Pushkar is 288 kilometres west of Jaipur and one of India's most visited places. Despite much tourist growth over the past 20 years or so, it remains an enchanting little town. It is on the edge of the desert, 11 kilometres from Ajmer, an oasis wrapped in green hills but separated from them by Nag Pahar, or Snake Mountain. A strictly vegetarian town, alcohol, meat and eggs are banned from Pushkar.
The town clings to the side of Pushkar Lake, which has 52 bathing ghats and 500 whitewashed temples. It is said to have once been crammed with crocodiles, but now giant carp rule the water. This is an extremely important pilgrimage centre for Hindus. The water around each ghat is said to have special powers, ranging from bestowing fertility, beauty, charm and wisdom to curing leprosy. Tourists may enter the ghats, but are asked to do so with respect no shoes, smoking, taking of pictures or kidding around.
If you have donated to a genuine Brahmin priest, a thin red thread will be tied around your wrist, which is handy to flourish when the next priest comes along. Travellers should be aware of a type of passport control existing at the ghats. People posing as Brahmin priests are known to bully people into making puja (prayers involving scattering flowers into the lake), then requesting a heavy donation. Be wary. Not all of those with their hands out are genuine.
Pushkar Lake is said to have been created by lotus falling from the hand of Lord Brahma. It is considered to be as old as the creation and a most sacred place. Devotees believe that one dip in the lake is equivalent to performing yagnas, an outer form of worship in which offerings are made for several hundred years.
Pushkar's temples are not as ancient as one might expect in such an important pilgrimage site. Many were desecrated by Aurangzeb, a Mogul ruler, and subsequently rebuilt. Brahma Temple with its red spire is the most famous and one of the few temples in the world dedicated to this deity. Savitri Temple is a one-hour trek away; its views over the town are best in the early morning. Pap Mochani Temple is also worth the climb.
Fifteen years ago the main bazaar was merely a string of stalls selling traditional puja paraphernalia. Now it is a kilometre-long line of shops crammed with hippy trinkets, full-moon party fluoro outfits, jewellery and CDs in company with cafes churning out banana pancakes and lassi. Beware of bhang lassi, which contains ground cannabis leaves. While it is legal, it can cause intense psychological distress to anyone not used to it.
A wander away from the noise and bustle of the bazaar to the tranquil fringes of the lake or into the green hills will bring back the magical atmosphere responsible for attracting travellers. The sound of temple bells and drums drifting across the water at sunset restores the feeling of being in one of the world's most exotic places.
Each November, at the full moon of Kartik Poornima, Pushkar becomes even more lively and colourful during its famous camel fair. Two hundred thousand people flock to the centre. There is a massive congregation of camels, cattle, traders and pilgrims who bathe in the holy lake to be absolved of sin, while tourists and film-makers are desperate to capture the colourful festivities. Traditional folk musicians and dancers predominate.
Temporary campsites are set up in a specially built amphitheatre on the town's outskirts to accommodate the swollen population. From there people are able to watch the auctions and races, enjoy local food and be entertained by traditional musicians and dancers. As with most campsites, everything comes to life at night and all nationalities blend in the almost surreal atmosphere.
Camel safaris are popular tourist activities. The Aravalli Range, one of the world's oldest, has sandy fields, small dunes, beautiful hills and superb sunrises and sunsets. There are small villages along the way and if you time your visit for crop harvesting time, it's particularly beautiful. Logging is banned in some areas, but poor policing has seen much of the once dense forest lost to building and fuel.