Ajmer and Pushkar

Although geographically close, these towns could hardly be more different. Situated in a basin at the foot of Taragarh Hill (870 m), Ajmer is surrounded by a stone wall with five gateways. Renowned throughout the Muslim world as the burial place of Mu'inuddin Chishti, who claimed descent from the son-in-law of Mohammad, seven pilgrimages to Ajmer are believed to equal one to Mecca. Every year, especially during the annual Islamic festivals of Id and Muharram, thousands of pilgrims converge on this ancient town on the banks of Ana Sagar Lake. Many visitors are discouraged by the frantic hustle of Ajmer on first arrival, but it's worth taking time to explore this underrated city.

Separated from Ajmer by Nag Pahar (Snake Mountain), Pushkar lies in a narrow valley over- shadowed by rocky hills, which offer spectacular views of the desert at sunset. The lake at its heart, almost magically beautiful at dawn and dusk, is one of India's most sacred. The village is transformed during the celebrated camel fair into a colourful week of heightened activity, but a visit outside this annual extravaganza is also worthwhile.

The village has been markedly changed in recent years by the year-round presence of large numbers of foreigners originally drawn by the Pushkar Fair, but there are still plenty of chances for an unhurried stroll around the lake that uncovers a very holy site: ghats dotted with shrines to the elephant-god Ganesh; little alcoves filled with candles, flowers and burning incense; here and there a wild-haired, spindly sadhu sits in repose by a tiny charcoal fire, knees brought up to his chin ...

Dozens of hotels, restaurants, caf├ęs and shops cater to Western tastes and many travellers find it hard to drag themselves away from such creature comforts. The village's main bazaar, though busy, has banned rickshaws so is relieved of revving engines and touting drivers. Take the short trek up to the Savitri Temple (3 km along a sandy track and jagged stone steps cut into the mountain), and you can swap village activity for open swathes of valley and fringes of desert beyond. From on high, the houses crowd the lake's edges as if it's a plug-hole down which all of Pushkar is slowly being drawn. Come the evening, groups of women promenade the bazaars, the clashing colours of their saris all flowing together. Men dry their turbans in the evening sun after washing them in the lake, wafting the metres of filmy fabric in the breeze or draping it on nearby trees. Note that Pushkar is not to everybody's taste as there is a high hassle factor from cash-seeking ubiquitous Brahmin 'priests' requesting a donation receipt for the 'Pushkar Passport' (a red string tied around the wrist as part of a puja/blessing). A huge cleaning project is currently underway, which will involve draining the lake and could take up to two years, but should create a healthier, cleaner environment.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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