Travelling through 2 faiths


When a weekend gets you the opportunity to travel through time, in the by-lanes of history, mythology, and a chance to soak in diverse faiths back to back, you run for it. Pack a few things and run. Pick up a few friends along the way, if you are the lucky sorts and get onto that train. In a whirlwind weekend  trip, 3 friends packed in the Ajmer Dargah, the Pushkar temple circuit, many encounters with amusing strangers, gastronomical delights, timeless banter, gluttonous shopping and laughter to last us the whole month.  Whoever said weekends aren’t enough hasn’t felt the pleasure of plenty in 30 hours.

The speeding train. The slow sunset

While I have written about Pushkar before and visited the place quite a few times earlier, this visit had a different flavor. This is the first time I saw the little holy town sans the famous fair. And was pleasantly surprised. Without the crowd and the blare of the fair, it is still a vibrant little town with plenty to do, see and just be, in beautiful little spaces.  But the main difference in this visit was that I packed in this most ancient of Hindu pilgrim sites with the Supreme court of Islamic faith, in quick succession. And what did I discover? That even in such close proximity, they are quite different worlds of belief systems. But whichever way you pray, faith feels just the same.

Dargah sharif

Ajmer Sharif or Dargah Sharif , as our very articulate and efficient guide Farid bhai told us, is the Supreme court of god. The shrine of the famous sufi saint Moinuddin Chisti. Where people from far and near come to offer prayers on this express highway to the divine ear. Prayers, that many are hopeful, get heard loud and clear above the din of the world. The saint was also known as Gharib Nawaz [ the benefactor of poor].

Dargah Sharif

And this lives on right outside the dargah. In the many by lanes and in their delectable food shops there is a simple mechanism to feed the poor. After you have eaten, just leave some cash behind. You can buy a poor person a meal just for Rs 20. And the moment you do so, they  start handing out Sheermal roti with packed gravy. This promptness of ‘do good’ is by itself a feeling none less than a moving prayer. We went to the dargah, did the rounds, tied the ‘dhaga’ [ red threads for wish fulfillment] sat for a bit waiting for the qawali [ sufi devotional music], watched people sit there and pray, and then got completely distracted with some mouth watering sweets. I guess foodies will be foodies. Anywhere and everywhere.

Way to the ghat, Pushkar

And then there was this other flavor not even 15 hours before. Where bells ring to the melodious plenty across many temples. Where pilgrims old and young, rich and poor dip into the holy lake to redeem their souls. Where young brahmins hang around hoping to enlighten the not-so-serious pilgrims like us, with stories that start as early as the 4th century BC.  Pushkar, the vibrant little lakeside settlement has never failed to throw up a new anecdote, each time I have been there.  From the famous Brahma temple and the picturesque ghats, to the Savitri temple situated at a pleasant trek up a hill, to the eclectic little cafes where people of different nationalities sit and chatter exchanging notes on yoga, music, religion. This place has an easy vigor. Not out there. Not competing. But very palpable.

There are two kinds of youngsters in Pushkar. One that has embraced the infusion of multiple nationalities, and the one that stays rooted in the religious history. One local youth is looking forward to visiting Spain as he has a girlfriend there [ for sure a tourist who had stayed a while, looking for some learning], while another  17 year old chides me for being a Brahmin’s daughter and yet not knowing that Brahma had two wives- Savitri and Gayatri. One that looks suitably hazy at day time because he ‘needs’ the hazy stuff to make music later [ he is a sort of a DJ at some private party], while another waits outside the temple to help and initiate people into the right kind of Puja that will redeem the soul. The dichotomy is fascinating to watch from outside. And might just be a little bit glaring and worrisome for the town elderly.

To the colourful cafe- Pushkar

So next time you are there, mix a little. It’s quite easy. Do look up Mengo, the very talkative and pleasant young boy at the Hard Rock restaurant. Bump into Mahesh, the young guide, who waits right outside the Brahma temple. Have some earthy tea at the little shop run by the smiling mother daughter, as you start your walk towards the Savitri temple. Ask for help to be taken around the dargah, and there will be many willing members from the trustee committee of the Dargah Sharif to take you around.

And definitely look up the Mouni baba [ the silent hermit]. An old sadhu [ who could be anything between 45 and 95 or more] belonging to the Juna akhara [ a sect of holy men known to be formed by the 8th century philosopher Adi Sankaracharya]. Who hasn’t spoken a word in 12 years. He sits near the main ghat at Pushkar, smiling at everyone with the most compassionate face that one could imagine. With whatever money one leaves behind for him, he feeds the pigeons and the stray dogs. So fascinated were we with him that around 10 in the night we found ourselves drawn to his little hut. His smile warmed our hearts in the cold night. Our incessant chatter and questions about him to his disciples amused him enough to  get up, get his little jar of goodies, and hand out a candy each, to the three of us.
For me, that was the only prasad [holy food]  I carried back with me from the trip.

The smiling owners of the little tea shop, Pushkar

How could I not have a few special mentions, when the 30 hours had such lip smacking highs?
While Pushkar would have the usual flair of multinational cuisines along side the rajasthani delights, let me mention the few Ajmer highs. When in the Dargah, ask for the Makkhan Bade [ they are melt in your mouth Balushahi sweets]. If you can wait till the evening, then you also get to taste the sweet kheer [rice pudding] that is made without milk, in a cauldron bigger than my apartment.
Get out of the dargah, stop in the adjoining lanes, and join the chaos in the small shops. If you are a non vegetarian, this would be an absolute must stop. The mutton korma, sheermal roti and the biryani is a perfect tuck in before you rush for the station

Mutton Korma, Sheermal roti, Biryani, in the lane outside the dargah- Ajmer

Fact files:

Kanhaia haveli

How to get there: Overnight sleeper buses from Delhi or Gurgaon to Pushkar, that will reach by morning. Or early morning Shatabdi that would be in Ajmer by noon.

Where to stay : If staying in Pushkar, try this Haveli [ old heritage home] this time. Kanhaia haveli is in the thick of things, and yet charming, with a pretty rooftop restaurant. Satish, the man at the reception is helpful and hungry for a good review.

Shopping : Clothes, Bandhni prints [ I picked up a stunning saree for just 500 Rs], ceramics, leather products- bags, shoes belts. Jewellery- silver and bronze j with really unique designs [ and quite the steal].

3 friends, 30 hours and lots of magic. Ajmer & Pushkar