Scott Fitzgerald once said, “It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You realize what has changed is you.” Over the years, coming home to Ajmer has mostly meant sleeping in till noon, spending the day with the family and friends, pottering about the house. As I stepped out at the crack of dawn, 5am, this day clearly was not one of those. I was going to the Ajmer dargah, officially the Hazral Khwaja Moinuddin Ohishti Dargah, which has become synonymous with the town. Dawn is the best time to go, because tourists on holiday don’t wake up this early, so you can linger at peace. As I neared the shrine, morning prayers had just ended and I could hear strains of qawwali.
The rest of the neighbourhood (Ajmer’s literally built itself around the dargah) was still waking up. Fresh flowers were being unloaded and the smell of roses permeated the entire street.
As I entered the dargah, I realised that while it’s not imposing, it has a quiet, assured authority, that possibly comes of having been at the exact same place for hundreds of years. I walked around on the cool marble floors, offered my prayers and just sat there for a while, listening to the music. There was no restlessness to reach out for my phone and check Twitter, no urge to Instagram. There was peace. Quiet. That which we seek and chase all over the world. And I had found it right here at home. When you think of a city in Rajasthan, your mind automatically conjures up images of imposing forts, magnificent palaces, sand dunes and heritage hotels with vintage cars and polo matches. Ajmer is the exact opposite. It’s a sleepy little town nestled in the Aravalis.
As you enter, you notice how old the buildings are, how narrow the roads, the camel-drawn cart next to your car at a traffic signal. Our most popular market is called Naya Bazaar; it’s been called that for decades. In theory, Ajmer (the district) is only famous for two things—the dargah and Pushkar, that place of pilgrimage 15km from Ajmer (the town). Both places largely lie ignored by the wayside, on a highway towards the curated glamour of Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur. At best, most tourists stop for a few hours. But if you can, stay for a couple of days, poke around, talk to the locals and discover little-known secrets of these two towns, Ajmer and Pushkar. The people here are incredibly warm, with a robust sense of humour and great hospitality.
The most famous kulfi wala will urge you to first go have pyaaz kachoris elsewhere and then return to him for dessert. The local sabzi mandi is a lovely farmers’ market in the truest sense: men and women come here daily, from nearby villages to sell the freshest fruit and vegetables, and they happily chat with their customers as they do so. Like Ajmer’s famous miniature paintings, a lot of things here are bite-sized. From the 14th-century Taragarh Fort, built on the hilltop from where you can get a spectacular view of the town, its two beautiful lakes and the green hills around, to the museum in a tiny palace, built by Akbar. Within the city, there are no high-rises to speak of, so you can see the Aravalis from everywhere. If the centre of Ajmer is like a once-beautiful tapestry, the suburbs are all shiny new malls with glass facades, swanky multiplexes, chains like McDonald’s and Cafe Coffee Day.
The most accurate indicator of Ajmer’s claim to being a ‘destination’, perhaps, is the arrival of chain hotels like the Taj, Marriott and (soon to open) ITC. Unlike most other places in the state, Ajmer was not ruled by any single family It was founded by a Rajput king in the 12th century, taken over by the Mughals and lost to the British, whose army used Taragarh as a sanatorium. As a result, there are some beautiful old buildings built in the Indo-Saracenic style. The most famous of these is Mayo College, which counts a venerable list of politicians, bureaucrats, writers and actors among its alumni. Other notable landmarks are two lakes, Foy Sagar and Ana Sagar. Well-maintained gardens with gazebos lie to one end of each.
Ana Sagar, though, has always been the livelier of the two, even back in the 16th century, prompting Shah Jahan to build a lovely baradari, or pavilion, in pristine white marble, which still frames the sunset perfectly each evening. A product of the central government’s Smart Cities Mission, there’s now a promenade along the lake, complete with cycling tracks and benches under the shade of trees. Where Ajmer is more urbane, Pushkar is Rajasthan’s own version of Goa. When you begin your descent into the Pushkar valley, the road is strewn with resorts, spas and yoga retreats that fit every budget. The tiny town is also home to 52 ghats that border Pushkar Lake, and these are dotted with more than 400 temples. The most important and well known of these is the Brahma temple, the only one in the world.
