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There's no such thing as a free blessing


I hadn’t expected to be charged for the blessing. It was November 2013, the Hindu lunar month of Kartika Purnima, and the annual Pushkar Camel Fair had just begun. I’d hitched a lift to Pushkar from Jaipur with my friend, Hemant, passing along the way caravans of camels loping through the Rajasthani desert towards a setting sun. This was a postcard that told of incense and oases and marigolds and romance. 

If I’d arrived by plane, or by hot air balloon – a method of transport that landed two tourists in prison, quite literally, when their balloon veered off course and into the grounds of a high security jail during this year’s festival – I would have been enchanted by the scene below: camels marching upon the city like armies of ants; the city rising from a camel-coloured, camel-teeming landscape; the landscape cradling at its centre a jade-coloured pool, the sacred Pushkar Lake; the lake bobbing with Hindu devotees – less numerous than camels but themselves inestimable in number – who had come here during Kartika Purnima to wash away their sins. 

But I entered the city at street level, where romance can soon wear thin. Mounds of rubbish rose from the streets, providing sustenance for the emaciated cows and stray dogs and fat pigs nosing greedily through them. Shopkeepers chased ragged children, and the children in turn chased tourists, offering guided walks in exchange for rupees. Gypsies promised dances and henna tattoos for exorbitant fees and thieving langur monkeys bided their time on shop awnings.

Out on the fairground, stables and kitchens and shops were being erected from corrugated iron. Sleek thoroughbred horses were settling into their make-shift quarters and the animals for which this fair is named – India’s ubiquitous camel – were arriving en masse, on foot ahead of orange-turbaned masters, by truck from states too far off to permit a journey by foot. 

I stood behind an ancient, rusted truck bearing two camels. It had come to a halt beside one of the many mounds of soil piled hereabouts by itinerant Pushkari labourers; the improvised platforms would ease disembarkation for the flimsy-limbed animals. The camels were tethered in place by ropes attached to their nose pegs. One camel’s nose peg had become subsumed within the bloody mass that now existed where the rope and peg had gnawed through his skin. I wondered how long his painful journey in a wheezing truck over potholed roads had lasted – twelve hours, eighteen? – and who would want to buy him now, with his face a bloodstained mess. 

Elsewhere, camel carts jogged around the fairgrounds, cameleers sitting up front with whips in hand, tourists reclining on frilly-blanketed cart beds, ragtag boys hanging off the sides and springing to the ground when gates needed opening or new customers cajoled. These young boys had left school to help support their families, one cameleer told me; they worked inhumane hours for the camel owner, and earned less than a pittance for their efforts. 

In the afternoon I made my way from the fairgrounds into the Pushkar citadel. Narrow streets surged with people going hither and thither, with shopkeepers shouting out for customers, with touts pressing marigolds into tourists’ hands. I accepted one of these golden flowers from a white-robed man and followed his instructions: find your blessing down at the lake, he said. 

I moved along with the crowd until, quite suddenly, the city relinquished its suffocating grasp and made way for Pushkar Lake. A stranger told me to remove my shoes and directed me to a Brahmin sitting at the bottom of a ghat beside the greasy, rubbish-flecked waters. He held a silver plate filled with red puja powder for Lord Brahma, yellow petals for Lord Vishnu, rice for Lord Shiva, sugar for Lord Ganesha.

'This is a blessing for your life, and it is free,' he said, smearing a red dot on my forehead and asking for my husband’s long life. 

I emptied the contents of the plate into the lake as instructed, and swept a handful of water over my head. The Brahmin lifted my wrist and wrapped fine strings about it.

'You have received a blessing now and you can decide what donation you wish to give, so that the Brahmins can keep this place nice and pray for your family,' he said, knotting the bracelet emphatically. 

'Europeans pay in Euros, Americans in US dollars, Indians in rupees. You can pay €200, €500, €1,000. How much would you like to pay?'

I looked at the Brahmin and felt a cackle rising in my throat. 

'You said this blessing was free,' I said. 

'The blessing is free, but you must pay for the maintenance of this place,' he insisted, sweeping his arm up towards the ghats and the temples surrounding it.

I wondered briefly what the consequence would be of defying the Brahmin’s demand. I was a guest in Pushkar, and so should respect this man’s customs. But I had been tricked into receiving a blessing I didn’t want for a fee I hadn’t agreed to pay from a man who wore gold rings on his fingers and a portliness that suggested prosperity.

Our eyes locked, and what I saw was the bleeding camel and the illiterate, hungry children and the women I’d met in India whose husbands’ long life had been considered worthy of prayer by holy men but not their own. I rose, thanked the Brahmin and climbed the steps to the top of the ghat. I knew where my money would be better spent.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based journalist and travel writer.

Photo credit: Catherine Marshall.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, travel, India, religion, camels, Hinduism



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Existing comments

Blessings with costs are just some of the ambiguities in the relationships between priests and devoted Hindus in India. For many Hindus puja in their own prayer spots is as important as temple devotions. For others observing the liturgy at temples and having long conversations with priests is spiritually uplifting. Being shaken down by a priest is off-putting and happens too often. But being hailed by a priest, sitting in the open at evening prayers, and exchanging views as best one can in English and Hindi can be touching and significant. Fortunately in India while ambiguity is everywhere and expectations are often unfulfilled, nasty surprises can be exceeded by uplifting ones. One just has to keep travelling.

RFI Smith | 14 November 2014  

Your story, Catherine, of the reality behind the “cultural tourist attraction” of religious places - cruelty to animals, exploitation of children, lack of basic hygiene amenities - is sadly not surprising but still shocking. I am glad you put your money towards the mistreated and not to the mercenary Brahmin. It is so easy for us Australians to exist and operate as if our gripes were the worst; even though animal cruelty and mistreatment of human beings is not unknown in this country either. Your article is a conscience-prick to most of us.

smk | 15 November 2014  

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