Last updated on August 20, 2023
One of my wide-sweeping goals for my round the world trip was to learn new things. Not just the intangible knowledge of new cultures and religions, but also tangible skills and crafts specialized to the people and flavors of each new place.
In every country I’ve visited (72 and counting!), I’ve tried my hand at new local skills and crafts. That proved true for silk weaving in Luang Prabang, cooking classes in Jordan, and in Pushkar: learning the art of Indian henna.
Why Visit Pushkar, India?
Pushkar is a small town in Rajasthan, a Western state in India. I had spent a week in Udaipur, which is lovely but large. Pushkar, by comparison, is quite navigable. Landing here was even more of a respite than relaxing in Udaipur because small towns in Rajasthan are uncommon—it’s a well populated and well touristed Indian state.
Arriving in Pushkar is landing in the Indian version of what tourists want, all concentrated on one street, but tinged by a hippy, alternative tourism vibe reminiscent of 70s nostalgia.
The town thrives on one main street of colorful shops selling enough scarves, skirts, and shirts to clothe a small nation. The range of overpowering smells in India welcomes you immediately, and I took at deep breath of the happy mix of incense and humanity.
I was unsure if I should even stop there on my travels because several fellow travelers passing in the opposite direction had warned me that I might hate Pushkar. It has several of India’s most common tourist scams, and lacks charm to some—one travel friend left after just one day in town. Plus, my Lonely Planet India only cautiously touted it’s as a viable place for backpackers.
Strangely, I felt an affinity for Pushkar. Even in the most touristy of towns, authenticity is just a state of mind and a style of travel.
In Pushkar, the shopping was plentiful—there is just one main road to learn and navigate, and the family at Tulsi Palace Hotel was welcoming and friendly. In fact, this is my favorite guesthouse experience to date, bar none. It’s the family at Tulsi Palace that made my time in Pushkar so enjoyable. Plus, Pushkar offers delicious food—Rainbow Restaurant, Honey & Spice, and Honey Dew get shout-outs.
The sum total of your time in Pushkar is usually good, even if you hit a few rough patches along the way.
For other travelers and tourists, I do understand the off-putting aspects of traveling in Pushkar—and in India as a whole, at times. Undoubtedly, the tourists were scammed or pressured by the “priests” who surround the holy lake. It’s a big racket and the priests pressure tourists for donations nearly every single moment as you walk by that are of the tourist strip. It’s a drag, but I was able to bypass that section and find other delightful gems in town.
The Best Things to Do in Pushkar, India
There is far more to Pushkar than the flower scam. It’s a cute town with a lot of tourist-friendly activities. My cousin and I arranged a camel ride in the desert through our hotel, and then we also found some locally taught classes, too. Here’s what to do in Pushkar—most of it is easily to fit into just two days in town, although we spent nearly a week.
Stroll Around Pushkar Lake at Sunset
The centerpiece of Pushkar is the sacred Pushkar Lake, believed to have been created by Lord Brahma. Real talk: Even though the lake is the home to a very pushy flower scam, it’s still beautiful and you’ll spend a lot of your time in Pushkar admiring the lake from different vantages.
Get up close with the Pushkar lake by taking a leisurely stroll along the ghats (steps) surrounding the lake. Watch as pilgrims perform rituals and prayers. Experience the serene ambiance and immerse yourself in the spiritual atmosphere of this holy site.
Then get out of there before a “priest” corners you and pressures you into accepting a flower blessings—they try to charge huge sums for this privilege and get nasty when you say no.
Stop by the 52 Ghats around Lake Pushkar
While you’re at the lake, take in the culture and history of the ghats. Pushkar Lake is surrounded by 52 ghats (steps) that serve as important bathing and ritual sites for pilgrims. Each ghat has its own distinct atmosphere and significance, attracting pilgrims, devotees, and curious travelers alike.
