Pushkar And Respect

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 12 Jan 2009 06:34

Pushkar is a built on the shores of a sacred lake, an oasis in the Rajastani desert surrounded by a congress of sharp hills. Legend has it that the lake was created by Brahmin himself, who dropped a lotus petal to the earth to create the body of water. It is a very ancient site of pilgrimage; a single dip in its waters is said to be worth several hundred years of ascetic exercise.

Lydia gets a henna job she didn't ask for by shaking someone's hand.
Lydia gets a henna job she didn't ask for by shaking someone's hand.

These days, the sacred town is a haven for Hindus and hippies. I find it fascinating, I find it mysterious, I find it disorienting, but I have a hard time seeing its sanctity. The town is a bizarre, sometimes sickening chimera of cultures, boasting institutions like the “Pink Floyd Hotel” and the “Funky Monkey Café.” Shops on the street sell Indo-European fashion, and artwork that looks like Indian folk art reinterpreted through an LSD trip. Loud techno dance music mingles in the air with the sound of pooja bells and sacred drums. Restaurant touts enumerate their official offerings loudly, and then drop their voices to list their illegal options. And, of course, there is a generous helping of aggressive, manipulative, and deceitful schemes along the roadside that play off the ignorance of tourists to get inside their pockets. It’s hard to be reverent in the midst of such apparently flagrant irreverence.

Aside from the economic boon brought by foreign visitors, most of the locals seem perturbed at the proliferating tourism industry, particularly the debaucheries young travelers tend to bring with them. Signs very carefully spell out the responsibilities of foreign tourists to abstain from drugs and non-veg food, to dress modestly and take their shoes off within thirty feet of the lake, to avoid public displays of affection and taking pictures of bathing pilgrims. In their final bold imperative, the signs beg visitors to respect the Hindu religion and follow these guidelines.

These are all absolutely fair requests, and I am anxious to comply with all of them. Indeed, I scan the signs every time we see them, just to make sure there isn’t an extra rule they’ve slipped in there.

I am more than happy to respect Hinduism. Hinduism is a noble religion rich with beautiful stories, fascinating philosophies, intriguing traditions and important insights. I treasure the little strands of the religion that have been freely shared with me by the friends I have made here, and I wish I had a good way to learn more. I am glad to behave modestly, respectfully, and with self-restraint. I would expect the same of visitors to my culture and my religion. I am glad to follow the rules when I know them, and I will eagerly apologize if I trespass them unawares.

I know that as a traveler and a visitor I cannot expect the same standard of respect to be extended to me. I have to be a little guarded, and, when I feel abused, I have to step back, laugh, forgive, and avoid blaming the culture as a whole for the shortcomings of a few.

Nevertheless, it is still extraordinarily aggravating to be treated disrespectfully when you are trying so hard to be respectful.

This afternoon, we were walking along the lake when we were harangued by a self-proclaimed Brahmin, who put flowers into our hands, despite our best protests. He insisted we follow to the lakeside, repeat the Sanskrit prayers, cast the flowers into the waters, receive a thread around the wrist, and make a donation.

Of course, we had no particular interest in doing any of this. We were just on a walk, minding our own business. It was fairly evident, however, that he only knew enough English to express what he wanted us to do, and (naturally) pester us until he extracted our maximum donation.

Sarah caught on faster than the rest of us, and withdrew from his prodding very quickly. I didn’t realize what was going on until he had already tied a string around my wrist. “Listen,” I told him, “we don’t want to make a donation, and we won’t be pressured in to giving.”

“Just donate now!” he said. “You won’t have to donate anywhere else.”

“No, sorry,” I told him, as we continued to leave. “We’re not interested.”

“OK, give back string,” he said. I was OK with this, and I held out my hand for him to take his string back.

“Now go back to your hotel,” he commanded. “You are not allowed here. Do not come to the water. Do not go to the temple.”

His curses were hard to take in, but I don’t think we were being disrespectful to stand up for ourselves when we had been bullied into doing something we didn’t want to do and not wanting to pay for it. I’m sure that this guy had equated somewhere in his mind that “respecting Hinduism” meant doing what he said and then giving him a sizable donation. That is simply not a fair equation, however you want to look at it.

This is not the only manipulative encounter we’ve had in Pushkar, and it is quite aggravating. Manipulation is the worst form of disrespect. It indicates that the manipulator has spent enough time and energy studying your culture to figuring out how to approach you and weasel what they want from you, but they have never discovered that people from your culture have anything more to offer as human beings than the content of your pockets.

Perhaps as travelers it is unavoidable that we will be expected to earn our legitimacy and earn respect from the host culture, and I think that this is something that we should consider carefully in our continued ventures. But we don’t have a lot of money; we can’t purchase respect and friendship from everyone we encounter. Even if our financial resources were less limited, such behavior is ethically questionable.

All we have to offer is our time and our meager persistence in trying to find ways to interface with the culture. We are committed to learning from and conversing with the people we meet in a respectful manner. Sometimes, by the grace of God, this is enough.

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