A day at the Kumbh Mela - the biggest festival in the world

Haridwar Travel Blog

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the crowded train compartment

On March 14, my train to Haridwar leaves from Delhi´s Nizzamuddin Station at 11:20am. As the train trundles into the platform, I soon realize that my reservation for a seat in the AC 3 compartment was all in vain. It´s the Kumbh Mela and that means a state of emergency for the trains: everyone wants to go to Haridwar and nobody cares if you have a ticket or not. In my compartment, which normally has room for eight people, I count 26 people plus luggage! Since I booked an upper berth I climb up and try to make myself comfortable but as more people get on the train I soon find myself covered with pieces of luggage. A fat Buddha takes a seat on my feet. The train that would normally take 6 hours takes endless 8 hours to reach Haridwar. It´s awfully uncomfortable and I feel sandwiched and packed like a sardine.

thousands of people taking a bath in the Ganga
But despite the inconvenience all the people on the train stay calm and don´t argue and, even more wonderful, start singing after a while. The fact that a situation like this doesn´t get out of hand is typical for India and one of the countries’ best virtues. Indians always make a virtue out of necessity.

Despite the uncomfortable situation I try to sleep for a while to make the time fly faster, but fail in my attempt. The train jolts violently along the rails, even seems to take off and then land hard again on its tracks, making my head occasionally bump onto the ceiling. I ask the Buddha next to me what he thinks how many people are on this train. His answer: “Unlimited.” A son holds his hand behind his father´s head, so that his dad feels more comfortable. Someone else holds the baby of another woman in his arms.

sitting on the Ganga shore
The baby sleeps like in heaven. Another kid is asked whether it will swim in the Ganga and the kid replies: Nahi, kyoki ganga nadi bahut thanda hai (no, because the ganga water is very cold). Everyone laughs. Food is unpacked. Happy conversations. Everyone´s one big family and instead of suffering together, they are all simply happy to be on the train to Haridwar.

When the train stops at a station people are banging on the door, want to get in, but no one opens the door for them. It seems even for Indians there´s a limit to how many people fit on a train.

At 7pm the train finally arrives in Haridwar. There´s smoke inside the train station but no one seems to care. I leave the station and the crowd is immediately overwhelming.

big boss
I walk about two kilometres to the bus station. Thousands of people in motion, in all directions, with all their luggage, the street is closed off.

At the bus station I meet Luca from Turin in Italy. He has been in Haridwar for seven days. Before here he was in Varanasi for a month and reports of man-eating dogs. Luca is a photographer, who hasn´t been in his home country for the last seven years. He lived in Barcelona, Berlin and Vienna and wants to make a living in Bangkok after his travels around India.

The bus drives through a sea of lights on both sides of the Ganga. At one point we have to change the bus again, then traffic jam and human chaos, risky overtaking manoeuvre, but as usual no accidents.

out of this world
Luca dreams of Wiener Schnitzel and German sausages. I share his craving.

Around 10pm we arrive in Rishikesh and eat in a slow restaurant. Coincidentally Luca and I are staying at the same Hotel, the O.G.S. Tourist Home, so we share a rickshaw to get there. The meeting with Luca is another one of those rare coincidences. Sometimes it seems like fate sends me someone. Maybe fate thought that after such a tiring train journey I should meet someone nice, someone who leads the way and makes things easier for me. And finally, when you´re at the Kumbh Mela, there´s no better person to walk around with than a photographer. The Kumbh Mela is heaven for a photographer.

The next morning, March 15, day of the Second Royal Bath and one of the most important days during the three month long Kumbh Mela festival.

Naga Babas
The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world and about 50 million pilgrims were expected to attend the one in Haridwar. On March 15 alone almost 10 million people bathed in the Ganga river!

So Luca and I woke up early that day and after having delicious banana pancakes for breakfast, took a bus from Rishikesh to Haridwar. We walked all day through the huge crowds of people and were both happy with amazement. It was one of the most spectacular festival I´ve ever experienced.

