Delhi, Rishikesh, and the Kumbh

Haridwar Travel Blog

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      “All by myself, don’t want to be [in India], all by myself anymore.”  Those were the lyrics from a Celine Dion song that played through my head the night I arrived to Delhi for the second time.  Unfortunately, it was time for Sandy to return to Hawaii.  I found this difficult for two reasons:  firstly, Sandy was a ton of fun to be around, and I had a blast bopping around India with her.  Secondly, it meant I was really alone in India which can be a daunting feeling.   Well, that sentiment lasted for about a whole two hours at which point my friend Phil from Woodstock (Dharma Bums Phil) called my cell phone and invited me to a party at a place named Tibetan Kitchen.  The party was just what I needed!  Everyone there was a musician and interested in world politics.  We all played music and talked about politics throughout the night.  If anyone knows me well, they would know that this is what I consider to be an ideal situation!

            The next day I set out to Rishikesh with the hope of finding an old friend Devin whom I had lost contact with earlier.  All I know is that Devin was somewhere in the Himalayas, perhaps in a town named Uttarkashi which is about five hours north of Rishikesh.  Rishikesh is an interesting town.  On one hand, Rishikesh is cradled below these beautiful mountains at the base of the Himalayas.  Making the city more picturesque is that the blue Ganga �" by far, one of the most holy rivers in the world �" runs through the city.  On the other hand, Rishikesh is a dirty, dirty, dirty congested city.  Maybe this is not always true, but at the time there were thousands of Hindu pilgrims filtering in and out of the town daily perhaps contributing to the squalor.  Here is the scene: lots of cows, big cows, and dogs with their accompanying feces littered around the street.  On the street by my hotel there is a leper colony on one side, and a hospital with patients all gathered outside the building on the other side.  There are a ton of babas (holy men) in yellow robes walking around barefoot.  Then there are the pilgrims many of whom seem to be sick and old �" coughing, spitting, and vomiting.  The worst is when someone in front of you coughs or sneezes and you feel the spray on your face or on your lips nonetheless!  And then, (oh yes there is an ‘and then’) there is the DDT that the government sprays, and the DDT chalk that is placed on the road so that every time a vehicle or cow goes by it kicks a little carcinogen up to kill the flies.  I got to stop �" it’s making me nauseous thinking about it.

            Part of the reason there are so many pilgrims in Rishikesh (and perhaps the reason why conditions in the city were so deplorable) is due to the fact that the Purna Kumbh Mela festival is being held in Haridwar which is about a half hour away.  The Kumbh Mela, to put simply, is the mother-ship of all Hindu festivals.  There are smaller Kumbh Mela festivals which occur every few years, but the Purna Kumbh Mela occurs every 12 years.  The festival begins in January and ends with the largest bathing day on April 14th.  During these dates, people travel from all over India to bathe in the Ganga.   Now when I say people come from all over, I mean a total of 70 million people will come from all over to attend the Purna Kumbh Mela.  This year, the Kumbh will be the largest gathering of human beings on the planet ever.   With that said, what did I decide to do next? Go to the Kumbh.

            Driving to the Kumbh was like driving past a refugee camp meets the circus, but without the acrobats and giant cats (unless you consider the sadhus and feral cats).  It was a tent city, with lots of flashing lights demarcating each guru’s area.  I originally planned to go to a ghat and watch people bathe and to send a lit flower candle down the river at dusk. The driver let me off, and I quickly realized that I was the only foreigner and had no idea what the hell I was doing.  In addition, I was surrounded by half-naked men who were staring at me.  Trying to ask for directions proved to be futile and only produced answers like “you can stay at my house.”  Furthermore, all the signs were written in Hindi.  So what did I do? I saw these signs that were pointing in a certain direction, so I figured maybe that is the way I should go. 

Eventually, the signs led me to an empty giant tent. Well, there I was again, feeling lost, but all of a sudden a sadhu passed me, he turned his head and looked at me and then made a hand gesture signaling to follow.  There was something about his silence that differentiated the sadhu and the people who had approached me before.   Normally, people would incessantly probe me about who I was, where I was from, etc. only because they were trying to get something from me.  The sadhus’ silence was something that I trusted. He took me down a maze of paths and we eventually reached his guru’s section.  His guru was a dark man dressed in a loin clothe with a beehive of dreadlocks on top of his head.  The guru knew a little English and then started asking me the usual questions.  He then introduced me to a female sadhu named Chandramadras.  At the moment I met Chandramadras, it just so happened that I saw a little charm on the ground that said, “Friends” and “I love you.”  Thinking that it was hers, I handed it to her, and she was instantly smitten with me because she thought it was a gift.   

The guru and Chandramadras took me into their tent and gave me some grapes and dried fruit. Knowing that the fruit had been rinsed in Ganga water, I tried to refuse the offerings but it was to no avail.  I had to eat it because they had blessed the fruit, and by eating it, I would therefore receive their blessings.  I tried to give them some of my potato chips, but none of them would eat any.  After awhile the guru said to me, “time to sleep, you sleep.” I thought ‘are you freaking kidding me, there is no way I am going to fall asleep with some strange sadhus in a tent at the Kumbh mela.’  But I had to let go, I knew they weren’t going to hurt me.  Indeed, I laid down to nap, with my arms wrapped securely around my backpack, and dozed off while listening to the hundred of prayers that were being played from the loudspeakers throughout the camp. 

When I awoke, the guru informed me that it was time to walk to the Ganga.  I walked down to the river with a gang of sadhus, and when we arrived we all bathed in the Ganga.  I bathed my arms, legs, and face in a river where 60 million other people will do the same.  I can’t say I had a spiritual experience while bathing.  Instead, I thought that if I don’t get sick from bathing in the Ganga and eating the sadhus’ fruit, I don’t think I will ever get sick again in my life.  By doing those two things, I was probably inoculated against every disease known to man.  Back to the spiritual thing: I didn’t go to Kumbh or India as a spiritual seeker.  I wouldn’t say I am not a spiritual person - I think at certain times in my life I have been.  One of the reasons why I travel is to gain a new sense of what is true or what is real.  Maybe I didn’t feel god when I bathed that day, but I did gain a sense of another reality, one that is entirely different from the one I was accustomed to.  The reality of Rishikesh and the Kumbh Mela will most certainly shape my understanding of what is true for the rest of my life. 

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photo by: peeyushmalhotra