The Rainbow People, Kumbh Mela (Part Three), 13th April 2010, Haridwar, India

Sunset from the Rainbow Camp

(Cont.)…  We met many kind Sadhus that night and they regularly usher us into their mobile ashrams, these camps for the pilgrims and chelas (devotees).  A place of shelter both spiritual and phsyical, where all eating and smoking needs (if you’re lucky, or western) are catered for by gangs of holy men and other volunteers.  These ashrams all represent different divisions of the same thing, Hinduism, with its seemingly infinite sect, sub-sects, gurus and Gods.

There is a method here, of the kind that I am not privy to.  Food appears on cue, camps are kept clean, caste rituals practised, everybody sits in the right place, we all sing in the seething mass of 16 million people.  It should be ultimate chaos. Admittedly, sometimes it is.

The Pandas (a branch of Sadhu) keep check of family histories, updated for a small fee each year.  Many poorer Indians can trace their families back generations by visiting their specific Panda, but seemingly only once every twelve years. Groups of devotees sit before their Sadhu or Panda, some seeking a ruling on land disputes, others up-dating the records with deaths, births and marriages. Many people have travelled, some walking, from all corners of India.  That’s a long, old road.

Gangs of pilgrims encircle us at every corner and close in for the kill; like entranced zombies, inquisitive and in my fragile, bewildered state of mind, a little too close for comfort. They stare blankly and find Iain (6″4″ dreaded red hair, Chester bloke) a fascinating puzzle.  Most believe him to be an albino holy man and some touched his feet, one man lay prostrate in the street, chanting in Sanskrit.  Iain handled all of this with charm and patience, but it was regularly intense.

I learn of many fascinating myths and legends of the past Kumbh Melas. Some have stayed with me: a Himalayan Baba who kept a vegetarian lion which could chant ‘Aum’ on request, an Elephant stampede that killed many and sword battles and assassinations between rival sects of Sadhus.  Rumours of a holy man living in a tree just down river, he leaps from branch to branch like a monkey and hynotises all comers with his gaze alone. He is, predictably, married to an Italian lady (Italian ladies like Babas). He has unlocked the doorway to many siddhis (yogic powers) and is capable of levitation and raucous bonhomie, welcoming all with warmth and daal.

These are just a tiny slice of the magic and mystery of the Kumbh.  I have always been fascinated by the legends of India and the mighty Ganga and soon I’ll be literally, up to my neck in it.

Curious Pilgrim

Then, all change.  At a chai stall, we met a lost Frenchman carrying a guitar and we were taken to a hidden village of wig wams, to be amongst the rainbow people (  A global group of new age hippies.  They had been up in some forests near Rishikesh for a time, but their global gathering had been ruined by bribe hungry police.  The camp was small and fenced.  Kids ran around naked on sheep skin rugs, most people lay on the floor, the atmosphere was still, with a blissful soundtrack.  An oasis in the heart of the mayhem.

On arrival, the Frenchman joined three Japanese dudes with dreadlocks sitting on and bashing large ornate drums.  He picked at a guitar as an elfin Turkish gent wearing a brilliant waistcoat played a four-stringed Japanese instrument with a bow, a younger Californian dude had a bamboo flute.  Other instruments and characters joined in with the music which flowed freely for hours.  Some people spoke occasionally, but most of us just lay and watched the sky.

The rainbow people are great huggers.  We hugged each other with real love.  Big, long, deep embraces.  An honest, heart-felt exchange as opposed to a quick greeting.  Good to start with a hug.  The atmosphere of peace and love was regularly interrupted by an Indian man hitting the surrounding fence with a stick, as people looked over at this unusual gathering of Westerners and wig wams.  This regular surge of aggression was unpleasant. Food was served in one of the wigwams, but I wasnt hungry anymore.

We soon realised that Ravi had disappeared.  We were tucked away in a maze-like ashram, with many corrugated iron walkways.  Ian and I began to worry.  Maybe he was lost?  We had no idea how we got here, or how to get out.  I was sent on a mission to find him. I liked the idea at first, stretch the legs a little.  Get away from the angry man with the stick.

