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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 03, Dated January 23, 2010
a series on cities in transition 18: pushkar

Camel Kingdom

Famous for its camel fair, Pushkar draws millions of tourists annually. But its jobless natives are keen to run away, reports ISHA MANCHANDA




Fading charm A dry lake greeted tourists at Pushkar in 2009


Rare divinity One of the five Bramha temples is in Pushkar

THREE THINGS have put Pushkar on the world tourism map. First, its Brahma temple — they say there are only five in the country — making this town in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district one of the most venerated pilgrimage spots for Hindus. Yearly, in October-November, tens of thousands of devotees from across the country converge in this holy city for a dip in its hallowed lake, believing this simple act will wash away their sins and bring them immortality. (Practically run by tourists and pilgrims, Pushkar, in the popular imagination, is a town that can free you from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.)

Pushkar’s second major draw is its world renowned annual camel fair, which brings over 2 lakh people and 50,000 camels to the town. And finally, impossible to miss, are the town’s signboards — of which there are more in Hebrew than in Hindi.

The first two factors, over the decades, have made Pushkar a popular destination for people, especially from Israel, many of whom stay around much longer than the camel fair lasts. Says Daniel from Tel Aviv: “I feel a great sense of calm in India. It’s beautiful and the people are lovely. It feels like home to me and to a lot of other people I know.” Daniel, who has been visiting India for the past three years, spends around three to four months in Pushkar on every visit.

Javi, another Israeli citizen, left his home four years ago and has been travelling across India for over two years now. “I left Jerusalem because I didn’t want to be drafted into the army. I don’t believe in the war so I decided to travel,” he says. “When I came to India, I felt I had found my spiritual home. So now I spend most of my time either in Pushkar or Dharamsala. I’d like to stay in India for as long as I can.”

One of the oldest towns in India, Pushkar, 11 km from Ajmer, is primarily considered a pilgrim hub. But for decades now it has also been a popular general tourist attraction. People head for the picturesque ghats in large numbers on full moon nights to offer prayers and bathe in the holy waters — especially the Saptrishi Ghat, where a religious festival is held after the camel fair.

The Brahma temple overlooks Pushkar Lake, which has 52 ghats, all held sacred by the Hindus. The main road off the ghats, next to the temple, is the commercial thoroughfare, with shops, little cafes and budget hotels dotting either side of it. The shops sell everything from cheap cotton clothes, artefacts, silver and junk jewellery to real swords. Occasionally one also sees shops selling paintings and hand painted T-shirts with psychedelic motifs. Some others rent out bikes to backpackers (mostly Royal Enfields) or repair them.

The hundreds of backpackers from around the world give the town an air of perpetual movement, enlivening its many quaint streets, market corners, shops and cafes. Taking pride of place on their menus is continental and Israeli cuisine: Pastas, falafels and the like. Says Oren, owner of Baba Restaurant, a rooftop joint close to the main temple: “All of us here make good money during the tourist season. Food, accommodation, trinkets and all things considered ‘Indian’ see brisk sales. But off season, there’s almost nothing to do here and most of us go to places like Goa to set up shacks or work with other travellers.”

BUT THERE is also a flip side to Pushkar’s many attractions. It’s once jewel-like holy lake, for instance, is no longer filled with the holy water that devotees travel thousands of kilometres to take a dip in. In the early nineties, after adverse weather conditions and constant neglect brought the water level dangerously down, 12 tubewells had to be installed to keep the lake full throughout the year. But sadly only three or four of these are known to be functional. 2009 proved disastrous in this regard: The lake was virtually empty during the fair, even though the Centre had allotted nearly Rs48 crore for its restoration and preservation.

There are other eyesores in this town that becomes so exotic during the tourist season. Unemployed youngsters pray to Brahma, the lord of creation, for one thing: To be transported to some place that will provide them jobs. Indeed there are many youngsters here who simply keep counting the days before they can finally leave the town. They are all aware of the limited employment opportunities in Pushkar, where you can either be a holy man, open a small restaurant or shop selling knick knacks, or drive tourists to other towns in the state. The traditional livelihood here is camel rearing.

Ask Vijay, who currently assists his elder brother, a clothier. He would much rather move to Ajmer and work with computer hardware than spend any more time selling clothes. “There is nothing to do here off season, no one comes. In those months we earn nothing. Not just me; all my friends want to shift base to Ajmer or Jaipur or Delhi.”

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 03, Dated January 23, 2010

From Doon To Boom
Dehradun is getting richer, but at great environmental cost, says SAUMYA TYAGI

The Fifty-Fifty City
Legal and illegal trades flourish side by side and there’s something for everybody in Meerut, says KUNAL MAJUMDER

Camel Kingdom
Famous for its camel fair, Pushkar draws millions of tourists annually. But its jobless natives are keen to run away, reports ISHA MANCHANDA

Outpost Of Empire
The sleepy capital of Arunachal is now a bustling commercial hub but still gets treated like a protectorate, says TERESA REHMAN

In The Afternoon Of Time
Once a city of poetry, politics and religion, Allahabad is turning cosmopolitan. But ATUL CHAURASIA wonders if it will ever return to its roots

Tattered Reputation
Once a bustling city, Kanpur’s glory has now faded. NEHA DIXIT traverses the convoluted pathways of neglect

Halfway Home Forever
Mcleodganj was founded as a temporary home for Tibetan exiles but its growth is fuelled by those who wish to end the exile, finds NISHA SUSAN

Dessert For A Desert Town
Alwar’s economic fortunes soared with a sweet, but now seem tied to the fate of the tiger, finds ANIL VARGHESE

Love’s Labour Lost
The queen of hills is being ruined by her own allure — too many visitors, not enough infrastructure, says JAMES BRAY

High Rise in Himalayan Foothills
In Rudrapur, a small but prosperous farming community is being taken over by a rapidly industrialising township, reports Anoop George Philip & Marie Naudascher

10. AGRA
India’s Capital Destination
The city of the Taj is acquiring the facade of a metropolis, losing some of its ancient grandeur and charm, reports Sanjay Dubey

Brass Tacks
As revenues shrink and exporters move into other materials, workers in the ‘Peetal Nagri’ lead a tarnished life at the epicentre of the brass industry, reports Shobhita Naithani

08.  PURI
A Press Of Popularity
Bibhuti Pati finds the ancient abode of Lord Jagannath overwhelmed — both by pilgrim numbers and rampant commercialisation of a beach resort.

Hare Krishna, Hare Capital
Spiritual tourism has changed this small town dedicated to temples and worship into a bustling city catering to devotees. Morgan Harrington reports

Gilt And Longing
Modern Shillong may be a bustling city, but its citizens still hanker for the beauty and serenity of its self-contained past, writes Teresa Rehman

Embracing Modernity With Elan
Tiruppur’s booming business has helped the once sleepy town change its skyline. PC Vinoj Kumar reports

The Broken Black Diamond
Anand ST Das finds India's coal capital low on supplies ansd struggling against cheap Australian imports

The Rudely Awakened City
M. Radhika finds the elegance and tranquility of Mysore rattled by corporate threats to its sleepy atmosphere

The Boats Don’t Come Anymore
The rise and fall of Alappuzha is a story that is known across the subcontinent. No one cares. No one asks: what are we doing for its revival? KA Shaji reports

Everyone Who Can, Is Leaving
The retail bustle of Benaras can be misleading. Behind the diesel-fed dazzle, is an economy wheezing to death, says Sankarshan Thakur

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