The Pushkar scam is the only reason why I hated India
Upon finding out that Pushkar is only an hour away from Jaipur, I immediately booked a taxi to do a day trip. I haven’t met anyone who’s been but I heard that it’s something worth checking out.
It was already my third week traveling in India so I was already very comfortable. India has a bad press when it comes to women travelers but spending enough time in the country made me realise Indian regions like Rajasthan are very safe for tourists.
But this is not a story about unsafety for female travelers. Like me, you’re probably not going to see a lot of articles relating to the Pushkar scam and I pray really hard that you will see this before visiting Pushkar.
The flower scam in Pushkar: what's it all about?
Pushkar Lake is one of the holiest sites in India, mainly because the most important Brahma temple is here. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma was once cursed that he will not be worshipped by the people. To date, this is the sole temple in the world where Lord Brahma is worshipped. Many pilgrims come to Pushkar every year in the belief that praying and bathing in the lake has great healing and ‘purifying’ powers.
I have always been fascinated by Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. And Pushkar seemed to be a good place to start in getting to know them. Unlike many other religions, Hinduism has been the most interesting for me. I don’t really identify it as a religion but a way of life. I’ve been to a lot of religion-driven countries but India doesn’t feel like anything is imposed on you.
Pushkar was very quiet. I’d expected it to be super touristic but I guess we arrived pretty early. No-husband and I were already traveling around India for three weeks. We were already seeing the Rajasthan region too deep we wanted something different. The taxi couldn’t go into the narrow streets so we started walking into the city.
“Welcome to Pushkar,” a stranger shook our hands. I did not expect a very warm welcome from someone who’s not a tour guide and/or some person of power. He was literally a man walking down the street just saying hi.
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The conversation started with the usual where-are-you-from-what-do-you-do kind of thing. After the mini-chat, we were instructed to go to the lake before doing anything else in the city.
We hadn’t had breakfast so our initial plan was to eat. There were many cafes in Pushkar that appeared to be serving good coffee (at least that’s what the exterior screams.) We were also very amused about the restaurants with menus in Hebrew. I knew that India was a place where Israelis go after their mandatory military service but I didn’t realize it was that big. So big that restaurants had their menus translated into Hebrew.
I threw the flower in the trash when a random guy (not the same person who gave me the flower) scooped it and put it back in my palms.
“Go to the lake and throw the flower there. All your wishes will come true.”
WTF was my initial reaction. I told no-husband we should grab food first before going to the lake. In every alley we passed by, every freaking person is pointing to the lake. There was even one man who asked if we already had a flower. As if the flower is a gate pass to your day trip in Pushkar.
I don’t remember why I submitted to this when I was dying to have a cup of coffee but we did go to the lake first. Pushkar Lake is so beautiful I immediately took my camera out to snap some shots. I was standing at the top of the plight of stairs overlooking the lake. The minute I was about to click the shutter, a Brahmin grabbed my hand and said: “please proceed to the lake for the prayer.”
Brahmin is a class in Hinduism specializing as priests, teachers, and protectors of sacred learning across generations. They are the highest rank in India’s caste system. All the tourists about to go to the lake were welcomed by a priest in long white clergy clothing.
I felt a little shameful about taking a picture first before participating in this flower ritual. When I started traveling 10 years ago, I made a pact to always be respectful of the culture I am trying to be part of and to always participate even if I don’t have any idea about it. For example, I joined a goat offering in Jordan during Eid regardless of the terror of how graphic the ‘killing’ was. There was a lot of blood but I endured it. Traveling will make you understand that culture is subjective and that it is a bit personal. I never expected another country to have the same ways and means as mine nor did I expect them to believe in what I believe in. The beauty of the cultures of the world is their diversity and complexity. There were many cultures that I didn’t agree with (mostly in my time in the Middle East) but I promise myself that I will always respect them no matter where I go to.
I was separated from no-husband. Each visitor was supposed to be with one (1) priest. We were all directed to sit at the bottom of the stairs where we can reach the lake. There were about six (6) of us seated 50 meters away from each other. Half of this group are Indians. I saw no-husband already started the ritual.
“Do you still have parents?” I swear these were his first words.
“Yes.” I answered.
“Okay, so let us pray for your mama and papa. Repeat after me.”
