The Artist : adding interior decor to The Everest Hotel.
is not as well as it could be. Or as it would like to be. A year or so ago, in final protest to the infinite tributaries of human detritus - chemical, material and organic - that must have found their way to the waters of the town's eponymous and sacred lake day in and day out, every single fish in it upped-belly and died. Inauspicious times for the lake and the town born of a lotus planted on Earth by Brahma, one third of the Hindu holy trinity (Shiva and Vishnu too) from whose head the Brahmin caste are said to have sprung and co-creator of the Universe in Hindu theological lore. A poor monsoon has done little to revive its spirits and either way it has been drained as part of an urgent government clean up act that has left little more than a large muddy void, populated by diggers and laconic labourers, festering at Pushkar's heart for the time being.
The Savitri Temple hill viewed afar over the Pushkar roofline.
A necessary blight on the towns usually charming mystical postcard aesthetic. Sometimes you have to hurt to heal. The famous Camel Market festival just weeks away will not be such a pretty affair this year.
Yes, an ailing lake can be a problem in this part of the world. The symptoms of drought, taking financial forms, can spread quickly throughout communities and economies increasingly dependent upon tourism. A few days later I find myself in Udaipur
, stepping into an arched balcony area of the Bagore-Ki-Haveli to take in a solitary view of Lake Pichola with its famous luxury Lake Palace/ Hotel. I am not alone. A young man in his late twenties, dressed smartly in crisp white shirt and creased trousers sits staring blankly at the same.
The Golden Thread
This is a resigned Mohammed Yousef passing the time, watching the young boys, school finished for the day, swimming their cares away in the lake waters. The women and their daughters percussively paddle-beat their clothes on the stepped bathing ghat to our right. A diurnal chore. Bright, dripping saris spread over the ghats iron railings to dry.'Do you know in July this year the lake was completely dry'
Mohammed offers. 'Wow, seriously. It must've looked pretty ugly.' 'Yes, and things have been very bad for the last four years now. There has been almost no water in the lake.
This is global warming my friend.'
The lake had indeed been dry as he claimed. Flocks of livestock mooching on the desiccated lake bed. Guests of the 5 star hotels ferried around in jeeps rather than romantic boats. Tourism had plunged 50% in consequence. Bad news for a community 40% of whose 2.5 million in number rely upon tourism directly or indirectly for their livelihoods.*
The symptoms take financial form. Mohammed knows. He lost his job as the manager of the rooftop restaurant of the Haveli, one of Udaipur's principle sights, when the tourists dried up with the lake and the business went bust. 'You can still see our tables and chairs arranged on the roof.'
Pressure on water tables means added pressure on agricultural yields means pressure on food costs for the producer and the consumer.
Gaudily over-painted but impressive architecture nonetheless
A global trend that also contributed to the restaurant's demise. Mohammed explains that potatoes increased from 2 to 20 rupees per kilogram in one year. Sugar from 15 Rupees to 35 rupees per kilogram. 'Last year this time in October temperatures were 28 degrees'
he continues. 'Woah, that's hot!'
I attest. 'Yes. But this year, this year has gone beyond the limit. Today is 35 degrees. Yesterday was 36 degrees!'
He's right. It's still unseasonably smoking hot.
I look to the waters to cool my thoughts. These only just, and only recently replenished by a last minute flurry of another disappointing monsoon for the region.
The sound of paddle-beaten clothes continues as rhythmic as the waters that lap at the Haveli's sides. Chemicals from the women's soap powders leeching into the waters. Hard to avert ones eyes from the scummy mulch of human discard that sits upon the lake surface by the haveli walls and bridges. A minor coagulation of shames skulking guiltily in the shadows. No fish here either I guess? 'People here do not yet understand how they are polluting the lake'
Mohammed observes. One must understand symptoms to pursue a cure.
But a temporarily deceased lake is not such a drastic problem for the pilgrim and hippy haven of Pushkar. Not yet anyway. Whilst it may be the initial reason tourists and their cameras head here, it's not the reason they stay.
