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Photo by Nicole De Abel

Camels and karma

A visit to one of India’s most sacred towns got off on the wrong foot for author Peter Johansen. But maybe there was a reason for his bad luck.

By Peter Johansen

Anuj made his expectations clear: “In the five years I’ve been a tour guide, no one has fallen off.” I aimed not to ruin his record.

We were winding up a 15-day trek through Rajasthan, India’s largest and most arid state, and our final destination, Pushkar, was where we’d take a sunset camel ride into the sand dunes just beyond town. This was the place to do it. Each fall, Pushkar, located about 400 kilometres southwest of Delhi, hosts the world’s largest camel market.

I was determined to be prepared. Physically, at least. While the other 10 members of our group explored Pushkar in the 47 C afternoon heat, I rested in our air-conditioned hotel. My plan: to be fully alert. But instead of resting, I fretted away the afternoon. Camels are a long way up; riders have a long way down.

“Watch while they demonstrate how to mount a camel,” Anuj commanded after the herd arrived at our hotel. We watched. In 10 seconds flat, a camel wallah mounted and dismounted. No verbal instructions. No slow motion. No repetition for slow learners.

Another camel wallah tapped me on the shoulder and motioned to follow. The animal minders had sized up our group; the geezer, me, was paired with the gentlest beast. But a beast nevertheless.

I obeyed an order to mount, easing my left foot through the loop of frayed rope that served as a stirrup. My right foot swung over the camel’s back and through a stirrup on the other side. I held on for dear life as the camel lurched upward, rising first on its hind legs, then its front ones.

“Are you okay, sir?” the camel wallah asked.

“Yes,” I replied. Which meant, “Certainly not. I’m unbalanced. The saddle is just an uncomfortable pile of blankets. The saddle horn isn’t big enough for both hands. I’ve made a horrible mistake.” As we took off down a dirt path, I told myself I’d get used to it. But I could see trouble aplenty.

I could split my head open on the gravel, I thought. At least it was an unpaved road. Then we hit the highway. I could be hit by a truck, I thought. Then we turned onto a second dirt road, where I noticed a brick wall running along my right side. If I have to fall, I instructed myself, fall to the left.

Just as I’d resigned myself to toughing it out, my camel stepped on a stone. Its spindly leg wobbled. I instinctively leaned forward. The camel continued to wobble; I continued to lean. And then I did what one wag called a perfect pirouette. Holding on, I turned 180 degrees and found myself sprawled along the camel’s neck, my feet toward its head. My weight pushed the animal to the ground.

As I slid down the camel’s neck, its master rushed to ease me off. My right shoulder was strained and my groin bruised. I rode the camel cart the rest of the way.

As we reached our rest stop on the eastern edge of the Thar Desert, my wife said, “You know why this happened, don’t you? You didn’t walk into town with the rest of us this afternoon. You’re the only one who didn’t get blessed by the Brahman priest.”

If that’s the way karma works, I reasoned, the next morning I would visit the holy man.

According to a sacred Hindu text, Lord Brahma, the Creator, dropped a lotus blossom from the sky. Where its petals landed on Earth, water gushed forth, forming three lakes, the largest of them at Pushkar. It was there Brahma made his terrestrial home.

The town is thus one of India’s most sacred places. About 500 whitewashed temples, some 900 years old, grace Pushkar. Its population of 16,000 is dwarfed by a million domestic tourists a year, many of whom come to purify their souls by bathing in Lake Tirtharaj, “the king of all holy places.” Ashes of both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were scattered here.

It’s a strictly vegetarian town; alcohol isn’t permitted either. But as a spiritual substance, bhang (marijuana) is perfectly legal. Restaurants around town even use it to spike their lassis, a yogurt-based drink.

This combination of spiritualism and bhang is no doubt what put Pushkar on the backpacker circuit in the 1960s. When the hippies settled there, the place acquired a bohemian quality that’s still apparent. You’ll find restaurants with such names as Honey Dew or the Pink Floyd Café (specializing in Indian and Mexican food). A raft of shops along the kilometre-long bazaar sell tie-dye clothes, incense and essential oils, cheap jewelry, religious art and ceramic bongs. Commercialism is propelled by countless touts, conducting business amid roaming cows, dogs, monkeys and camels. Despite all that, the main reason folks come here is spiritual.

I met my Brahman priest, Ganesh, at a taxi-stand-cum-Internet café. The guidebooks warn against pesky priests who accost tourists and extort “donations,” so I was happy that Anuj, our tour leader, had negotiated the meeting.

Ganesh told me he’s the fourth generation of his family to become a priest. He has the name for it: Ganesha is the most widely worshipped of the 330 million gods found in Hinduism.

Ganesha, the god, is pot-bellied and elephant-headed. But Ganesh, my priest, is young and handsome, sporting a serene smile, long hair and a snow-white tunic.

We walked along a couple of market streets to one of Pushkar’s 52 ghats, sets of marble steps that ring the lake. The ghats were built by Rajasthani royals who wanted to ensure their prosperity by providing pilgrims access to the sacred water.

I slipped off my shoes the requisite nine metres from our ghat while Ganesh picked up a metal plate he’d prepared at his temple. He reeled off its contents: grains of rice, rose petals and marigold blossoms, brightly coloured powders of turmeric and vermilion, a coconut shell and a strand of red and gold string.

We descended the scorching marble steps to the water’s edge and sat. Ganesh began an incantation in Sanskrit that he articulated slowly and asked me to repeat. He didn’t laugh when I mangled it. He explained I was calling upon the gods to bless my family and me, and offer prosperity to all.

The first to prosper, of course, was the temple: Ganesh asked for a donation. When I offered 100 rupees (less than $2), he seemed pleased. My guidebook, I later discovered, suggests 10.

Then Ganesh asked which deceased person I’d like to pray for. Instantly I thought of Erin, my daughter who died at age 26 in a house fire more than a decade ago. Ganesh had trouble saying her name, but again we chanted, inserting Erin’s name into a string of words I didn’t understand.

In less than a minute, a deep peace washed over me. I’m not sure if my daughter was blessed that morning, but I was.

Ganesh then smudged the red and yellow powders onto my forehead; I dumped the flowers into the lake; he scooped baptismal water with the coconut shell and tied the thin string around my wrist. I wore it for months, even after it became faded and tattered, a reminder of the peace I’d felt and of Erin.

As we left the ghat behind, we chatted — a Christian and a Hindu — about how deeply moving I found it, despite knowing not a word of the chant or, for that matter, much about his faith. “Christian, Muslim, Buddhist — it doesn’t matter,” he replied in his quiet way. “We’re all one.”

And the camel injury that took me to him in the first place? Ganesh’s blessing didn’t help. Months later, both the pain and the embarrassment still make me twinge.

Peter Johansen recently retired from a career teaching journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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