A few ghats to consider include:
- Varaha Ghat: As one of the most significant ghats in Pushkar, it’s believed to be the place where Lord Vishnu’s third incarnation, Varaha (boar), emerged from the water to rescue the Earth. The ghat is highly sacred, and pilgrims come here to perform ablutions, offer prayers, and participate in various rituals.
- Brahma Ghat: Brahma Ghat holds immense religious importance as it is believed to be the spot where Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe, performed a yagna (sacred ritual). Pilgrims often visit this ghat to seek blessings and offer prayers to Lord Brahma. It is also a site for performing ancestral rituals and ceremonies.
- Gau Ghat: Dedicated to the reverence of cows, which hold a sacred place in Hindu culture, pilgrims visit Gau Ghat to offer prayers and perform rituals for the well-being and prosperity of these revered animals. It is believed that taking a dip in the waters of Gau Ghat purifies the soul.
And for those interested in Gandhi, after his assassination in 1948, Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were divided and scattered in various water bodies across India, including Pushkar Lake. The act of immersing his ashes in different bodies of water held symbolic significance as a way to honor his life and teachings. Pushkar Lake, being a sacred and revered site for pilgrims, was chosen as one of the locations for this final tribute to Mahatma Gandhi.
Attend a Spiritual Ceremony at the Varaha Ghat
Witness the evening aarti (prayer) at the Varaha or Brahma Ghats. Priests perform a mesmerizing ritual with lamps and incense, accompanied by devotional songs and chants. This immersive experience allows you to connect with the spiritual essence of Pushkar and witness the devotion of the locals—some of whom head to the lake every evening to watch the evening aarti.
Visit Brahma’s Temple
The Brahma Temple is one of the few temples in the world dedicated to Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe according to Hindu mythology. This temple located in Pushkar near the water is an architectural marvel, adorned with intricate carvings and a red spire.
Located on the Ratnagiri hill, the temple dedicated to the Goddess Savitri offers panoramic views of Pushkar and its surroundings. To reach the temple, you can either hike up 200 steps or ride a ropeway that’s really cheap (like under $2), but also not nearly as fun as trekking up the steps for 30 minutes alongside locals.
The hike up to the temple is a special experience because you’ll be trekking up the mountain alongside pilgrims and wild monkeys. It’s a straightforward but challenging hike: One steep path snakes up the hillside. Luckily, the trail offers scenic views of the town and the surrounding hills, connecting you to the local landscape and nature beyond Pushkar, which is good motivation throughout the strenuous hike up.
Once at the top, there are breathtaking views of Pushkar Lake, the town, and the surrounding Aravalli hills. It’s a peaceful spot to soak in the beauty of the landscape and reflect in a serene environment.
Attend the Pushkar Camel Fair—Or At Least Ride One
If your visit coincides with the Pushkar Camel Fair, you’re in for a truly unique experience. This annual event, usually held in November, brings together thousands of camels, livestock, and people from nearby villages.
Witness colorful cultural performances, participate in camel races and competitions, and explore the vibrant market selling handicrafts, textiles, and traditional Rajasthani goods. It’s an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture and witness the rural way of life.
If you’re there any other time of year, you can still embrace the camel-ness of Puskcar with a camel ride. Since I was not venturing deeper into Rajasthan, where multiday camel rides are common for tourists, my hotel organized a morning camel ride into the desert around Pushkar. Camels are finicky creatures, and this was my first introduction to just how rude they can be.
Even so, it was good fun and I have ridden many camels since that first camel ride in Pushkar. This adventurous excursion allowed me to explore the sand dunes, and on a longer one I could have witnessed mesmerizing sunsets and spent a night under the stars in a desert camp. Camel rides are an opportunity to connect with nature, enjoy the tranquility of the desert, and learn about the nomadic way of life.
Sample All of the Local Cuisine
To get a taste of the local flavors, explore Pushkar’s busy streets and try traditional Rajasthani dishes in local eateries.