White and Orange
Often way, way longer than they ever anticipated. Pushkar makes for an easy, comfortable, relaxed and cheap life you see. Such virtues (apart from the latter) are not always readily available in this chaotic country. In some ways Pushkar is a refuge from, or at least a reduction in the excesses of India, whilst being within India. I am instantly reminded of the karmic, incense laced tourist enclave of Thamel in Kathmandu as Nishant leads me through the arterial bazaar area of the town toward the super relaxed Everest Hotel (RS150/ £1.90 per night for private double room with own bathroom), my haven for the next 4 days or so.
As we walk my eye keeps being caught by large messages paint-sprawled across several walls and water containers around town declaring 'AIDS is cured'
before presenting a website address for 'the-comforter'.
The sad but necessary current incarnation of Pushkar's ailing lake.
My later researches of 'the comforter' reveal a site pertaining to 'Spiritual Evolution and Holistic Healing
' and its star, the apparently very famous Guru Ramlalji Siyag who at 82 years old is 'one of India's contemporary saints'
we’re told. A man apparently 'blessed with divine powers [...] in the wake of mysterious spiritual experiences in the late 1960s'.
That happened to a lot of you guys back around then right? 'He is reverentially addressed as 'Gurudev', an honorific that equates him with God.'
Amidst his various miracles and achievements, the claim that through the power of meditation (instructions on site) one can be cured of such life threatening conditions as Cancer and HIV/ AIDS.
Ancient Indian sages learned, we are told, that 'diseases are not caused by accidental exposure to germs or pathogens as medical scientists believe'
but rather 'that much of human suffering is actually caused by the actions of each individual in his/her past life.'
Essentially your potential Cancer; your potential HIV/AIDS infection are a consequence of 'the spiritual Law of Karma'
. Only Guru Siyag's yoga, Siddha Yoga, can succeed 'where modern medical science reaches its final limitations
[and fails] in finding lasting relief or cure for a disease'
. Siddha Yoga claims for itself the clinical Holy Grail of a 'Complete cure
Whilst I accept that too limiting a segregation of illness and disease classifications into the labels of purely 'physical' or purely 'mental' afflictions can be an over-simplifying and often unhelpful act, and whilst I have time for the therapeutic value of meditation and much time for the recognition that the relationship between the two spheres of the 'physical' and 'mental' can in some cases be of vital importance (i.e. a positive mental attitude - let's call it happiness and determination shall we - often prolonging a clinical decline or even reversing symptoms and maladies in some instances) HIV/ AIDS, without ARV (Anti Retro Viral) treatments, is beyond such pleasantries. It is a depressingly, mercilessly physical disease. Killing the sufferer by turning the body against itself and crumbling the white blood cell count and immune system from within.
Mother & Child (Lunch)
So I find Mr Siyag's claims damaging and dangerous hokum for a country that has a very pronounced HIV/AIDS problem**
whilst still too often being happy to accept the claims of such spiritual figureheads. Something akin to the beliefs peddled in Sub Saharan and South Africa (even at some points in political echelons) that having unprotected sex with virgins could be a cure for the disease. We must be mindful of the relationship between the body and the mind and illness. And we must be very mindful of opportunistic cranks, be they religious, medical or political.
And there's a fair bit of religious crankology in Pushkar. Mostly harmless. A system of financial and semi-spiritual give and take that has blossomed (and cankered somewhat) around the lake shore.
I think these are blocks for printing patterns on cloths/ saris etc (either that or henna pattern print blocks)
A profound, 'true' and necessary part of a whole and worthy life for the believing residents and pilgrims of Pushkar. Largely an irritation for the tourists who also wash up on the shores. The infamous 'Pushkar Passports'. A small bracelet of saffron and ochre coloured cotton thread that - for the right price - will be tied around your right wrist by someone probably claiming to be (or you never know, actually being) a Hindu Brahmin saddhu or baba (holy man) and apparently permitting you access to the lake side ghats and ingress to some temples when otherwise this would be deemed rude. Probably a venerable enough tradition but one significantly degraded by the out and out financial opportunism of often unfriendly and forceful individuals clearly possessive of about as much religiosity as my little toe nail.
The cost? It varies.
Average about Rs100 (£1.30) per relative, be they living or dead. This cost will be supplemented (and hyper-inflated if you're not careful or get the 'wrong' sort of guy) by a handful of flower petals offered for a lake puja ceremony 'for you, for good luck and health your family. Why you not want good luck for good health your family my friend?'.
