Take Me To The River

A visit to one of the world’s largest religious festivals in India is an unforgettable mix of spectacle and spirituality. I’m standing on a

Take Me To The River

A visit to one of the world’s largest religious festivals in India is an unforgettable mix of spectacle and spirituality.

I’m standing on a low bridge looking down on the mighty Ganges River in Haridwar, India. Below, devout Hindus are taking part in a mass bathing ritual, dipping in the iconic river with hopes of washing their bad karma away. The scene oozes colour and spirit—an image irresistible to every tourist, including me, and I’m milking it for all it’s worth. One hand takes happy snaps with my BlackBerry and the other holds a video recorder. It’s all working a treat until, oops—my fingers fumble and lose their grip on the recorder and an even bigger oops, my hallowed BlackBerry takes a nosedive, straight into the holy river.

My mobile mishap was an ironic blink during an amazing adventure to see the 2010 Purna Kumbh Mela—one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. Visitors to this year’s festival are estimated to have reached the 20 million mark.

Hindus believe that during a battle between Gods and demons, drops of immortal nectar fell from a kumbh (“pitcher”) to four cities on the Ganges—Prayag, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar.  To commemorate this holy event, Purna Kumbh Mela is celebrated four times every 12 years (mela means “gathering” in Sanskrit, and purna means “complete”.)

The location of the event rotates between each of the cities every three years or so, and the exact timing is determined by astrology. For Haridwar, it’s when Jupiter enters Aquarius and the sun enters Aries. The planetary alignment is said to return the healing force of that immortal nectar to the river Ganges, and all those who bathe in it.

The festival runs for approximately three months and while there’s bathing every day, there are several highly sacred days, including the Royal Baths, that attract the most people. Visitor numbers can swell to two million people on these days alone.

The Kumbh Mela (as each individual festival is known) at Haridwar coincided with the 12-year anniversary of my own yoga practice. When Haridwar last hosted the festival, I was just a newbie, but I was instantly intrigued by the event and wanted to take part. Back then, the timing just wasn’t right—the children were too young, I couldn’t leave work and perhaps I didn’t have the confidence to make this journey by myself. But this time, my own personal planets must’ve been aligned to make it happen. Something in me knew right away that this was the year that I would go.

Ancient Festivities

I started my adventure at the New Delhi Railway Station. Thousands of travellers bustled through the main halls in the early hours. Other passengers covered the floor sleeping, oblivious to the hustle above them. I negotiated with a red-jacketed porter to carry my backpack. Although I could’ve easily hauled it myself, porters will not only get you to your platform but onto your carriage and into your seat. They’re extremely helpful if you’re not used to the chaotic nature of an Indian train station. Once aboard, in my first class carriage, it was a smooth pleasant ride—tea is served (with a rose), and so was breakfast. Out the window I watched as small villages woke up.

More than four hours later, I arrived at Haridwar. Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, its name literally means “Gateway to God”, but it’s closer to the India of my imagination—a place buzzing with life.

The train station was pouring the festival masses into town. The vast majority of visitors are traditionally dressed villagers—men in earth-toned kurtas (long shirts) and women in technicolour saris balancing belongings on their heads. About a quarter of the pilgrims are sadhus (holy men) clad in orange robes and mala beads.

Others stride stark naked, carrying nothing but a begging bowl and stick. Walking or crammed into auto and cyclo rickshaws they head towards various ashrams, where they will pray, bathe and sleep. Westerners are few and far between here, suggesting that Khumb Mela is still off the beaten tourist path.

Haridwar covers about the same area as Adelaide and the population is about 800,000. While this holy town is studded with ashrams (there are about 300 permanent ones), there are no high-rise buildings. The traffic is peppered with horse-drawn carts and cycle rickshaws, while cows wander the street.

