My friend Gauri and I took a road trip during the month of April. Gauri has traveled India for many years. I was grateful to tag along to learn the ropes.
We went by train from Chennai to Delhi. Then we went to Rishikesh and Haridwar. From there we visited Chandigarh and then Amritsar. Finally, we went towards the Himalayas, visiting Dharamsala and McCleodganj, where the Tibetan Government in Exile is located.
This blog is an account of my experiences in Haridwar, at the Kumbh Mela.
Kumbh Mela is a gathering of Hindu sadhus, religious leaders and followers from all over India and the world. It happens every three years, in one of four holy cities along the Ganges.
Each city hosts the Kumbh Mela every twelve years. This year, in Haridwar, the Kumbh Mela, occurred from Jan 14 to April 28. There is one Maha Kumbh Mela during the 12 year cycle. The guide books say it occurs at the Allahabad Mela site, and the next one is in 2013. However, we saw numerous references to this Kumbh Mela as the Maha one. A little marketing spin by the Haridwar Tourist Bureau, I assume.
Over the course of the Mela, there are particularly auspicious days in which to get the maximum blessing from bathing in the Ganga (Ganges). Of these bathing days, called Shahi snan, April 14 was Baisakhi Pramukh, (also listed at various Internet sites as Mesha Sankranti and Mukya) said to be the most holy and auspicious day of all, especially for wives to secure good health and long life for their husbands. This year, it is said that over 10 million people attended the Mela on April 14 to immerse themselves in the Ganga. There’s a great article from the New York Times written about this important bathing day here.
Gauri had attended the last Kumbh Mela in Haridwar 12 years ago. She wanted to repeat the experience this time around. We found good accommodations in Rishkesh, 22 km. north of Haridwar, and we intended to “commute” to Haridwar via rickshaw or bus on the bathing days. (In a separate post, I will describe our experiences in Rishikesh.)
On Monday, April 12, we set out for our first look at Haridwar. Immediately we ran into some problems, as we were told that the roads in and out of Haridwar were closed, since there was too much traffic to deal with. Rickshaws and buses were definitely out of the question for the day. So we crammed into a shared rickshaw, called a vikram, with 10 other people, and made it to the edge of Haridwar. From there, we had to take a bicycle rickshaw the 2 km. to the center of the city, where much of the action was to take place.
We passed over or near several bridges that crossed the Ganga. The giant Siva statue in the background, below, is the same one we encountered close up at the end of our day.
We saw groups of devotees banded together by the river’s edge.
People were already enjoying their dips in the river.
We saw makeshift altars created by groups of devotees.
In a nearby field, the authorities had set up crowd-control barriers in anticipation of the huge crowd coming in two days. It looked like it could have been for a really long line at Disneyland.
Look at the interesting decorations on the bridge below.
It was really, really hot this day. And there we were right at mid-day, the height of the blazing sun. We stepped down one or two stairs into the water, not very deep, but utterly refreshing for a few minutes. Here’s Gauri.
We soon made our way to Har Ki Pauri ghat. It is on these banks where the most holy of the holy Ganga bathing takes place. I was told that the various temple buildings were constructed in stages over centuries on the banks of the river. The crowds were quite large on this day, and that was nothing compared to the crush expected on April 14th.
Below is one of the many idols that populated the temples.
Below, the view up the hill from Har Ki Pauri.
There were fortune tellers available to read astrological charts.
In the same area as the astrologers there was a line of barbers. It wasn’t obvious that having a shaved head was considered part of the devotees’ obligations for a successful Kumbh Mela experience.
During the “off days” of the Mela, between the auspicious bathing days, it seemed that most of the action was taking place in one of two huge tent cities a few kilometers from the Har Ki Pauri ghat. We were told that one of the “cities” was dedicated to teachers and their ashrams from North India. The other was filled with groups from South India and from other places around the world.
We grabbed another bicycle rickshaw to take us to the North Indian encampment.
All along the route were hoardings—billboards—advertising one teacher or another.