The roads are blocked with people, the stream of pilgrims is continuously flowing towards the streets and alleys towards the continuous stream of the Ganga. First, Luca and I walk to the Har-ki-Pauri Ghat. This ghat is one of the most famous and most visited sites of Haridwar and considered one of its five main holy sites.

Naga Baba
The place is surrounded by some ancient and some newly built temples. We came here to see the Naga Babas (Naked Babas) for whom the first bath is reserved. The Naga Babas, as the name suggests, walk around completely naked, covered only with white ash.

But at the Har-ki-Pauri we are not lucky. The immense crowd of people is bone-crushing and policemen with annoying whistles are constantly redirecting the people, so that it is quite impossible to get a close look of the ghat. Therefore we walk across a bridge and then climb over wooden makeshift fences. Within these fences the people look like cattle. Then we reach another ghat and take some pictures of bathing people as well as people sitting around. All are very happy to have their picture taken and line up for the camera. Then we walk past some decorated cars and even more interesting people.

And then, unexpectedly, the Naga Babas are coming down the road.

Naga Baba
Hundreds of them. Hundreds of white babas in their birthday suit, in all their naked glory. Cheers and drum sounds accompany them. Luca and I are perplexed and happy at the same time, taking picture after picture of this rare sight. The Babas also all seem to be happy and wave towards us or pose for the picture. Only one shouts: “Don´t take photos, take knowledge!”

We follow the babas. One of them starts smoking some weed or whatever, others carry wooden sticks, one with a sword, one on a horse, an elder one carried on the shoulders of a younger one, people around on bridges, on fences, on trees, all looking stunned and amazed, the most cheerful people.

Then we continue walking, across yet another bridge and into a small hutment, where the locals collect dried cow shit, a happy family offers us some water to drink, they are happy about our presence, they shake our hands, children and mothers and fathers looking out of doors and windows.

Naga Babas
All are buzzing with excitement.

Then back to the main street. At the cycle rickshaw stop we take a break and I even get to drive one guy´s rickshaw for a while. Then we continue walking through the labyrinth of Haridwar, across the railroad tracks, through houses and tents, glimpses into life, everyone greeting us in a friendly way.

While having a cay in a narrow alley, Luca tells me he loves India but misses “woman beings”, as he calls them. So naturally, whenever a “woman being” is close, his mind goes numb and his groin starts to itch. Just like Indian men, after a while we as tourists also start to stare greedily at any attractive “woman being” that passes our way. Here and there we are enchanted by an accidental exposure of a woman´s skin or by one of those angel-like smiles.

Naga Baba smoking
But we both know that it would all be too complicated and therefore all that is left is our common reverie of “woman beings”.

We walk back to Har-ki-Pauri but it´s closed off by the police, so we decide to walk up the hill that is behind the ghat. From up there we have a great view of the whole spectacle. TV channels are reporting from up here and policemen are controlling the festival with machine guns. We ask one policemen whether they weren´t afraid of any terrorist attacks and he answers: “Full control,” which is ridiculous because you can never have full control of a crowd of nearly 10 million but he´s probably supposed to say that. However, and that is one of the most miraculous things about the Kumbh Mela, despite the huge crowds and despite all the chaos, there is still a certain order that is visible underneath it all and a strong spiritual feeling floating in the air.

me driving a cycle rickshaw

Suddenly a never ending stream of people crosses the bridge next to the clock tower, all of them walking to the Har-ki-Pauri ghat in order to take a bath. It is the highlight of the day for both the pilgrims and me.  As the suns sets slowly bells start ringing and more and more lights are switched on and add a mysterious glow to the scene. It´s a magic moment and I couldn´t be happier. Luca asks if we should call the pizza service.

When it´s dark, we walk back down to the city and eat a big Thali for dinner. Then try to find out where the bus stop is this evening (obviously it´s somewhere else every day) and when we finally find it, take a bus back to Rishikesh to get some well-deserved sleep.

