Brahma Festival: Alone In A Hubbub Of Hinduism

Pushkar’s Brahma Festival: My First Hindu Festival

Last week, I wrote about the camels of the Pushkar ka mela; this week is the turn of the Hindu festival, which occurred at the same time. As a non-Hindu, it’s difficult for me to describe what a Hindu festival is like: I can only say what I saw and felt, rather than what things actually mean. One of the main things I learnt about Hinduism during my stay in India is that to regard it as “weird” — multi-armed goddesses; deities with complete family trees — is to forget that Abrahamic religion is identically weird!

Hinduism: Gods, Festivals and History

Pushkar is one of only two places in India whose temple is dedicated to Brahma, god of creation, rather than Shiva, god of destruction. (As my Dad explained to me as a child, “if your god has the power to destroy the universe with a blink of an eye, you’d better be nice to him!”) As with many holy Hindu places, the holiness is focused around a body of water, specifically the beautiful lake at the centre of town. The lake is so sacred that Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed there after his death.


I don’t know how many holy men made the pilgrimage to Pushkar, but everywhere I went I saw them chatting, eating, sleeping, and smoking together. Many of them were also begging, and to take a photo always required you to drop a few rupees in the small brass pot which held all of their worldly possessions. It was fascinating and, sometimes, quite intimidating. This man is an aghori: an ascetic, a worshipper of Shiva, and part of a sect that smear cremation ashes on themselves. Most bystanders were pretty impassive as he strolled past — I, on the other hand, was astonished. I could hardly believe he was real.


Not to be outdone, local Brahmins (men of the highest religious caste) dotted the side of the lake, and to be blessed by them and receive your “Pushkar passport” — a red bracelet which blesses and purifies you and your family — is one of the most important things to do during your stay. Getting it involves sitting by the lake and repeating Sanskrit verses, having water from the lake was dabbed on your forehead and chin, and kumkum powder touched to your forehead to show that you have been blessed.

Holy as they were, they were very persistent towards tourists. I was happy to have given the bracelet (although I told my Brahmin that I was married, just to be safe, so he put it on the ‘wrong’ wrist), and I was also happy that I could wave my wrist at them to get them to back off. I also only ‘donated’ R20, which I felt was a big success: the amount of money they suggested I donate was absolutely scandalous.

Most of the five hundred temples in the tiny town are closed to non-Hindus, but I was able to enter the main Brahma temple at the end of the main road. As always, entering the temple felt completely unfamiliar to me, even though the people inside were welcoming. There was something about being surrounded by people who were rapturously excited to be there, and who knew exactly what to do, that was simultaneously invigorating and deeply alienating.


This detached feeling continued later in the week, when I was lucky enough to stumble upon a real spectacle: a lakeside puja (prayer) ceremony. As the sun set on the other side of the lake, fires were lit, offerings were laid out, and men performed with fire and chanting and music. Women knelt on the bank with small bowls of offerings and a candle, and laid them gently on the water. I stood with the tourists, many of whom had massive camera lenses and were eagerly trying to get the best image, and watched, trying to understand.

On my final morning in Pushkar, I was eating breakfast in a second-floor restaurant when I looked out of the window and caught the most special event of my stay: a procession. Dozens of small trucks carried determined (or bored?) looking children, who were dressed up as a good chunk of the Hindu pantheon, including, of course, Brahma. The girl below is the goddess Durga.


The atmosphere was lively, happy and exciting: families were encouraging children, solemn pilgrims lined the streets, and people everywhere were throwing flowers, cheering, and calling out the names of the gods that were passing in worship.

The procession also featured some people that I had never seen before or since: hijras. These performers are intersex/third sex (biologically male), and earn a living from dancing at important events like marriages or festivals, as their presence is believed brings good fortune. Otherwise they, by and large, live apart from mainstream society, with their own culture and deities. I would have loved to have spoken to them: they were fantastic dancers.


But for once, I didn’t feel like I was intruding or separate from what was going on. I watched the action with someone else: an Indian girl on a roof opposite. She and I waved to each other, pressed our palms together, and I complimented her hair, which made her blush. We pointed out the best displays to one another as they passed. When the procession had eventually moved on, she waved and grinned goodbye to me before disappearing into the house.

After a week of feeling out of place, this non-verbal connection gave me as much joy as everything else had that week put together. Here was something I understood; a real connection I had formed. She and I were experiencing something together, united. When I left the restaurant, I picked up a marigold flower that had been thrown to the ground, pressed it in my guidebook, and gave it to my father when I got home four months later.