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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bright Lights, Pink City (Part VI)

Last year, a young family friend left for India for the first time. In talking with him prior to his departure, I was inspired to dig up the emails I sent to friends and family while studying Hindi in India back in the summer of 2004. Blogging had just started to catch on at the time and it didn't occur to me to start one then, but I thought it might be entertaining to post these now. Excerpts are mostly unedited, except to remove boring pleasantries and preserve the privacy of those involved; also, links to relevant sites have been inserted for your enjoyment/edification/distraction. 

I will add a new post summing up my recently-completed trip back to India after posting all of these older pieces.

(Continued from Part V)

Date: July 27, 2004
Subject: Pilgrim's Profits

Namaste once again,

I would have sent this out yesterday, but the monsoon so far seems to have stood Jaipur up at the prom, and the accompanying surge in electric usage (keeping all those bottles of Coca-Colonization cold is a mighty task) and the lack of hydroelectric output means that Jaipur has instituted rolling power outages for two hours a day -- though without telling anyone which part of the city will be affected when. So this is what it's like to live in California!

Anyway, this past weekend the counselors here at Hindi Camp took us on another field trip, this time an overnight trip to the Hindu holy town of Pushkar and the neighboring city of Ajmer. It's about a three-and-a-half hour drive via bus -- though it seemed a lot longer in our A/C-deficient bus -- but it was an interesting look at Indian highway culture. There's no fast food yet, just lots of tea stalls, roadside restaurants (which are apparently notorious for prostitution -- the spread of HIV in India can be traced by looking at trucking routes), and random clusters of stores selling new and used auto parts in various states of decay. Highlight of the bus trip was definitely hearing (Euro-pop junkies and Mets fans, prepare yourselves) "The Venga Bus" being blasted at a Rajasthani truck stop while our drivers changed a flat tire. Oh, that and surviving several near-death experiences involving very large trucks driving very quickly straight at us.

Pushkar itself is a very small town, but supposedly has over 400 temples and is considered one of the top three or four holy places in India. Because of this, it's also full of a) "spiritual" tourists, man, who, like, totally dig all that mysticism and stuff - and b) people trying to rip them off. Apparently Pushkar is especially popular with Israelis who have just gotten out of the army and feel the need to unwind by not showering and drinking a few bhang lassis (made with an, ahem, herb that is sacred both to Shiva and Snoop Dogg -- some of my friends were offered them, but apparently I don't look enough like a hippy anymore). This results in some interesting contrasts, such as a store selling T-shirts with pictures of aliens smoking from a bong next to a temple of the medieval poet-saint Mirabai.

The town is built around a sacred lake which is said to have sprung from the ground when the god Brahma dropped a lotus from heaven. Some friends and I went down to the ghats (bathing steps) and found (or rather were found by) some questionable Brahman priests (one of whom was wearing pink sunglasses) who could perform pujas for us -- these consisted mainly of the Brahmans having us repeat  some decidedly half-ass Sanskrit, then offering the gods a coconut, flowers, and colored powder by tossing them into the lake in order to gain their blessing. Naturally, the Brahmans do not do this for free -- you are expected to provide an offering to them for this service and they are not above haggling for more if your offer is not suitable.

Pushkar has what might be the only temple to Brahma in India. Despite his seeming prominence in the "Hindu trinity" of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer (I'll spare you the lecture about the Orientalist oversimplifications inherent in this oft-repeated chestnut), Brahma has almost no devotional following. The story goes that he wanted to perform a sacrifice that required the presence of his wife, Saraswati (the goddess of music and learning). She couldn't be found, so, practical guy that he was, the Big B found a local cow herder girl and married her. Saraswati, understandably annoyed, cursed him that he would be forgotten by the people of the earth. But the other gods intervened and got her to at least allow him this one temple in Pushkar.

We went to the Brahma temple, among others, to take darshan (the central act of Hindu worship, the act of seeing and being seen by the image of the deity -- in Brahma's case, a four-headed statue with a mirror hanging behind it so that you can see the head facing backwards; they eyes are painted a striking silver, and seem to pull your gaze straight towards them) and see the evening arati (a ritual in which the temple priest performs some special actions -- ringing bells, sprinkling the image with water, circling incense and fire in front of it -- in order to focus the deity's attention on the crowd before him).

It was at this temple that I had my first real Indian crowd experience. As you may know concepts of personal space are somewhat different in India, and the crush of people towards the altar to get prasad (food, usually some sort of sweet -- lots of rock candy in this one -- that has been offered to the god and that therefore retains some of the god's blessings) was like fighting against a rough surf, with an undertow of small children rushing past your legs. It was wild, but the crowd at the Dargah in Ajmer the next day made the Brahma Mandir seem like solitary confinement. The Dargah is the tomb of a Sufi saint, and is one of the most revered Muslim pilgrimage places in India. After haggling yet again with a holy man over the proper donation, we were literally pushed inside by a throng of people that was swirling around the tomb like a whirlpool. While being smacked on the head repeatedly by what looked like a giant feather-duster, I grabbed on to the side long enough to be blessed by a priest who placed a green cloth over my head and recited a prayer of some sort (I couldn't really hear if it was Hindi or Arabic, there was so much noise), before I was torn away and spit out the other side... the only thing I can think to compare it to is rush hour in the New York subway, maybe with a little Altamont or Woodstock '99 (choose your concert disaster based on your age) thrown in.

In any case, after the Brahma temple, we had dinner at a restaurant (the one good thing about touristy places: the existence of spinach and mushroom enchiladas) near our hotel. The hotel was great -- even with the windows wide open, the rooms were for some reason 20 degrees hotter than the outside, but the swimming pool more than made up for a lousy night's sleep. Maybe I could have done without all the dead ants floating in the pool and the bats that divebomb the water around you at night to pick out these delicacies, but hey, beggars can't be choosers, right? And the garden of the hotel was perched on the southern side of the lake, where we could sit on the wall and watch the moon disappear behind the temple spires while devotional songs floated across the lake on the cool night breeze... so maybe I'm not completely cynical, and I did feel a few moments of peace in this holy tourist trap.

take care,
A

(to be continued...)