During Kumbh Mela, however, Haridwar also becomes home to “tent city”, a two-kilometre line of canvas ashrams and tent communities that sprawl out from the centre of town.  My accommodation is in the middle of this, in a “luxury tent” camp, one of several erected for visitors who missed out on the limited number of hotel rooms on offer. Each tent has deck chairs, comfortable beds and bathrooms with showers. Exotic light fixtures and fabric drape from the canvas ceiling and rugs are scattered on the floor, making it a sanctuary amongst the buzz of the festival.

My tent was perched right up against the Ganges, giving me my first look at this iconic river. It’s not at all what I expected. The river is known as one of the most polluted in the world, but this wasn’t the river I found in Haridwar. It’s milky blue-green, for starters. The current’s strong and it’s powerful and beautiful to watch.

“The Ganges is clean till Varanasi since it flows through many Himalayan herbs and has a high mineral content,” Parthi Krishnan, a Haridwar resident and hotelier explains to me (Varanasi is 800 kilometres downstream from Haridwar).

And taking a dip in the river against the backdrop of the Kumbh Mela was something that most of the Western guests at my camp had done.

“I’m a world traveller,” says Deborah, a Californian yoga student, who took a bath on her first day. “The Kumbh Mela has always been on my bucket list.”

Living In The Moment

It is easy to get lost in the images of the Kumbh Mela. Walking around town is like strolling through a sideshow alley. The air swirls with a heady mix of campfire smoke, incense and dust. Each canvas ashram has a circus-like atmosphere; coloured lights flash as music and chanting blare through loud speakers, and the crowds wind in and out. Alongside the tents, street stalls do a roaring trade of Kumbh Mela staples—plastic bottles (to bring holy Ganges water home for ceremonies), blankets for wrapping after baths, various necessities for camping and small plates of flowers for offering down the river.  During Royal Bath days, there’s the spectacle of the morning processions of holy saints and their disciples as they make their way to take their baths in the Ganges. Lasting for two hours or so, this is a joyous parade and participants smile proudly. Holy men sit like kings on decorated floats, throwing lollies to the crowd. Pilgrims cram the sidewalks returning their affection with the sacred greeting of “Namaste”.

My daily meals and yoga practice at the campsite give some order and respite to the chaos and stimulation of the festival. I liked starting my day with yoga on the woven rugs of my tent. Knowing where I’ll practise makes each time special. From there I make my way to a communal breakfast with the other guests staying in my camp. There are three buffets a day, mostly Indian food with a few concessions for Westerners who can’t cope with the local cuisine. I eat Indian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner—feasting on rice and dahl (lentil porridge), various paneer dishes (cottage-cheese based casseroles) and other hot vegetarian concoctions. Even though this is camping, there’s a resort chef—as well as attentive waiters making sure I eat plenty of naan and chapatti (Indian breads) and they insist I try every dessert from carrot halwah (shredded carrots soaked in ghee and sugar) to jalebi (a fine deep-fried cookie). In town I throw caution to the wind and drop into tiny chai stalls for glasses of sweet milky tea.

In the evening, the town practically vibrates. In my tent, the noise level is incredible—speakers spewing chanting, while a steady roar grows from the crowd. On the first night, after lying awake most of the night wondering what was going on out there, I finally rose to investigate. Outside my gated camp, it was surprisingly quiet and peaceful. People were walking towards the river in relative silence, speaking in “morning voice” murmurs.

“Ahhh,” I realised, “They’re going to take their baths”.  The loud hum of sound was just a collection of millions of murmurs and overnight chants being carried down the banks of the Ganges. Bathing is held along ghats—special steps for accessing the river—and takes place primarily in the morning and late afternoon, regardless of whether it’s a special bath day or not. Most men wear some type of swim trunks and women wear full saris. To combat the heavy current, cast-iron chains help to steady balance. When all else fails, small rescue crews in runabouts are on standby, ready to retrieve any bathers who venture too far.

While many pilgrims and tourists flock to Har Ki Pauri, one of Haridwar’s most sacred ghats, there are plenty of areas that are quieter with easier access to watch the bathing. “Are you going to bathe?” asks an Indian pilgrim who I’d been filming.