Har-ki-Pauri
What a glorious day it was!

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the crowded train compartment
the crowded train compartment
thousands of people taking a bath …
thousands of people taking a bath…
sitting on the Ganga shore
sitting on the Ganga shore
big boss
big boss
out of this world
out of this world
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Baba
Naga Baba
Naga Baba
Naga Baba
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Baba smoking
Naga Baba smoking
me driving a cycle rickshaw
me driving a cycle rickshaw
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
the garden of the OGS Tourist Home
the garden of the OGS Tourist Home
main street in Haridwar
main street in Haridwar
wooden fence
wooden fence
wooden fence, what for? :-)
wooden fence, what for? :-)
people on the Ganga
people on the Ganga
people watching
people watching
people on the hill
people on the hill
say cheese!
say cheese!
rubbish
rubbish
people on rooftop
people on rooftop
in Haridwar
in Haridwar
thousands of people taking a bath …
thousands of people taking a bath…
people on the Ganga
people on the Ganga
people in Haridwar
people in Haridwar
people in Haridwar
people in Haridwar
taking a bath in the Ganga
taking a bath in the Ganga
man praying
man praying
man with turban
man with turban
couple cooking
couple cooking
I am the walrus
I am the walrus
man smoking a beedi
man smoking a beedi
three man
three man
man with huge turban
man with huge turban
a family
a family
women in colourful saris
women in colourful saris
women in colourful saris
women in colourful saris
Indian woman
Indian woman
Indian woman
Indian woman
Indian woman
Indian woman
Indian woman
Indian woman
Indian man
Indian man
people on the street
people on the street
people
people
the big boss?
the big boss?
people in Haridwar
people in Haridwar
what a haircut!
what a haircut!
people on decorated waggon
people on decorated waggon
people in yellow and orange
people in yellow and orange
decorated cars
decorated cars
people behind the fence
people behind the fence
people behind the fence
people behind the fence
people behind the fence
people behind the fence
people on waggon
people on waggon
lonely spectator
lonely spectator
crowded
crowded
me in the crowd
me in the crowd
musicians
musicians
musicians
musicians
two musicians
two musicians
pilgrims
pilgrims
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
musician
musician
Naga Baba on a horse
Naga Baba on a horse
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Babas
Naga Baba smoking
Naga Baba smoking
man with sword
man with sword
packed with people
packed with people
woman and her child
woman and her child
graceful woman with umbrella
graceful woman with umbrella
people on bridge
people on bridge
dried cow shit
dried cow shit
women between dred cow shit
women between dred cow shit
colourful people
colourful people
people in Haridwar
people in Haridwar
happy children
happy children
happy children
happy children
woman
woman
cute girl
cute girl
cute girl
cute girl
clothes
clothes
me taking a rest on a cycle ricksh…
me taking a rest on a cycle ricks…
me driving a cycle rickshaw
me driving a cycle rickshaw
me driving a cycle rickshaw
me driving a cycle rickshaw
people on the street
people on the street
woman
woman
lost guy
lost guy
many people
many people
alley
alley
hutments
hutments
somewhere in Haridwar
somewhere in Haridwar
across the bridge
across the bridge
train line
train line
crowd
crowd
guy waving
guy waving
the crowd walking across the bridge
the crowd walking across the bridge
many people next to the clock tower
many people next to the clock tower
Har-ki-Pauri ghat
Har-ki-Pauri ghat
Haridwar
Haridwar
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
people watching from a rooftop
people watching from a rooftop
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
people on the ghat
people on the ghat
me in Haridwar
me in Haridwar
me in Haridwar
me in Haridwar
shot of camera
shot of camera
shot of camera
shot of camera
so many people
so many people
taking a bath
taking a bath
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
Har-ki-Pauri
delicious thali
delicious thali
Haridwar
photo by: peeyushmalhotra