Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Pushkar, day 3, 'Holy Extortion', the Brahman's scam
In the morning I went down alone to the lake to get a look at the ghats and the unique architecture circling them.
I sat on a long cement dock, the crystal light of the clear morning shining brightly on the white and pale blue sacred buildings leading down to the bathing ghat across the water. The brightly colored saris of the women in the water sparked in the tiny ripples along the ghat. As I enjoyed the quiet solitude, a Brahman priest came down and asked if I would like to do puja for my family back home. I thought that sounded nice and something I would typically do, so he began his prayer.
After a short sutra, he asked me to list each person in my family, one by one, and he offered a prayer for them. He then began inquiring about my grandfathers and then my uncles. I wasn't suspicious until the prayer suddenly turned into a pledge of 160 rupees per family member. I gasped and refused to continue but he told me he'd already prayed for them so I must pay. I mentioned that one of my grandfathers had died a long time before but he said the prayers would still reach him in another life. Still, I refused. That was a lot of money in India and, already, my trip was going way over budget.
Eventually, we agreed that I would only pay for my immediate family, which totaled 800 rupees, about enough to pay my meals for a few days. He chanted my pledge to Brahma and splashed my head with holy water. I didn't feel very blessed, though, even as I set my little flower offering adrift in the lake. I really don't know what kept me from just walking away. I guess I have a gift for being a sucker. That, and I figured I wasn't going to get any support in a dispute against a Brahman priest...
I only had a few small Indian notes in my money belt, so he called his associate down to escort me to an ATM on his scooter. The first one we stopped at was out of order, and the next one didn't accept my card. Then he drove me all the way across town to a bank, where, after waiting a really long time, I was finally able to get some cash. All I'd wanted to do was sit by the lake, enjoy the morning, then go back to the hotel for breakfast. Instead, here I was being dragged around the old dirt streets of the Pushkar market in the name of Holy Extortion!
Back at the lake, I begrudgingly handed over the 800 rupees and he basically told me I needed to lighten up. That may have been true but I also had some ideas for him, that I chose to keep to myself, mostly concerning his advice and a place he could stick it that my father often described as, "Where the sun don't shine." Dad probably would have also told him he could, "take his 800 rupees," and then used his other favorite line, "shove them up his "ying-yang,"" while he was at it. After hearing that for most of my life, it wasn't until recently that I finally learned it's actually called a "yin-yang"!
He left up the stairs and no sooner had I started to cool off, then another Bradhman came down and asked, "Would you like to do puja for your family?"
I snapped back at him, "I just got ripped off by your friend for 800 rupees, no thank you!"
"Oh," he said with a laugh but also a hint of disappointment that I was a fish that had already been caught. "You're lucky. Usually it's more!"
I wouldn't say I was really disappointed when I first met monks in Korea and realized, for the most part, they are still people, like the rest of us, not the romantic notion I had of them being supreme, automatically enlightened beings. It came more as a simple realization of the obvious. I didn't have any similar notions about Brahmins before meeting these guys, but I was seriously disappointed, anyway. As the Buddha said, "Anyone can shave his head and wear the robes -- this does not make him a monk," I think it's safe to say they were Brahmans by cast only, not by their conduct.
Following the trail of Pink Floyd signs back to the hotel, I headed up to the rooftop for my long awaited breakfast, I found Jasmine there enjoying hers, reading the Lonely Planet. She asked what I'd been up to, so I told her the story. She said, "I was just reading about that in the Lonely Planet about that scam." I guess I hadn't made it to that page yet!
Speaking of scams, our first day in Pushkar, we were in the market and I was approached by a group of gypsy women (mostly young and gorgeous), one with a baby (who knows who's?), and they begged me to buy them some food. I agreed, so they brought me to a specific shop and picked out a box of wheat flour. I think it cost about 350 rupees for the box, which seemed excessive. Today, I saw the same women again and they asked me to buy them more wheat because they'd already used the other one. I kind of had the feeling that as soon as I'd bought the other one, they'd brought it right back and gave the clerk a cut of the 350 rupees. Anyway, I wasn't interested in buying them any more, figuring the original price was probably about 5 or 10 rupees. In very flirty intonations, they said they'd like me to go back to their house and cook for me. All sorts of gypsy fantasies began flashing through my mind, but most of which ended with me having my throat cut, or something, so I painfully declined. I don't think I'll stop wondering, what if? for a long while though...
Our last supper in Pushkar, we went to Om Baba Restaurant, A huge rooftop restaurant over looking the lake. Ordering, it occurred to me that I hadn't eaten meat in a few days, and there was noting at all with meat on the menu. There wasn't any alcohol either, which I might have noticed the first day if I drank. Since Pushkar is a holy city, there is no meat or alcohol allowed. I thought that must have a lot to do with the relatively easy-going atmosphere of the place.