At the bottom of the hill where the only* Brahma Hindu temple in India sits, we perched at the edge of a basin filled with holy rose water. A man led us in a prayer which none of us could understand or even really pronounce; he translated for us along the way. When the prayer was finished, he rubbed red powder on our foreheads and tied a red and yellow bracelet around our wrists as we descended toward the water. We prayed for our friends and our family as we were welcomed into the community, setting rose petals free into the water. I wished for my family to experience the same smells and sights and sounds as I did in that moment, as our guru told us to return with our families someday.
We were in Pushkar, on the edge of Pushkar Lake, where Hindu pilgrims bathe in the holy waters. Only our hands and feet touched the water, but I watched as families bathed nearby, with towels laying on the pavement. An old man, watching us, stood up and waved hello to me; I waved back. Because of its rich history and an abundance of temples, Pushkar is seen as one of the most religious cities in the world, as well as one of the five holy pilgrimage sites for Hindus.
Pushkar is known for its annual fair, where camels are intricately decorated and covered with patterns and jewels. We passed many of these camels on our walk into town, covered in ropes of different colors. We yearned to shop in one of the many stores lining the streets, but alas had left all of our money on the bus — “you won’t need it,” promised our tour guide. And while we had to pay for the lakeside offering, he was right — we didn’t need it.
We also explored the Jagat Shri Brahma temple (photos weren’t allowed but you can find some here), which like the other temples we had been to was filled with color and vibrance and interesting statues of the gods (which within Hindu culture is not a symbol of the god; rather it is the god itself). Hidden rooms and bricks with engraved names on them in many different languages were scattered across the temple, as were many bees attracted by various offerings. Wildly colorful illustrations depicted the stories of the Hindu gods, and people stood in front of Brahma to give their offerings.
From Pushkar, we continued on our route to Ajmer, a short drive away. The bus dropped us off and we were made to take tuk-tuks up to the main street, a long drag where we walked through thick crowds with clouds of gnats swarming above us. As we reached the shrine, our scarves were draped to cover our hair, and we entered with the shrine’s heredity custodian and our personal tour guide Salman Chishti. We listened to qawwali music** and then bought big baskets filled with rose petals, which we took with us into the crypt as an offering, or chadar.
Chishti and others we spoke to told us that those who come to Ajmer Sharif do so because they have been called there, reflecting the mystic and spiritual nature of Sufi tradition.
Inside the crypt, Chishti covered us with a large, heavy cloth, and blessed us with a prayer before giving us rose petals to toss on the coffin and then to eat. I was in the front row of the very crowded space, where we were constantly told to get even closer together, and as he passed back handfuls of roses, I found myself with a small, sad handful of those which had fallen as he gave them to the people behind me. Once my hands were filled — for real, rather than with remnants — I closed my eyes and tried to forget that oh yes, maybe I am a bit claustrophobic in order to fully experience the moment, and before I knew it we were ushered out, as several men tied another red and yellow string around our wrists.
Before leaving Ajmer, Chishti gave us a package of dried rose petals and another string, and told us to put it wherever we pray. As we left, our scarves fell back around our necks, and eventually the strings came off our wrists, but Pushkar and Ajmer stayed with us — the kind of souvenirs that no, you won’t need your wallet for. ♦
*It isn’t the only in the world, per se, but it is seen as one of the most important — from it, you can see the temple dedicated to Savitri, Brahma’s wife (read more about the legend here, it’s quite long!)
**Qawwali music is a transcendent, mystical practice often found within Sufism.