The dusty road through the center went on for acres. All along were tents to house the teachers and the flocks of devotees who followed the teachers.
Some of the speaking platforms were pretty basic.
Many ashrams seemed to have set up fairly elaborate entryways, and/or stages and sound systems where hundreds of devotees could hear the teachings.
One young guru had an impressive following. Since all the signage was in Hindi, we didn’t know who he was. But he had a cool stage set behind him.
We wandered into another encampment, where a guru motioned us to join him in his tent. We sat down with him…
and then I noticed all these sadhus sitting in the dark to the right of the head guy.
They were from Gujurat, and they enthusiastically invited us to visit them there. We exchanged phone numbers, and, even though they didn’t know any English, I encouraged them to visit www.richardarunachala.wordpress.com.
After a while we were parched again. (Did I mention that it was really, really hot?) We headed for a “side branch” of the Ganga, which ran behind one of the encampments.
Not so many people bathing, so we felt less shy about going part-way into the water. We weren’t prepared to immerse ourselves totally on that day: Not the right clothing.
On the way back, we came across this sadhu with a fab hairdo.
It was getting late, and we decided to head back to Haridwar center, where we could pick up another shared ride back to Rishikesh. Although we were bicycle-driven for a few km to reach the tent city, there were no rides to be had going back. So we walked.
Returning near the center of town, we came upon a group of a couple hundred Naga Sadhus, also known as Naga Babas. The Naga Sadhus are perhaps the most “prestigious” of the various groups of holy men who attend the Kumbh Mela. They are accorded the privilege of bathing first, before the other sadhus. They are known to be a little “unpredictable.”
The following description is from “thesundayindian.com”
“The Naga Sadhus have a six-year indoctrination process during which they wear a langoti [loincloth]. After taking the pledge of sanyaas at the Kumbh Mela, they give up clothes for the rest of their lives…In the years between the Kumbh Melas, these Naga Sadhus retreat to their ashrams in north India, where they spend their time in meditation, yoga and researching the healing powers of various herbs. They don’t travel much, and are rarely seen anywhere beyond the Kumbh Mela.”
This group had gathered by the river’s edge, waiting for the signal to cross a bridge all together, and, presumably, bathe in the Ganga. It was evening by this time, and it was suggested that this might be the time when their initiation rites would be completed.
There were both police and military guards on the scene. They valiantly tried to keep the “civilian” devotees away from the group.
We were still looking for a ride back to Rishikesh. A few buses came by, and were so crowded that we didn’t stand a chance. Plus, we couldn’t get anyone to tell us where they were going.
We didn’t count on walking for many kilometers, but as it got darker, in order to find a ride home, that’s what we did.
Past the gigantic statue of Siva, which we had seen in the distance in the morning.
Past sections of impromptu tent accommodations. Some of the night lights in the distance seemed a little Las Vegas-y.
Seemed like we walked half the distance back to Rishikesh. We were told of a bus stand, but all the bicycle rickshaws wanted outrageous sums to take us there. So we kept walking.
We finally found the bus stand with transport to Rishikesh. We arrived back very late and full of images of the day.
The Final Chapter
The postscript to this exhausting but fascinating day is that I never did make it back for the official bathing day. I couldn’t face the crowds again. So Gauri went without me. I had to be content to fully immerse myself in the Ganga in Rishikesh, 22 km away from the heart of the action.
On April 14th, the most auspicious of the auspicious bathing days, I strolled up and down the riverbank outside the Parnath Niketan ashram, trying to get the courage to go through with it. I saw an almost-naked sadhu frolicking in the river. He spotted me, and motioned me to come in with him. (I, of course, was fully, I mean FULLY, clothed.) I cautiously stepped into the water. There was one step, and then you had to step onto some rocks to get deeper. I went a little deeper, but, afraid of slipping, I didn’t go deep enough to get completely immersed.
Since Richard’s health and long life are a priority for me, I was hoping that Siva wouldn’t quibble about a few kilometers either way, or whether or not I got my back wet. But, oh my gosh, I sure hope that’s not why Richard got those kidney stones!