Get outs? Lie about your family’s scale and health (conscience permitting) or just be politely aggressive back. Alternatively, invert the scam by buying your own cheap thread in the bazaar and making your own pre-made Pushkar Passport to wave at these spiritual touts.
I'm game enough for a bit of fun so when being jostled by Mr 'I am a Brahmin Priest'
( looks like a liqueur store clerk to me) I just say 'How much?'.
Octagonal pavilion overlooking the desertified lake.
A snip from what I'd heard. 'Done. Tie it on.'
... now sod off. True to expectation, as I walk around the largely abandoned and somewhat broken down southern shore of the 'lake' I am called over to a dark recess where from within my liqueur store clerk sits chuckling with some chums, one of whom is enthusiastically crushing fresh marijuana with a stone roller upon the ghat's flag stone floor. 'Bhang lassi my friend?!'
he laughs. 'Absolutely NO flippin' way thank you very much!!!'
Why such a strong reaction? I'll tell ya in a bit.
Pushkar Puddle :)
All these things though; Pushkar Passports, petals and piety false or otherwise are all part of the colour of a stay in Pushkar so don't let it all seep too deep beneath your skin. There are any number of little scams, designed to eke out a hard living within the town, and interacting (and avoiding them) are - as I say - part of the fun. The top ones to seriously avoid are the 'petal people' and the ornately dressed, often pretty, dark skinned (and often mobile phone clutching) gypsy girls of the area's more nomadic community who seek to daub very unprofessional henna patterns on you. Both these groups can and will try to extort laughably large sums of money from you once their 'services' have been proffered.
Other characters in town : the shrunken-as-raisons old babu's with their collection pots or smoking puja plates; their pals with the cows with the coloured horns and disturbingly withered yet auspicious 'fifth legs' dangling from their shoulders (a result of genetic aberration); friendly turbaned, moustachioed musicians and their wives; girls and boys offering to pose for photos; gypsy dancing ladies with impressive gold facial accoutrements inviting you to their dances and homes (and more?); their kin clutching small wicker baskets opened to reveal (hopefully, though cruelly de-fanged) black cobras within; small boys offering to be guides or dressed as little Krishnas or Shivas and so forth.
Pushkar Passports : the saffron and ochre bands (here tied about a tree) that people will sell to tie about your wrists.
You will meet this colourful cast time and again as you walk around and around Pushkar’s likewise colourful bazaars (famed for good cheap clothes shopping) and the little back and side streets lined with gigantic steaming pans of hot milk and oil for delights sweet and savoury alike, chai, and other treats glimpsed and inhaled as you slalom in-between representatives of the Pushkar Municipal Waste Disposal Authorities (cows and the occasional frowned upon pigs), Municipal Construction Company (cart dragging camels) and their various 'deposits'. Its a hard call. Where to put one’s eyes. Straight ahead, behind or to the ground? Or do you risk another upward glance at the in-between-cable flashes of gaudily painted yet antiquely beguiling Mughal town architecture, latticed windows, balconies and the like?
One sight you must at some point in your lazy days in hippy-dippy-trippy heaven take in is a view of the town and surrounding hills and plateaus at sundown from on high.
Best to climb the northerly hill toward the Pap Mochani temple for this. One of two hills (the other, larger West of the lake with Savitri temple upon its summit) that represent the conflicting homes of the two wives of Brahma. I stare the sun to sleep and head back down to watch a few obedient women climb to their rooftops at moon rise tonight. The annual festival of Karva Chauth when wives must honour their husband and his future health by fasting from sun up to moon rise at which point they may feed their husbands by hand. Always a conversational kick for me. ‘So, um, is there an alternative festival where husbands honour their wives by fasting as such?’ ‘Oh no.’
Tradition and patriarchy. You have to smirk ;)
It's taking in another beautiful sunset from the rooftop restaurant of Everest Hotel with my often-companion at such times Glenn from Belgium, as the families of Langur monkeys begin to gather on the roof tops and play, that I have my unfortunate 'Bhang' lassi experience. 'Bhang' is marijuana and lassi is the traditional cool, refreshing Indian yogurt based drink. As you can guess a 'Bhang', or 'Special' lassi as careful menus often entitle them, is a lassi laced with... umm, ‘healthy’ amounts of 'the good herb'. Now the extent of my chemical experimentation in life (aside from alcohol) as I may have previously observed, extends very little beyond learning to spell 'pharmeceutical' correctly (oops!