I explain I’m not Hindu and I don’t want to offend anyone by bathing.  “That’s ridiculous,” he replies. “This is a very auspicious day. Go and do it, especially before sundown.” And so I do. I find a spot with the least amount of curious eyes and put my feet in. The water’s refreshing and cool. I run my hands through it. I splash the Ganges on my face and through my hair. It’s easy to see why this river can leave a person feeling brand new. I throw away the idea of any pollution that might lie within and think about all the hopes and dreams that have been brought to this river. The heat, the dust and the noise just wash away with every drop. I vow to take this bath every day of my stay.

Wise Old Men

While there are many notable groups of holy men attending the Khumb Mela, the most famous “characters” are the Naga Babas—naked, ash covered holy men who’ve given up their worldly possessions in the name of their faith. They come to the festival for initiation, for laws to be made and for lineages that go back for centuries to be respected and reviewed.  For photographers, they are the money shot.

But you have to tread carefully—take a picture without permission, and you might find yourself on the other end of a clenched fist or bucket of water. Often referred to as the “Hells Angels” of holy men, their camp has prime position in the middle of town.

While the Naga Babas can seem intimidating at first, I find they’re approachable when I take the time to sit with them. One especially accessible dhuni (sacred campfire) to sit around was led by Baba Rampuri, who was the first Westerner to be initiated into this ancient order of yogis and he welcomes anyone to join him for a chat.

It was worth the effort. I made three visits to Rampuri’s camp and each time was wilder than the next. Musicians played, transvestites—who believe they embody the deity Shiva—sang, villagers came for blessings, tourists hovered near the door to take pictures and Rampuri offered anecdotes and pearls of wisdom gathered from his 40 years in India.

“The Kumbh Mela is an opportunity to engage, to go beneath,” Rampuri says after a shutterbug tourist left without saying thank you. “All of this imagery is very seducing, but if you don’t engage with the people you are filming, you don’t scratch the surface of a culture that is even more seductive, more exotic than the image.”

I couldn’t help but think about my mobile photo debacle along the Ganges. Seeing the Kumbh with a face glued to a camera removed me from the experience.

On my final evening along the Ganges, I leave my camera in the tent and walk to the river with a stream of worshippers for evening prayer, Ganga Aarti—a ceremony with fire, incense and bells.

As the sun goes down, the town seems to exhale. Somehow, among the millions in the city, a relative peace floats above the ghats. Offerings of candles and flowers float along the current. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. In broken English I try to explain to an elderly woman and her three grown daughters how wonderful it was to be here. They wobbled their heads warmly. I think they understand.

Susan Paget is a writer, television producer and Ashtanga yoga student based in Sydney.

Fact File

Kumbh Mela is celebrated four times every 12 years, the locations rotating between the cities of Prayag, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar in India. Kumbh festivals of lesser importance include the Ardha (half) Kumbh which falls every six years. The next Kumbh Mela is being held in Prayag in 2013, while the next Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar will take place in 2021. For more info visit www.kumbh-mela.euttaranchal.com

Getting There and Around: New Delhi is the closest international airport to Haridwar. Flights depart daily from Australian capital cities, with return fares starting from $1300. Haridwar is approximately six-hours drive from New Delhi. Buses and internal flights travel direct to Haridwar. The Shatabdi Express Dehradun from New Delhi Train Station takes just a little more than four hours. First class tickets are $39 and can be booked online at www.cleartrip.com

Accommodation: Several budget guesthouses in Haridwar and reasonably priced hotels along the Ganges offer good rates, although during Kumbh prices will increase. Rooms at the Ginger Hotel Haridwar, a popular Indian chain hotel, start from $75 per night plus taxes (www.gingerhotels.com). Haveli Hari Ganga has hotel rooms from $130 per night, including all meals and taxes, and they also run luxury tents for $205 Per Night, Including All Meals And Taxes (Www.Havelihariganga.Com).

More Info: Visit www.indiatourism.com.au for background information, dates and resource links or check out www.rampuri.com for information about the Naga Babas.