#Featured

Mumbai To Mukteshwar: Ajmer to Pushkar, COVID Rips Dargah of Roses and Aartis of Scents

post image

Anything after Udaipur is an anti-climax. Every single time I have left Udaipur, it is with the desire to return to do more, see more, meet more people and breathe more Udaipur air. It is no different this time. Our original plan was to go to Jaipur and meet friends who are working with communities of women around Jaipur. But the COVID-19 numbers from Jaipur are not looking good. So we changed our plan and decided to go to Ajmer and Pushkar. I have never been to Pushkar in my many trips to Rajasthan, and in my mind’s eye, Pushkar is etched as a colourful dusk. I am so looking forward to being there.

Read all Mumbai to Mukteshwar stories here 

Ajmer

Our friends in Ajmer find us an apartment at short notice. When we reach there, we find it to have an Airbnb Superhost status. Mr Sharma, who helped us sign in and also helped us with our bags shows us the place with evident affection and pride. We ask him who the owner of the bungalow is and it turns out that he is the owner. There is a minute of awkwardness, followed by a warm friendship. He tells us his interesting backstory. After a career sailing and working in hospitality in Dubai, he returned to his native Ajmer and bought one of the few remaining heritage bungalows. He rues the loss of other bungalows in the neighbourhood and talks about the tourist scene and seasons in Ajmer. It is hard not to like this super host as much as his bungalow with its little floral borders, sparkling sheets and towels. I must point out the only downside to this stay. We are woken up early morning by the sound of a passing train, so I guess there is a railway track in the background somewhere. But overall, I am really happy with my first Airbnb experience in India, as accidental as that might be.

We are invited to dinner at a beautiful house in the backdrop of the Aravalli hills. We listen to stories of the Naag Pahari, dating back to the time of the Mahabharat and the more modern stories of species of snakes that live on the hills.  The food is amazing; simple and delicious. It reinforces my belief that every Indian cuisine is better cooked in a simple home kitchen than in a fancy restaurant. That gap will narrow hopefully when Indians stop eating out as a treat or celebration. This trip has been all about simple home food and homestay and will be memorable for the people we meet and the stories we hear.

Visiting the Ajmer Sharif is mandatory because when I was here last, I was 17 and we were a busload of girls, mesmerized by the dessert and its lore. The overpowering fragrance of pink roses lingers in my memory like it was just yesterday…till we visit the Dargah and there are few roses…and no fragrance. There are plenty of devotees though, many without masks. The fervour is undiminished…it is, after all, a beloved saint and a generous giver of blessings.

Also Read: Women And Money: How Can The Two Be Better Friends?

Pushkar

I continue on to Pushkar in search of my eternal dusk. We have made plans to go to Pushkar many times, but even though I am not religious, I have come to believe that you visit a holy place only when God wants you to! For starters, the ghost of the once beautiful lake lurks somewhere, but is definitely shy of me! Our driver, native Mumbaikar, wonders why I came all the way to see Banaganga. Sitting at one of the over decked and empty tea shops, I try to picture it as it would have been before the construction boom caught up with it from all sides. Right where the sun is setting, there is a half-constructed, really ugly building. It is hard. I give up.

Once we start to walk towards the Brahma temple, the decked up shops are frozen in time. The ware we sell to tourists has barely changed since I was in my teens; elephant printed cheap rayon dhoti pants, black silver jewellery and Kashmiri shawls. There is no business being conducted here and I wonder how these shopkeepers have survived the drying up of tourists. I talk to one of them sitting under the few remaining old houses. He says business has been nearly shut, but it is his parental house and what else can he do. I guess pride is all there is…

By the time we reach the Brahma temple, aarti has started. One can stand below the steps and watch the aarti and the sanctum sanctorum on the television screen. I emptily watch the priests’ arms moving in one direction, then the other and find myself trying to decipher the rhythm. It dawns upon me that an aarti is pretty ineffective without the surrounding scents and the glow of fire or camphor. It is weirdly the same as the Dargah without the roses.

We walk back to our car and on the way find some signs of life in a couple of restaurants. It’s unbelievable how much life tourists bring to a place, even though when they are around one almost wishes to see the place uncrowded. I guess I will need to be back here when the ghats are lit, the camels are sold and the camphor is in smelling distance! Back to Mr Sharma’s bungalow, I tell my husband this and he reminds me to not go to Banaras again (0r Ayodhya) because apparently progress is underway and promenades and other cement structures are part of the beautifying project in all holy places in this ancient country. I recall one of my favourite poems by Mangalesh Dabaralji  about Hamare Devata and rue the muscularisation of Gods I grew up seeing as lovable, imperfect and relatable.

We leave Ajmer next morning to drive to a friend’s Farm in Garh Mukteshwar and from there to Mukteshwar. Again, we will be changing our route and losing our way. That will be the last part of this travel series…

The views expressed are the author’s own.