Sacred Cities

Today I had a pre-booked excursion to Sufi shrine of Ajmer and the nearby holy city of Pushkar, both situated about two hours drive outside of Jaipur. An official visit by the Prime Minister of Pakistan (no less) was going to make Ajmer extremely problematic so Raj, my driver, suggested that we take in Pushkar, sacred to the god Brahma, as our first stop. Not for the first time, my background research had let me down and it was only on arrival that I realised it was the lake at Pushkar and not the one at Ajmer that was the mythical twin to the pool at Katas in Northern Pakistan that Elisabeth and I had visited in 2008.

Despite the twin pools being formed by the tears of Lord Shiva on hearing of the death of his wife Sita, it is to Lord Brahma that Pushkar is most sacred and the fact that he has no other temple in India (or indeed the world) puts it right up there at the top of the holiness hierarchy. Raj arranged a local guide for me and once I had seen the crowds of visitors and press of tourist wallahs I knew I couldn’t manage without. Lala, for that was his name, was a great authority on the stories of the gods and goddesses and had more than a few snippets to impart on the indelicate behaviour of the many Western devotees but the fact that his finger kept disappearing up his left nostril with the frequency of a two year old’s was just a tad distracting.

Now, are you paying attention? Brahma (the Creator) seems to have upset his first wife “big time” by taking a second wife of convenience for a festival (it’s a bit more complicated than that but you get the picture). Enraged at being usurped by such a floozie, Saraswati cursed Brahma to have but one holy place in all the world and this was it. Eventually she had to concede the prime lakeside spot to wife number two and so her temple sits atop a nearby mountain from where she can look down upon all the proceedings below with suitable disdain.

At this time of year, outside of the Indian pilgrimage season or the time of the largest camel festival in the world, there seemed to be more Westerners in Pushkar than Indians. Not camera toting tourists, you understand, but spiritual devotees in search of loose cotton clothing and barefoot enlightenment. Apparently, some stay for years but I’ve noticed before how they all seem to cluster together in certain locations sprinkled across India (Rishikesh, Allahabad) while at other, equally sacred sites (Mathura, Bodgoya) they are all but absent. Any unkind speculations on my part were curtailed by Lala who explained the growing role of the bhogi (or sex-yogi) who specialised in helping uptight Western women release their chakras.

You will see from some of the photographs how difficult it was for me to keep my mind off of the subject and concentrate on my lessons about the Indian pantheon: Brahma (the Creator) rides a swan and his revered at Pushkar: Vishnu (the Operator) an eagle at Bodgoya and Shiva (the Destroyer) a bull at Varenasi. Kali rides a lion (notwithstanding the fact that it is usually depicted with stripes) and Ganesha a mouse. A mouse? Just don’t quote me. A quick lhasi (yoghurt drink) and a few more photographs and we were ready to head off to Ajmer to see what, if anything, it would be possible to visit on such an inauspicious day.

The city was full of police and military and most of the main roads were closed. This is where a resourceful guide is at a premium and Raj, to his great credit, was in fact only hired as a driver. He found a parking spot and sought out a local auto driver who agreed to take me up to the shrine via the back streets. He was in the middle of instructing me to be extremely careful and keep my visit short when he obviously had second thoughts and decided to lock up the car and come along with me for safety’s sake. We had a hair-raising ride through the narrowest of back alleys and came out right in front of the action to find a press of uniformed officers and smart-suited officials all mixed up with pilgrims and visitors. Have the Indian security services never heard of a sterile area? Was the visiting PM actually going in via another route? Am I going to be on TV tonight?

More seriously, I am ashamed to say that I knew very little about the Sufi saint whose shrine I had come to visit. It turns out that Moinuddin Chishti (also known as Gharib Nawaz – benefactor of the poor) completed his pilgrimage here in the thirteenth century after visiting many of the holiest places in Islam. It also turns out that he took his name from his birthplace, the remote village of Chishti in Western Afghanistan which by a stunning coincidence…………oh, do shut up, Nicola.

No photographs were permitted inside the shrine today but, when I found myself resting from the heat with a friendly group of lady pilgrims all the way from Kashmir, one of them took a few pictures with her fancy mini-i-pad-thingumy. She promised to send some on to me and if they arrive I shall certainly treasure them but even if they do not it was a wonderful meeting. The ladies had brought not one but two family members with severe learning disabilities and their genuine friendliness and complete sincerity overcame any of the cynicism which I might have developed in the earlier part of the day.

Leave a Reply