Getting There, Kumbh Mela (Part 1), 13th April 2010, Haridwar, India

Stairs are off, Crush, 14/4/10 Kumbh Mela

Waking at the feet of a Swami, Dawn, 14/4/10 Kumbh Mela
Lalmanidas of Varanasi, having a chuckle, Camp, Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela is a difficult time to sum up, it was a dream-like blur of images and experiences.  There was so much happening in one place, at one time, on many levels.  Each moment a colourful tale.

My first view of the Kumbh Mela was from a bus window passing through Haridwar, eating my way through a bunch of bananas.  There seemed to be a circus in town, a mammoth spiritual circus, that has been returning to this spot for thousands of years.  I would witness rituals that have been handed down from the earliest Sadhus and Brahmins 5000 years ago, only practised at this most auspicious time.

I could see rows of tents, some functional and ex-army, many resembling elaborate psychedelic big tops (red and white with flashing fairy lights and all).  It had the feel of a ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fantasy world, India style.  The Babas and mystics ruled here with proud beards, tridents and dark radiant eyes, amidst clouds of blue chillum smoke.

This make-shift tented city of 10 million fanned out over the entire valley floor for as far as the eye could see, a mobile canvas city.  It had been erected to cater for the pilgrims, Sadhus and a whole host of other spiritual and enlightened types.  The faces of the many well established gurus were plastered all over colourful billboards, gurus replacing coke for a short time.  I looked upon these billboards with suspicion, not understanding the need for branded spirituality.  The gurus faces all looked elated, but why spend money on advertising your holiness?  I came to realise that even the most devote souls can carry a mobile and follow the cricket.

After sleeping on a roof (no rooms in town) high above the main street of Laxma Jula, Rishikesh for a couple of nights, it was time to leave.  I had been fortunate enough to meet a great bunch of like-minded people, wanting to immerse themselves in The Mela with gusto.  Whatever that meant?  Poor Ravi became our unofficial guide (being Indian and speaking Hindi), we peppered him with questions about everything relating to anything and he handled it all with a gentle chuckle and a ‘I dunno’.  Iain I had met in Delhi, Eli and Marlena knew Ravi from somewhere else and I can’t remember where we met J and Cherie, but they were cool.

Rishikeshs streets were crammed full of bodies.  Streams of people flowed in no particular direction around an occasional stranded cow or bemused tourist.  Load speakers were attached above every street corner, constantly repeating information, in high pitched Hindhi, about lost people and general safety advice.  This began at 5am and went on all day, the nasal screaming was an apt soundtrack to the chaos below.  People stood with hoses and diligently hosed the streets down (something to do with dust) creating filthy puddles and slippery surfaces.

Ladies taking a holy bath, 14/4/10 dawn, Kumbh Mela

We had heard many horror stories about getting to Haridwar, the full spectrum of crushing, being stranded in the middle of nowhere, dog eat dog scenarios etc.  We were prepared, Ian and I had bought long sticks (lathis).  Not for bashing, more for gentle prodding.  It was difficult enough to wriggle and wedge our way through the street outside our hotel, this was going to be tricky.

A warm face in the crowd, at the camp, Kumbh Mela

Friendly Mountain Baba with mobile, Ashram, Kumbh Mela

Many people had obviously come far and suffered much, it was etched on their faces and in their movements.  Some staggered looking pained, others rested at the road side staring into space, sitting on their bundles of belongings.  Shopkeepers offered water from kettles to the masses, the temperature was in the 40’s.  The majority of pilgrims seemed to be country folk, many very thin and walking in an almost trance-like state.  I liked the Rajasthani farmers turbans, fat, round and brightly coloured.  Human lollipops.  There seemed to be a high proportion of older people.  Pockets of women chanted to keep up moral as the crush squeezed itself through the contours of Laxman Jhulas streets, heading to the next temple and beyond.   Many camped and slept were they could, small fires were made and ladies roasted chapattis.  Everywhere seemed a viable place to take a squat (toilet break).