... and my spell checker's just told me I've spelt it wrong! pharmA
ceutical of course ;) But ya know, on rare occasions, when in Rome.
Colour & Dust # 2
So Glenn and I start to sup away at our ‘Special’ lassis gigglesomely enough... and then 20 minutes or so later it all starts to go wrong for me.
Happiness does a u-turn. The body begins to get strange. An internal fuzziness. A lightness; a tingling sensation and then a heaviness of limb. A feeling that recalls my early years as an asthmatic when lack of oxygenation would lead to a strange spreading bodily numbness. Something inside me begins to panic a little. An allergic reaction?! How bad is this going to get?! Oh f**k, oh f**k, oh f**k,
why oh why oh why
did I break the near habit of a life time?!.. am I being punished for my transgression? HOW bad is this going to get?!!
Glenn looks a little worried on my behalf but does his bit trying to check my psychological pulse every couple of minutes to see if I respond.
'So, uhh, when are you meeting your friend in Udaipur did you say?' 'Well, I haven't heard from him yet and... and... oh...'
The Sewing Machine
I lapse into silence. I'm trying to focus on what feels like an internal collapse. Trying to 'keep it real.' Glenn keeps warning me of the danger of 'thinking about things too much.'
Worrying too much.
What can only be described as a feeling of hyper-dehydration has kicked in now. My body feels on fire. A raging, unquenchable forest fire. My tongue feels thick, my throat arid and no amount of water being drunk seems to make any difference. I'm quietly, constantly trying to focus on the conscious awareness that most, if not all these symptoms and sensations could be all, or the majority in my mind.
Lady and Indigo
Mental and physical. Back to that old tussle again. But it's true. This could just all be in my mind. The numbness. The dehydration. But I'm not sure. I'm real doubtful. And the doubt is scary. I touch my tongue to see of it's really as parched as a payote cactus in the desert heat or not but I can't tell. I feel so dry I could drink a lake! An entire lake to quench this raging thirst. But the lakes around here are dry already.
Physical? Mental? Allergic reaction? All in the mind? I know the mind can override all and convince it of strange physicalities that have no foundation in reality. My family witnessed this process painfully at times with my mother when depression set her mind and her body against each other. Divide and conquer.
Mother & Child (Dinner)
A clinical civil war of which she was latterly a persistent victim. A broken heart looking for a way back; a way out; caught in the crossfire between those twin warring tyrants. The Mind and The Body. I'm internalising. I know. Imploding like a little star. A Black Hole is being born within me. So I turn away from those thoughts. Besides, I am too darn dry to spare a tear right now to cry. Not a good time to be moribund. 'Steve I really think you should go lie down'
Glenn enthuses for the umpteenth time. I finally relent, but I'm nervous to leave the eye line of people who can rescue me if things get really bad. This decision though means a fearful comedy of negotiating the eight flights of stairs back to my ground floor room.
This is achieved slowly and shakily. One step at a time. I'm scared. Paranoias dance around a campfire in my mind. They will sing long into the night with the raging flames of my dehydration flickering in their mischievous eyes. But a good sleep must be grabbed. They say after all that this is as good a remedy as anything. A cure for all ills.*
The Times of India (9July 2009)**
Following much debate and difference of statistical opinion the most recently 'agreed' and published statistics for India's position with regards HIV/AIDS infection rates approximate 2.5 million sufferers as at 2008. This equates to a 0.30% prevalence within the population rate of infection which whilst seeming a small percentage, means a lot of people in a country with a population of 1 billion and places India 3rd in global prevalence of infection standings behind Nigeria (2.
Mother & Child (Breakfast)
6m cases) and table topper South Africa (5.7m cases). These figures agreed on and/or published by UNAIDS, NACO (the Indian government's National AIDS Control Organisation) and UK based AIDS prevention campaigning organisation AVERT. To counterbalance all this, though I can't recall or locate the source I'm sure I read not so long ago that the Indian Government has since received commendation from UNAIDS or the WHO (or some such organisation) with regard its swift response to the crisis and effective rolling out of ARV programs.