So how many Israelis are there?” asks the Indian of the Israeli backpacker in Pushkar. “Eight million,” says the Sabra. After a tiny pause, the Indian asks, “And how many in Israel?” Jokes apart, very many young Israelis do India in their gap year (500 were already in Pushkar last week). This is the crucial break between their military service (two years for women, three for men) and what they will do afterwards with their lives — go to college, get a job, or both. Besides Bhagsu Nag village in Himachal, Goa of course and a couple of other places, notably Paharganj near New Delhi railway station, their favourite place on earth seems to be Pushkar.
It’s a piquant matter that Pushkar is also one of the world’s most ancient living holy sites. A bath in the holy pond at Pushkar on Shukla Ekadashi around Kartik Poornima is considered a purifying shortcut to heaven. Pushkar is also witness to history. It was 11 km away in Ajmer that Jahangir flung down the firman (imperial decree) that permitted Thomas Roe to set up factories for the East India Company at Surat.
It was at ‘Buddha Pushkar’, the pond outside town, that the delightful Aurangzeb was discouraged for once from his home-improvement plans for Hindu deities: he saw himself grown old before his time in a spooky reflection in those waters.
Stepping stones to moksha
Vasundhara Raje Scindia dedicated a nice new ghat in July this year at Buddha Pushkar. She couldn’t know this, but the sandstone steps of that ghat rang hollow — they did not feel like proper slabs. God knows what disaster is waiting to happen under the weight of millions.
How could I tell? For one, my nerve endings told me. I’m used to the steps in South Indian temples, the feeling of solid stone under my bare feet. Then I saw the Gujjar gentleman ahead, identified by his long gold ear-clips, stomping on a step. “Theek nahin? (It’s not okay?)” I asked him. “Khaali hai!” (It’s empty!) he said, shaking his head. Four other people joined in on how everybody was out to make money in their short terms as politicians and administrators, and nobody really cared for the people of India.
Perhaps that explains why we still flock so ardently to Pushkar (apparently, five lakh showed up this year between November 9 and 13 for a salvatory dip). At least God had to be made to care: Pushkar has 52 ghats and 400 temples from where to pull God’s ear down and make those divine palms uncurl in open anjali. Why else would Brahma have killed the demon Vajra Nabh with a lotus flower above Pushkar?
“Prasaad lo! ” shouts a handsome young fellow, pushing a handcart full of…spring onions! “What kind of holy handout is that? It’s not even remotely sattvik,” I sniff. “It’s from Naga Sadhu Arjun,” retorts his devotee. “Are you from Pushkar?” I ask. “I live in Barcelona,” he says. “Las Ramblas… that fabulous street! How I love that city!” I sigh. “My shop is right there, selling handicraft. I’m ‘Felipe’ out there but every year I come home for Kartik Poornima and do seva for my guru, the Naga Baba, and I’m Dilip again,” he grins.
Time out, the Israeli way
But I want to know more about the Israelis. They stride about munching falafel and pita rolls, strong and beautiful men and women straight out of the army, quite distinct from the mild-mannered Europeans. Some are reportedly quite quarrelsome and give Indian shopkeepers severe haggle-headache, quoting old prices authoritatively from last year’s guidebooks.
But Janardhan Sharma, a lawyer in his 70s and former member of the Pushkar Nagarpalika takes the long view. He lives in the oldest quarter of Pushkar in a 300-year-old haveli and his wife gives me some of the best masala chai I’ve ever drunk. “The Israelis are very strong and beautiful, are they not?” he says sweetly. “They are very naughty in India. But they will pick up their lives again.” I feel as though a wise, ancient serpent had suddenly flickered an eyelid.
What can you tell a Pushkar priest’s son that this ancient town has not since aeons? And it’s no bad thing to have gap year Israelis go back with fond memories of the place where they took time out from ‘real life’ as they know it.
Pushkar sums itself up in Kishan Singh, son of the first granthi to settle there. He makes and sells religious paintings by the road and it's his signature that grabs my eye: Next to a picture of ‘Pablo Picasso’, he’s got his: “Kristo Kikasso”.
“I just do my own thing,” he says. Theek hai.