Many Indian cities have been built around holy bodies of water. The Ganga, of course, is the lifeblood, the sacrament of these bodies, but lesser lakes and rivers are also revered. The water is sacred, so, understandably, people build religious vessels around it. Worship is solidified in the form of multi-tiered temples (with swimming landings called ghats) constructed in blocky layers around the lake.
Pushkar, so the myth goes, rose out of the ground after Brahma, Lord of Creation, dropped a lotus flower from the sky. Today, Pushkar remains a potent spiritual center with places like Ghandi Ghat, where Ghandi's ashes were strewn, drawing pilgrims from around the country.
The small, holy lake in the center of the village is circled by a dense, bustling market. Textiles and jewelry are the market's main claims to fame, though you can buy anything from drums to pseudoephedrine. A hodgepodge of holy men, gypsies, beggars, tourists, merchants, schoolchildren, and animals crowd the area from dawn to dusk, haggling, sipping chai, or taking the powerful Pushkar puja (literally, "respect"), a prayer ritual involving marigolds, a coconut, and, for many, a holy bath.
My first morning there, I took off to explore the town's busy market and maybe do some shopping. About 10 minutes later, a beggar woman walked up to me, her face folded into finely drawn lines. She held up her small silver bowl and smiled at me, speaking in silent and worn Hindi. She patted her soft old belly and said "chapati, chapati." Something about her eyes reminded me of glazed amber, and the fine wrinkles on her leathery face reminded me of my Oma, my mother's mother, who, in her old age, also had dark, folded skin. I agreed to buy her some chapati.
One bag of chapati flour, a bottle of soy oil, and a bag of salt cost about $7—roughly what she might make in a week or two. She placed the flour on her head and led me out of town. We walked about a mile through exposed and trash-filled yellow dirt to an encampment strewn with blankets. A fence made of bamboo and twine encircled the place; beds were placed both out in the open and inside of leaf-covered huts. Women in brightly colored saris, with plastic bangle bracelets up to their elbows and multiple silver and beaded necklaces, squatted near a fire. It was a Rajasthani gypsy camp.
About seven women trickled in out of various corners of the camp when we arrived. Some, thankfully, spoke good English. They implored me to sit on a blanket and share a bidi, or small, leaf-wrapped cigarette with them. The bidi was potent little tobacco bomb that left a pleasant buzz inside of my skull.
The gypsies had come from Jaisalmar by mule. Pushkar, with its many tourists, presented good business opportunities, so they settled here. Someone gave them trouble about settling on the land at first, but leaves them alone now. They're an extended family of married and unmarried women, widows, men, and bejeweled, dusty little kids.