bus pulled into the bay suddenly a whole mass of people charged forward. The crowd were carrying everything, bundles of clothes and chickens and even goats under their arms.
‘Effing Christ!’ Gee yelled.
I grabbed Gee’s holdall and threw it with mine through an open window.
‘Make a dash for it!’
While Gee fought with the rest of the passengers at the front of the bus I wriggled my way through the window. I got through and told an Indian who had sat down beside our bags to clear off. Other Indians too had to be held off until at last a bedraggled Gee made his way up the aisle.
‘Bloody hell! What was all that about?’
The ‘de-luxe’ room at the haveli was a bit poky but the spacious dimensions of the building’s interior and open roof space just about compensated, and a stroll round town left us feeling totally calm. A so-so meal on the rooftop did not diminish our spirits overly and a good night’s sleep ensued.
But then this morning…
The room really did feel poky – and dark, with insufficient natural light to fire up the brain’s neurons. Not even a rooftop breakfast of pancakes and fruit juice did the job.
So I asked the owner/manager if he had really assigned us a ‘de-luxe’ habitation. He suggested we might prefer a ‘super de-luxe’, which turned out to be slightly larger but noisy because of its position over the street – and we moved room again.
So not a great start to the day.
Set upon the hillock now is a cable-car service, or there are stone steps lined with macaques. We took the latter. At the top there appeared to be two square concrete buildings, the cable-car station and something else. Maybe the temple was situated behind them.
Up, up, up we went towards the sky and took off our shoes as required at the stairs’ top.
And then into the building, an anodyne and featureless structure both outwardly and inwardly within which was a shrine dedicated to Savitri, spurned goddess-bride of Brahma. In and around the building were a few Westerners and a few Indian families making a pilgrimage.
To start with we had to walk on loose sand, then some rocks were placed to help, with a rope banister. On top there was a set of wooden steps to complete the journey. The climb took an hour or more and was pretty tiring in the Asian heat. At the top though there was a tremendous view of the expanded village and lake, people-dots and camel herds. A climb up a wooden staircase led out onto the temple parapet.
‘It’s even better!’ said Gee.
‘Look at that plain!’
‘We’ll have a good smoke of the Kashmiri, and really make it an occasion to remember.’
While Gee was busily sticking papers together a group of nomads from the Thar desert came out onto the parapet. They stood and watched him as he lit up, so he offered one of them a toke, which was gently declined. One came over and offered him white temple sweets. He took them and the nomad motioned for him to open his palm again. This time he dropped a small gooly of rolled opium into it. The only thing they had in common – the semi-retired young Western muso and the nomad of the Thar desert – was that they were equally human.
‘Did you see it, Matt!’ Gee said after the nomads had left the parapet. ‘The look in their eyes!’
– Death and the Dead
Such is the difference forty years can make; and, I have to say, the difference is all external.
This evening we are sharing a meal with the two friends we made in Jodhpur, at their haveli across the road.
After we may visit the ghat on the lake where Gandhi and Nehru’s ashes were scattered, since, as I said earlier in the post, in actuality the place where we are staying is among the most sacred – if not the most sacred of – sites in the whole of India.
Except that’s not quite how it felt today.