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Friday, 29 February 2008

Rajasthani Gypsy Camp, Pushkar, India

Written by Drea Knufken
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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." Gypsy Camp, Pushkar, IndiaSomething 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.

Gypsy Camp, Pushkar, India 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.

When I asked one woman about her husband, she said he took the drink and left. Every morning the women walk one hour to get water and carry it back in clay pots on their heads. The rest of the day, they go sell henna in the market, teach dance, and, as far as I could see, hang out, cook, smoke, and take care of the kids. The camp had a lull to it, especially around mid-day, and I could easily see myself becoming a squatting, gossiping chain smoker with the rest of them.

After the obligatory questions: How old you? You married? Kids? No kids? Oh…(face falls)—they told me that Puva, the old woman, had been widowed years ago and had no family. The big gypsy family allowed her to sleep by their fire, but could not share food with her, as they had to take care of themselves first. Her eyes were failing and her lungs were weak.

"She has two month, then she see no more," Sanita, a girl roughly my age who spoke the best English, informed me.
"What then?" I asked.
"We give her a stick and tell her which way to walk to town."

With failing eyesight, Puva cannot make jewelry or apply henna, two things that help gypsy women sustain themselves. She is also too old to dance. When I asked how old she was, Sanita shook her head and said very, very old. About 40.

Gypsy Camp, Pushkar, India The women put mehndi, a marital wedding design, on my hands using henna squeezed from plastic bags. Before the henna was dry, they started dancing, a display complete with drums and a built-in audience. They did a traditional dance with flowing skirts and tricks like bending over backwards and putting a 100-rupee bill inside of her mouth. They continued to smoke like chimneys. I found yet another bidi between my lips as I took pictures. They then took me to their kitchen area, where I shared in throat-burning dahl and homemade chapati.

After buying some jewelry and giving them a kickback for the food and the show, one of them, Shanti, accompanied me back to the market. We sat in the middle of the dirt for a cigarette break halfway there. She informed me that my clothes were mediocre and I had to make myself beautiful. Next thing I knew, she'd stuck a bindi on my forehead and smeared dark lipstick on my lips with her pinky finger. She also gave me a ring to wear. Much better.

It was mid-afternoon when I finally got back to the hotel room. After smoking 4 bidis, I was stricken by a sinus headache that put me out for the rest of the week. I saw the gypsies again when I was well enough to walk around town, offering henna to unsuspecting tourists. I smiled and they yelled back, asking if I, too, wanted henna. Perhaps they'd already forgotten who I was. I, on the other hand, will never forget them.

©Drea Knufken


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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