According to legend, PUSHKAR, 15 km northwest of Ajmer, came into existence when Lord Brahma, the Creator, dropped a lotus flower (pushpa) to earth from his hand (kar). At the three spots where the petals landed, water magically appeared in the midst of the desert to form three small blue lakes, and it was on the banks of the largest of these that Brahma subsequently convened a gathering of some 900,000 celestial beings – the entire Hindu pantheon. Surrounded by whitewashed temples and bathing ghats, the lake is today valued as one of India’s most sacred sites: Pushkaraj Maharaj, literally “Pushkar King of Kings”. During the fortunate full-moon phase of October/November (the anniversary of the gods’ mass meeting, or yagya), its waters are believed to wash the soul of all impurities, drawing pilgrims from all over the country. Alongside this annual religious festival, Rajasthani villagers also buy and sell livestock at what has become the largest camel market (unt mela) in the world, when more than 150,000 dealers, tourists and traders fill the dunes to the west of the lake. The mela is a hugely colorful affair, and this combined with the beautiful desert scenery and heady religious atmosphere of the temples and ghats has inevitably made Pushkar a major destination for foreign tourists; over a million domestic tourists come here every year too, but most are day trippers.

Pushkar’s spiritual energy also attracted the hippy overlanders of the 1960s, and the budget hotels and cafes set up to cater for them have kept it firmly on the backpacker trail. The main bazaar, which just twenty years ago comprised a string of stalls selling traditional puja kit, is now a kilo meter long line of shops, many selling hippy trinkets, jewellery and CDs, others offering forex, Internet or international phone facilities, while the streetside cafes churn out banana pancakes, pizzas and, often, bhanglaced “special lassis”.

Pushkar has numerous dharamshalas for pilgrims. For the ever growing incursion of Western tourists, there is a wide choice of hotels and guesthouses, many of them in family homes. Note that prices double or triple during the camel fair when there is considerable pressure, especially at budget hotels, to pre-pay for your entire stay or risk having your reservation lost – you should resist doing this as you won’t get your money back if the fair disappoints and you decide to beat a hasty retreat.