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I sat in a praying position. The flower was still in my palm. He murmured a bunch of words which I repeated obediently. Everyone was so quiet and I felt really happy that I was finally experiencing something as holy as this. Guys, if it hasn’t sunk in yet, Pushkar is really a big deal in Hinduism.
“Now, let’s pray for your brothers and sisters. How many do you have?”
“4.” I responded quietly.
There were chants. Some languages I didn’t understand. After all these whispering and repeating, he asked me to wash my hands in the lake. I dipped my right hand into the lake. I don’t want to judge a ‘holy’ city but seriously, the water looked really dirty. The Indians around me were swimming in it (for more powerful salvation I guess) but I did not join the party.
The priest then told me a short story about how the city shares everything: food, money, ‘blessings’ etc. Everything is communal. From his tone, I knew he was going somewhere that involves money.
“Now you need to pay 1,000 rupees ($14 USD) for each family member we prayed for. Otherwise, the Lords will not grant your wishes.”
What the freaking feck. I thought I was going delirious for a second. Is this priest really asking me for money??? I mean I heard about how church people are all about money but this is the first time I am experiencing it. This priest is actually asking me to pay for salvation! I have 2 parents and 4 siblings: does this mean I have to pay 6,000 rupees ($84 USD) for a prayer I didn’t even ask for?
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Let’s have a quick recap: I went down the taxi. I entered the city of Pushkar. A man welcomed me and put a flower in my hand. I tried to get rid of the flower but another man put it back. I was coerced by a lot of people to go to the lake first before I do anything else. A priest escorts me to the lake to pray. I do not remember volunteering for any of these.
Holy sh&$t! I got scammed and this is what it feels like.
There is no way I am paying 6,000 rupees. I don’t remember saying anything to the priest but I remember leaving. I went back to the top of the stairs where I left my shoes. On the way up, I turned to no-husband and gave him the “we have to leave” signal. He wasn’t looking at me. I saw 5 priests swarming at him. He was ready to take his wallet. I was looking at him with my big anime eyes saying, “If you can read my mind now, do not give these idiots money!”
Of course, he didn’t get the mental telepathy message. He gave them money. Up to this day, he said he understood it but was trapped with 5 priests around him and couldn’t escape. I never asked how much he gave them and I never want to know.
We walked as far from the lake as possible. I didn’t even have a chance to take pictures. I wanted to leave Pushkar asap. I didn’t care if I saw nothing. This Pushkar scam was enough reason to leave.
I kept shouting at no-husband. I had this anger burning inside. I wanted to shout “f#ck you all” but I couldn’t. Why did you give them money was the only thing I could say in public. No-husband swears I said it on loop for over an hour.
After a while, I realized it’s not even about the money — it’s about being scammed. How in the world did I travel 10 years on the road without experiencing any scams and now this happened?! I felt robbed and taken advantage of most especially when it was so easy to avoid that circumstance. I was so angry because I did not see it coming. I am still one of those people who think that religion is something you can’t say no to. I felt like the instruction of going to the lake was something I should follow diligently. I never thought that as a tourist, I had a choice.
But most of all, it broke my heart that nobody in the local community warned us. It’s as if the whole city of Pushkar were united on a mission to direct tourists to go to the lake. We passed stores, mini kiosks, restaurants on the way to the lake but no one said anything. Everyone saw the flower on my hand, too. It was a long way to the lake from the entrance of the city to be warned. I felt really betrayed.
If I did not get to the lake, I really think I would have had a different experience. Up to this day, I still cringe at the thought of being scammed but I am not regretful of this experience because I can now warn a lot of people about the very aggressive Pushkar scam.
I wish I have a good story to tell about Pushkar but right now, I cannot find the good in it. I am not saying the same thing is going to happen to you but there’s a 100% chance that it will if you did not have prior research like me. Below are some good references about the Pushkar scam which I only read only after the incident:
- TravelFreak wrote about the most common travel scams and how to avoid them.
- Shannon of A Little Adrift wrote about how to avoid scams in Pushkar, India.
- There’s a TripAdvisor forum discussing Pushkar scams. Read through and see other people’s experiences.
- For a more detailed post about the Puja Ceremony, refer to this Pushkar scam post by Remote Traveler.
- If you want to know more about the other scams not just in Pushkar but all over India, my friend Rachel Jones wrote 20 common tourist scams in India.