Sunday, April 20, 2008

contrasts and paradoxes

we pulled into pushkar around 1 pm yesterday, settled into a very nice hotel (hotel everest,) and spent the evening exploring the town. 8 pm found us sitting on the steps leading down to the bathing ghats, where hindu pilgrims come to ritually immerse themselves in the holy waters of lake pushkar. the story is told that brahma dropped a lotus flower on the earth, and pushkar floated to the surface. a full moon was rising from the east, highlighting a string of candles lit along the bottom step of the river, while music celebrating the deity hanuman trickled down from the hindu temple to where we sat. the night had cooled considerably, and i said to jenni, "india is so awesome; there is nothing here that is remotely like america."

this morning we went back to the bathing ghats to watch the townsfolk and pilgrims wash in the lake. jenni walked around the lake while i sat in the hot shade, dealing with an upset stomach, a cow that kept poking me with its nose, and a string of pesky priests yelling instructions to the worshipers coming to the waters. jenni came back my way, and she began telling me about her walk around the lake, but i held up a finger to request a pause, and then rushed over to a rubbish bin to puke up last night's dinner; it looking surprisingly the same as when i ate it. as i leaned over the mouth of the rubbish bin, the 100 or so flies deep down inside of the bin came shooting up at me as the vomit hit their nesting ground, and i felt inclined to hack again. but hacking can feel rather nice at a time like that, and i was forced to recognize the truth in what many have said before: that india is a country full of contrasts and paradoxes.

while i am really enjoying pushkar, (although today i am still feeling somewhat sluggish - jenni too - we've been eating at the same places,) i really felt comfortable in ajmer. we strolled through the vegetable market next to our hotel, and took pictures, spent some time down by the lake before breakfast, and eventually went back to dargah sharif to meet with the khadim, syed fakhar mohammhed, who we'd met the night before after my less-than-desirable excursion into dargah with the other khadim. he took us both into dargah, and officiated for us in bringing the offerings into the holy place (which i discovered contains the tomb of a revered sufi, khwaja muin-ud din chishti; the pilgrims come to pay homage to him and pray that he might intercede on their behalf.)

the muslims come from all over, and some come with much pomp and celebration; we happened upon one pilgrimage that carried an SUV-sized prayer cloth and many baskets of flowers. we purchased a much smaller prayer cloth and one basket of flowers and then made our way inside. i decided at one point that i wanted to smell the flowers (we bought red ones interspersed with jasmine, and their scent was very compelling,) but i was chastised by syed fakhar; "the flowers are not to touch your nose," and so he took the tainted ones from the basket and threw them to the side. the hall was extremely crowded with worshipers, but we followed a guide inside while syed fakhar entered the tomb from another way so he would be prepared to meet us. i thought about crowd stampedes at football games in brazil and realized that this could easily happen here. with so many people pressed against each other, i could hardly move, and i had to lift my arms up so i could squeeze through the crowd. jenni, deftly balancing the basket of flowers and the prayer cloth on her head, continued to smile, while i utilized the ever-useful techniques of cognitive therapy to chase away my feelings of panic and claustrophobia.
we finally reached syed fakhar, who was positioned behind an enormous silver encasing that encircled the tomb of the sufi saint. he greeted and instructed us in the ritual, where we threw flowers onto the tomb, and received a blessing under the prayer cloth before it too was draped over the saint. the ritual was exciting and engaging, and syed fakhar, acting as our officiator, seemed genuinely happy with the occasion to assist us, and he even offerred us incense and rings as gifts after reemerging into the courtyard of dargah. for a time thereafter, we listened to the urdu devotional singing; a man led the chorus of singers ranging from maybe 11 years-old to elderly, and some had individual parts that folded into the collective singing with amazing harmony.
we capped the evening by eating with his family by the huge cauldrons (maybe 15-20 feet in diameter; it took 3 men to stir the dahl inside!) that are used to cook food for the poor - zegad, (one of the five pillars of islam.)

after leaving dargah, syed fakhar negotiated a price for our rickshaw ride back to the hotel. a rickshaw sat unattended, so one of the homeless boys offered to "borrow" it to pedal us back up into town for 10 rupees, (about 25 cents USD). syed fakhar insisted that we only pay the 10 rupees, to which we agreed, and we were off. and this was no ordinary rickshaw ride. the boy, aged about 11 or 12, was blind in his left eye - it was milky white - and so he couldn't see but half of what was happening on the road. additionally, he had a temper: at one point, another homeless beggar boy got in the way, to which our driver responded by stopping the rickshaw and jumping down from his seat to chase the boy before returning to his driving duties. and he tore up the street, cursing those in his way, and using his hand to push those aside that didn't move quickly enough. jenni was horrified that he would run over one of the several legless men that roll up and down the bazaar while holding metal cups for their collections. and we'd taken this route several times before without mishap, but add a half blind boy with a hot head, and its a completely different experience.
we whipped through the alleyways while he hollared, "whoooooooooooh! whooooooooh!" to warn people of his approach. he almost hit a motorbike, a dog, several pedestrians, a couple cars, and finally a huge cow, all while yelling, "whoooooooooooh! whooooooooooh!" and of course, i was sitting on the blind-left-eye side so all the near misses had me yelping in fear. the non-stop excitement rivaled any roller-coaster ride i've ever been on. (this ride isn't tested for safety every morning before the park opens.)
i was so happy to make it alive at the hotel, i gave him triple the agreed upon amount, to which he smiled a wide grin, wagged his head several times, and shook my hand before pushing off to return the rickshaw. jenni and i pushed off as well, glad to be alive, and even more glad to be tucked away in a small town in india - a truly amazing country.

a cow scratching its head

jenni and syed fakhar

me in a skull cap (required to enter dargah) in a much quieter rickshaw


stacer said...

I've been reading along without comment, but this rickshaw ride is definitely worth comment. You had me rolling. I'm sure it wasn't quite as funny while experiencing it, but it sure has been funny to read about!

jrm said...

thanks stacy, laughing at the pain of others!!! ha ha ha! no, it was pretty funny (after i was safely on solid ground).

Anonymous said...

Wow. You look really deep in thought, dude!

jrm said...

no deep thought. just posing for the picture.

Lovely L said...

I sit here in Delhi trying to process my time in India and I thought, I know, I'll look at Joseph's blog! I love this post.

Have you seen my posts?