Pushkar is rightly so known for its delicious street food, such as kachori (a deep-fried pastry filled with spiced lentils), falafel, and sweets like malpua and ghevar.
It has also a distinctly hippy vibe, which means there are a ton of healthy restaurants throughout the town. Many of them cater to backpacker tastes, while even the local ones have an enormous selection of vegetarian eats.
While you should absolutely eat your face off at the many fantastic restaurants, you could also take a cooking class. I’ve taken local cooking classes all over the world for the chance to engage with the locals, learn about their culinary traditions, and savor the unique flavors of, in this case, Rajasthan.
Wander Pushkar’s Old Town and Markets
Take a walk through the narrow lanes of Pushkar’s Old Town, known for its vibrant markets and traditional Rajasthani architecture. Pick up some souvenirs at the bustling bazaars filled with colorful textiles, handicrafts, jewelry, and souvenirs.
I loved engaging with local artisans and shopkeepers—learning about their crafts and haggling over out a unique treasures to send home to my nieces and nephews. The art of negotiation in India (ie, haggling the prices down as much as 50%) is one of the most fun parts of traveling there.
In Pushkar, the lively atmosphere and interactions with locals offered an authentic glimpse into the town’s vibrant culture, and is a large part of why I enjoyed my time in Pushkar so much. The markets also offer a lot of tasty street foods, so you can snack and wander and really fall in love with Pushkar.
Learn The Art of Indian Henna
On our wanderings, my cousin and I found signs for a music and art school. This school is located in the heart of town and down small, smelly winding lanes where the children shout out hearty”hello’s” at the top of their lungs. That’s where we found the School for Music and Art.
Within a few hours, my dream of learning henna had come through. The school had a henna artist on staff, Deepa. Deepa showed us printouts of different styles of henna and then she quoted us a ridiculous sum of money for six hours of henna lessons. Everything is negotiable in India, however, and the price seemed steep. We agreed to pay half of the money upfront because we wanted to see how the initial classes panned out.
We spent our first lesson practicing specific leaf designs that are used in Rajasthani henna—we drew these with precision and uniformity down the lengths of our pages. Deepa watched throughout, correcting the funny looking leaves, but mostly she sat near us and chatted with her sister-in-law. At the end of the class, Deepa drew a hand into our notebooks and then filled the hand henna artwork—we were underwhelmed.
The first class disappointed us—we had learned six basic leaf designs and our homework was to practice drawing these leaves late into the night. We went home that evening but instead pow-wowed about our next class. Although I was still eager to learn henna, this wasn’t panning out well. Neither my cousin nor I enjoyed the class overly much. Having paid for three classes upfront, mass confusion ensued when we expressed our underwhelm.
Deepa’s didn’t speak strong English, so she summoned her brother to act as translator. I tried to be tactful about it, but subtlety isn’t well understood here. Direct works better, which is a stark contrast to my months in Southeast Asia before arriving in India. My cousin and I had to lay it out on the table in plain—there were no circumstances under the sun in which we would pay for more classes.
They understood that. We were both disappointed that the classes were a bust, and after the priest scam I felt a bit defeated. But I guess I learned a valuable lesson: Locals will agree to anything you ask. If you’re lost, they’ll offer directions even if they don’t know the destination.
Everything is met with an eagerness and willingness to help, even if it’s not helping in the way we would consider. The priests are an outright scam, but this fuzzier idea of saying “yes” to everything is more of a cultural nuance, at least it seems that way. It’s not a “gotcha” moment, and sometimes no money is exchanged.
I’ve been in Asia for nearly three months now and the bargaining culture has begun to wear me down and stomp on my soul. I find myself haggling with rickshaw drivers over what amounts to US $0.30 because they just blatantly try to inflate the prices to whatever they think I will willingly pay. It’s frustrating and it’s not bringing out the best parts of my personality.
