52 Ghats On the Side of the Lake, 52 Ghats to Descend...
… Bathe in one, wash away sins, 51 ghats on the lake to descend…
After our materialistic frenzy in Jodhpur we headed for more spiritual grounds. Pushkar is one of India’s most sacred cities, attracting pilgrims who bathe in the holy waters of Pushkar Lake and come to honor and cremate their dead.
As in so many scared places, an entire industry is dedicated to helping visitors find god and lose their money. Before dropping us at the hotel, Pappu warned us that “we have no help here,” “don’t trust anyone,” and most alarmingly “don’t tell anyone my name.” We thought this a little strange, but typical of the over-protective warnings Pappu regularly issued. Then our hotel manager gave us the exact same advice, whispering, “don’t tell anyone the name of your hotel,” “don’t accept flowers from anyone,” and above all “be careful of the bhang lassi [a drugged lassi, sometimes used to ‘enhance’ the religious experience, but more commonly used to drug, rob, and even rape tourists].” It seems visitors and tourists have little recourse in Pushkar, because the police are in on the scams, and are more likely to extract more money from victims than help them.
And as predicted, we were immediately accosted by offers for “free” flowers, “free” blessings, and to bathe ourselves in the sacred, though filthy, lake water. Our reply was consistent: no, no, and definitely not.
Nonetheless, our time in Pushkar was enjoyable. It is an incredibly photogenic city, and we spent our days discreetly photographing pilgrims, visiting temples, climbing mountains, and avoiding the ceaseless scam artists.
Below are photos of Pushkar lake, its 52 ghats (ghat: a series of steps descending into a holy body of water) and the people who come seeking its blessings, appropriately interspersed with some of the more notable scams for which Pushkar is known.*
Scam!A Hindu tradition calls for families to bring their dead to Pushkar to be cremated and then scatter the ashes into Pushkar Lake. The tradition mandates that the family also leave all the deceased's material possessions, such as clothing and jewelry, at the lake. Merchants then collect these items and resell them.
Scam! Young boys and old men offer visitors “free” flowers to drop in Pushkar Lake for blessings. If you accept the flower, however, the scammer then demands an exorbitant sum of money, making a scene and potentially involving the police.
Scam!Priests offer to make a blessing on your behalf for each cow in Pushkar, in exchange for a rupee or two for each head of cattle. Once you agree, he informs you there are tens of thousands of cows in Pushkar, and that you were now obligated to pay tens of thousands of rupees for your blessings.[Contracts 101: We do not believe this is an enforceable contract. We make no representations as to the accuracy of this legal advice, as we are not licensed to practice law in Pushkar.].
Scam! Local women grab at your hand, stamp it with henna, and then demand immediate payment for their "services."
Scam! A friendly Pushkar-ian (or westerner!) chats you up and offers you a delicious lassi. You demur, but he insists. Next thing you know you are drugged, robbed, and possibly sexually assaulted. Uh, we wouldn't call this one a scam. We would call it a terrible, terrible crime.
* If all of this sounds a bit scary, well - it sounded that way to us too. But we managed to avoid falling victim to any of these scams without much trouble (even if a few times we were forced to yell, "NO FLOWER!" at a kid trying to shove one in our hands).