Rishikesh is situated on the banks of the Ganga, a holy place, home of Sadhus (Hindhu ascetics), Shiva temples and yoga.  It is the pilgrim main stopping point before Haridwar, the venue for this years Kumbh Mela, due to its holiness and close proximity.  Shiva (the destroyer, one of the three main Hindhu gods, alongside Brahma and Vishnu) roamed the Himalayas above here, the Ganga flows through his hair etc etc.  There are too many tales and legends to even begin to aptly describe the complexity of our man Shiva.  Needless to say, Shiva is the most popular god here, he’s good looking, tough, fights tigers and is blue.  Whats not to like?

Temples are dotted throughout the town and the pilgrims will visit most, some reach 16 stories high (as if walking from the Gujarat wasn’t enough, no lifts!).  A new one is being built with over 30 stories.  Pilgrims worship a phallic object known as a ‘lingam’ representing Shiva, stuck in a ‘yoni’ (female part) in these temples, they make offerings of food, milk (prasad) and perform a puja (prayer or ritual worship).  There is also a marble bull present in Shiva temples, his vehicle is a bull and this is blessed and touched too.

Two Naga Babas strolling, 14/4/10, Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela happens once every 12 years, this years has been running since February and there are many auspicious times to bathe.  The main bathing days are decided by the constellations and the moon.  On the 14th the moon passes into Saturn, this is apparently very good (loads of info the net).  Bathing in the Ganga on this day will wash away my sins.  Rishikesh is a dry town, no meat either, everyone radiates blissed out, good karma.  Happy being bendy, veggie and dreadlocked.  My biggest sin recently has been being late for morning meditation or that melted cadburys dairy milk I scoffed.  Relatively sin-less, there are a few skeletons I wouldnt mind ridding myself of, I anticipate a pleasant and hopefully not too filthy dip.

We thrashed and gnawed our way across the bridge and up to the main street.  Everybody had said we were crazy to go, crazy to even try, there were no buses, rickshaws etc.  People generally seemed to despair at the meer prospect.  We found a bus, climbed on the roof and began to talk to some nice farmers from the Gujarat who gave us some bang (like a marijuana biscuit).  We continued to radiate good karma as the bus whizzed (sometimes) under trees, through the national park and alongside the Ganga.  Now an almost unrecognisable version of itself.  It resembled a large industrial canal, regularly dammed and surrounded by concrete.

We seemed to skip through the traffic, exchanging pleasantries with other people on top of other buses.  “Bhom bole nate”  they shouted, I shouted it back, not knowing what it meant and would come to mean to me over the next day or so.

The bus stopped at the edge of the crowd, 10 million people in one place can get hectic (most people say it was more than 12 million, difficult to say really).  We hopped off, feeling a little bang’d and walked briskly forward into the chaos.  I felt full of optimism, we had arrived in style and with great ease, but also knew that this couldn’t last for long.   A large billboard rose above the entrance, ‘Welcome to the International Festival of Love and Peace’.  I had landed at the gate.

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16 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Nice account and cool pics

  2. 4

    leroywatson4 said,

    Part 2. 3 and I think 4 are all here. I hope you like them….things go further into the Kumbh…..

  3. 5

    I find all these aspects so fascinating! Amazing to see so many people united with the same faith!

  4. 7

    Phoenix Rose said,

    This sounds like the most amazing trip ever! I hope to visit Haridwar this year…maybe in September if the fates allow

    • 8

      leroywatson4 said,

      Haridwar is a dusty little town, the riverside has some nice areas and the countryside around can be beautiful. Interesting temples of course. Maybe head up towards Rishikesh and higher land, this is where the good stuff is. Let me know how it goes. Namaste and Happiness, Lee.

  5. 9

    apocalypseicons said,

    Wow! What an experience thanks for dropping into my blog enabling me to find yours. I love hearing about people’s travels.

  6. 13

    George Ellington said,

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve seen and read a number of things about the Kumbh Mela, even told my students a bit about it, but have never had a chance to read from the perspective of someone visiting and participating in it. Very interesting.

    • 14

      leroywatson4 said,

      The Kumbh was an insight into the heart of India. It was an awesome experience and one I would recommend highly to all of your students. Thanks for that George.

  7. 15

    What a journey!!! wow thanks for sharing it. Maybe I’ll get off my philosophising arse and fly away on an adventure!

    • 16

      leroywatson4 said,

      You don’t need to, the world is ever revolving around and within you silver one. Having said that, India is a vivid land of experience. Love and LightX


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