After a while, I found my sandals in the pile and made my way into a brave new world, with no soft drumming or flute. I slunk through the maze and soon found Ravi at the entrance, arguing in Hindi with a cadre of heavily moustached men with sticks.  Damn sticks!  I waded in there, a disillusioned peacemaker, trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. It seemed I was invisible at the time, as well as deluded.

Eventually Ravi explained that he was not allowed back into the ashram because he was Indian. This took me a time to comprehend this notion.  Indians banning Indians.  The head Sadhu had made a decree, no mixing with the gringos in the wig wams.

It was getting uglier.  People where throwing hands in the air, kicking up dust and frothing at the mouth.  I joined in the shouting match, not really knowing what I was saying or why.  We drew a great crowd.  I decided that he who waved his hands the most would be victorious.  It worked!  I have long arms.

The man with the biggest stick and bushiest moustache addressed me in English, with respect, he suggested I approach the head honcho and ask him for his ruling.  With respect, I tried not to stare at his fabulous ocra moustache (dyed with henna) and brilliant silver hair.  The combination was striking.  After all this hand waving, I was pumped up and ready for a debate.  We were in the right here (as if that mattered).

Friendly faces

I was taken to a large bell tent, pink in colour, with golden ropes holding the main entrance open.  There were around one hundred people sitting in silence on rugs in front of what appeared to be a low throne.  Had I stepped back in history?  This was like the court of some great Sultan and I suddenly realised, I was out of my depth here.  I would have to confront the Sultan (Sadhu) regarding his racist door policy.  The consequences of which remained a fearful mystery.

The main man was a big lump of billowing robes, with a giant white beard and tall orange turban.  He wore chunks of jewels and seemed more maharaja than ascetic.  This was a courtroom of sorts and two men sat before the throne, their families behind, all heads were bowed.  They were explaining something about a goat dispute (or so I was told).

The man with the ocra moustache led me to the front, the crowd murmured in unison, people craned their necks to see the lamb being led to the slaughter.  My major problem with expressing why I was there would be expressions!  I had no words here.  I had a vocabulary of three words and one of those was ‘tea’.  I was being hung out to dry by a man with a red moustache.  He tugged at my hand as a sign to sit on the floor.  I tried to look calm.  I was wearing a bright yellow bandana.

As the goat dispute was mediated and the verdict accepted with much bowing and many prostrations, it was my turn.  I looked up to the scowling pile of robes, his eyes were on fire and circled with blue dye.  Before I could bow, he erupted into a rage.  I hadn’t even spoken.  It seemed I had ruined his day.  I then realised that Ravi had barged into the tent, dragging a few smaller stick holders with him.

An epic slaging match ensued, insults were traded and the awe-struck crowd of pilgrims watched on, heads bobbed back and forth, like at a tennis match.  Indias really know how to lose it!  I was impressed, but still apprehensive, occasionally they were pointing at me.  I tried to look innocent, of everything.

I was actually relieved, as the battle raged, the spotlight was off me, so I hopped away.  Making fumbling apologise to anyone who would listen.  There seemed to be no clear winner.  Even the stick men lost interest, letting go of Ravi’s arms and wandering off.  Ravi was fuming and our time in the hippie wig wam village was over.  Which was fine by me, I didn’t want to stay in this odd environment anyway.  I’d come to embrace the festival of love, not a flute player from California.

We told a few of the Rainbow guys what had happened to our friend.  They seemed disinterested.  They couldn’t do much anyway.  They were honoured ‘guests’, although ‘spectacles’ would have probably been a better way of putting it.

We went and told Iain and the guys of the situation, managing to drag them away from the impish man and his hypnotic Japanese instrument.  As we left, the stick bearers, seemed relax.  Smiling and chatting to Ravi, they offered us bedis and apologised for the ‘beast’ in the pink tent.  India is perplexing at the best of times.

We hit the packed lanes and were soon watching painted children dancing on a stage, dressed as Gods……….TBC………

The crowds gather


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