As a result, restaurants and hotels in Pushkar are all-vegetarian and alcohol-free. (Although both, sharab and kabab, are available at resorts just outside.) Most of the buildings in the main town are painted white, and serve as a great backdrop for the riot of colour on the bustling streets. It’s hard not to get swept up by the vibe. Today, the walls also feature a lot of street art and interesting graffiti. Being a heritage town, new construction is not allowed, so the old-world charm of the buildings, narrow streets and steep stone staircases is still intact. If you’re not a pilgrim, and you’re done with Ajmer, then Pushkar is where you eat and shop and chill. How tiny a town is can be gauged by how tiny its main street is.
And depending on how often you get distracted by the shops, it will take you anything between thirty minutes and an hour to walk through Pushkar’s. But I suggest you linger, for Pushkar is a treasure trove of goodies: bohemian clothes, antiques, second-hand books, music stores, vintage knick-knacks. My favourite shop here is called Roots of Pushkar, on Varah Ghat. It’s where I once spent hours riffling through vintage records and chanced upon the OST of Roman Holiday and Funny Girl. If Rajasthani folk music is your thing, the owner has his own label for that. And he also stocks the work of some seriously good local artistes. And then there is food. Gau Ghat is Pushkar’s food street, home to delights like freshly made malpuas with toppings of your choice, crisp, flaky dal kachoris served with a piping hot, tangy kadhi. And if it’s pizza, falafel and crepes you crave, then there are numerous little cafes and restaurants that dot the streets and sit on rooftops.
One of the best is Out Of The Blue, with its cheerfully coloured walls, airy balconies and a great view of the lake. The other not-to-be-missed spot is the atmospheric Pink Floyd Cafe, in a bylane just off main street. But the quintessential Pushkar experience, for me, is Sunset Cafe. Right next to Pushkar Palace, a heritage hotel, sits this little gem, with the best view of the entire lake and all the ghats, accompanied by excellent coffee. Despite its popularity, the place is never noisy. You look around and see dozens of people just sitting quietly and taking in the view. Or speaking very softly, as if in awe of the spectacle before them. Soon it’s time for the evening aartis, and one by one, the ghats light up with diyas. The sounds of bells and chants echo over the lake, the holy fires are reflected in the waters. You want to experience this powerful moment. Quietly. By yourself. Surrounded by a crowd.
One of Pushkar’s best-kept secrets is its off-road tracks. Late in the evening, vast stretches of dirt tracks are illuminated by the headlights of SUVs and the roar of revving engines that, in the hastening dark, sound like thunder. Just watching these cars go up and down the dunes is quite an adrenaline rush. There’s also dune-bashing on ATVs, camel safaris and treks to the surrounding hills. And if you happen to visit around the famous camel fair, walk at leisure admiring the men and their beasts—each one adorned like a bride or groom. But the one thing not to be missed at this time is a hot-air balloon ride. It is mesmerising, to say the least, to watch the thousands of men and animals moving around below, the many colours of Pushkar, the shimmer of the lakes. Before leaving, Pushkar will also lead you up a garden path. Literally. To its famous rose gardens, said to be the biggest in India.
You will see roses of all colours, sizes and varieties. It’s a beautiful sight and the fragrance is heady and rich. Do buy some rose water, rose oil, gulkand and any other rose-based product that might seduce you. Let it remind you of time spent here, like a treat from a doting grandparent. In fact, lately, I’ve realised how you always end up taking your hometown for granted, often feeling a sense of entitlement even when you’ve chosen another town over this one. And now, I find returning to Ajmer-Pushkar is like visiting your grandparents. You know they will indulge you and be proud of you, no matter what you do. And with them, you can truly be yourself, because they will accept you for who you are. That’s what it feels like. Yes, that’s what it feels like.