A sense of humor helps, on a good day I can keep a sense of humor when they gravely look at me and say:
“No, no madam. Very, very good price. I give you local price. Indian price for you. So very good price, madam, I promise for you.”
And then they cap it off with a shrugging head bobble and a dead earnest stare.
It’s so frustrating I can only take a deep breath and chalk it up to cultural exchange.
And it’s not just me finding the humor in this absurdity. One day, a 17-year-old Indian boy walked by as the tuk-tuk driver delivered this line to us and they boy laughed so hard he had to clutch his side. Wiping tears from his face, he informed us that the rate was more than double what he would pay, but that we were unlikely to get it lower.
It’s been a lot of learning, and a lot of practicing patience as I begin to find a rhythm here. To avoid more situations like Deepa’s poor henna lessons, and to keep my cool with the rickshaws, I just need to remember that this is all within the realm of why I am traveling: to even have the reference point and understanding that people live life differently elsewhere.
Best Memories of Pushkar, India
All of the ridiculousness with the henna was part of the reason why my cousin and I enjoyed the kids at Hotel Tulsi Palace. I cannot imagine my time in Pushkar without having stayed there.
There was no artifice with the kids, nor with the family. They all just wanted to chat and show us an enjoyable time in the city. I felt welcomed, taken care of, and I enjoyed all of their kids. And life has a way of coming around full circle. The 13-year-old daughter at our guesthouse was a talented henna artist.
Pooja enthusiastically proffered her hand-drawn sketches and she was delighted to draw on me. I picked out one of her designs, gave her money to run and buy a solid supply of henna she could use even after I left, and then I gave her free reign on my inner arm and palm. She did pretty well—she was careful and methodical, and she won extra points in my book for being humble and so very sweet.
Pooja and her siblings were beyond friendly—shy is not a word they comprehend. Within minutes of arriving back in our hotel room we would hear a faint knock at the door. If the door was unlocked, my cousin and I would take a quick guess of which small head was about to pop through the door. My favorite of the five was the littlest, Poonam, and her huge grinning face would pop around the door frame and politely ask for permission to enter.
Once we allowed one into the room, the rest soon followed. Most days we would have the five kids sprawled on the beds and draped in the doorway. The oldest, Pooja’s brother Deepak, brought a CD of Bollywood hits and, since I was jonesing for some ridiculous Indian dancing accompanied by cheesy Hindi music, we started a mini-dance party throughout Tulsi Palace. It’s through these daily dance parties that the phrase tom nacho (will you dance) made it into our vocabulary.
The best part about our Tulsi dance party? Even grandma Tulsi—92 and still spunky—joined with solid Bollywood moves. The song playing on this silly video is extremely popular in India right now as we travel. The kids at Tulsi Palace were obsessed and they shouted the chorus as it played. Those kids brought the joy and together we danced our hearts out.
As the weeks have passed since then, my cousin and I hear this song blare out from the radio everywhere we venture. It’s always played at top volume, usually someone is belting out the chorus, and it often starts as early as 7 am. If it wasn’t such a happy memory I might find it annoying, but now it just reminds me of Tulsi Palace singalong dance parties.
Essential Travel Planning Resources
🛏️ Find great accommodation.
Booking.com is essentially the only hotel booking site that I use. It has a wide and affordable selection of traditional hotels, but also hostels and vacation rentals, too. Use these pro tips to find the best travel accommodation.
📍Navigate more effectively.
Rome2Rio is super handy to assess the full range of transport options between two cities—shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more. If you’re booking a rental car, I’ve always found the best deals on RentalCars.com.
Reading: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. This is a funny book and it’s the first book of his that I have read. It’s an easy read but it had me clutching my stomach in horrified laughter at times. I traded this at a bookstore in town and am happy with the trade—it’s worth reading.
Music: Bollywood pop songs on the radio in the internet cafe while I upload on a dialup connection. I wish I was kidding.