Karma had fun playing with me last week. Over the four days I spent at Kumbh Mela 2013 – what the Guinness World Records deems the largest religious gathering in the world, due in part to it’s occurrence only every 12 years – it came in positive and negative forms, but all with a sense of humor.
Just getting to the festival on February 9, the day before the most auspicious day for bathing in the entire two month festival, was a challenge. Trains were booked weeks in advance. Buses were stuffed to the ceiling. Cars lined the roadways, so many so that a three-hour trip turned into twelve for two people I met.
While overselling railway tickets and packing buses like sardine cans is an everyday Indian experience, this was said to be one of the worst times in history to travel, and the following day would prove deadly for 36 unfortunate pilgrims caught in a stampede at the main station in Allahabad (You can read more about the tragedy here.), just hours after I stepped out.
The trail of people making their way on foot to the heart of the festival – the Sangam, where three holy rivers converge (the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati) – was endless. Covering 58 square kilometers along the sandy banks of these rivers is the largest tent city I’ve ever seen – an array of organized (with addresses!) tents posted with bamboo sticks and furnished with electricity (a single light bulb hanging in each, without an off/on switch).
Back at the railway station, where it all started, I met two fellow Americans. The three of us had been rerouted to Kampur, a city about three hours from our destination, and were now posed with the challenge of getting on a train bound directly for Allahabad. When it chugged into the station, the crowd rushed it’s doors in true Indian fashion, but didn’t stop until people were hanging by one hand on a railing and one foot in the door, trying to inch their way into the car.
We found a much shorter line at 2AC (equivalent to a first class sleeper) and pleaded with the conductor to let us on. I counted my good karma points when we successfully scored a bed next to a sadhu (monk) and made ourselves comfortable.
An hour later, we were awoke by another conductor. This one was checking tickets, and the begging began again.
“The fine 2,000 rupees each people for no ticket,” he said.
“2,000 rupees! That’s a lot of money,” said Jesse, an Oregon native who had been traveling for over 15 months.
“Can we just pay for the price of a 2AC ticket?” asked Ann Marie, a hydrology researcher working in Alaska.
“No, no. You pay fine. Two thousand, two thousand, Two thousand,” he said, pointing at each of us.
The sadhu and three other Indians who heard the commotion asked the conductor, in Hindi, to just let us stay. We weren’t bothering them, they said, and the beds were empty anyway. The conductor, however, was worried about his job. Because we are foreigners, any complaint we make to the railway station would come back to him as the head of the 2AC department, and if he didn’t enforce our penalty, he could be fired. We understood of course, but the $40 he asked for could practically buy us a motorbike in India.
“How about we give you money to keep,” I said. “100 rupees each.” He didn’t understand, so I spoke his language. “Rupees. You. Pocket. 100, 100, 100.”
He laughed, and we knew his heart was telling him to let us be, but the boss in his head was saying the opposite. “No, no,” he said. “You have issue, I no job.”
“No, no,” I countered. “Only three hour train ride. No issue! We are so happy to be on this train, and to get to go to the Kumbh. We no issue. No worry!”
He laughed, said something in Hindi to our new friends, and told us he would return. We knew he wouldn’t.
Carrying only day bags with us, we entered the massive spread without a plan. We asked several ashrams and tent communities if they had space for us to sleep but were met with negative nods. Dark was approaching and we still had no tent, no hotel and no Couchsurf opportunities.
We stumbled into a private camp and asked a dread-locked, orange-robed sadhu if he had space for us to crash. He invited us to share his tent (which was really a very large, thatch hut) with him and his friends, and for three nights we were treated like family. We shared food, bedding, chai and they invited us to watch their religious festivals, including the thrice-daily puja, or prayers, the sadhu has to do.
Before sunrise on the 10th, we woke and walked to the banks of the Ganges to watch the spiritual bathing. To wash one’s body in this holy water is supposed to cleanse the soul, as well as the skin, despite the fact it’s rife with trash, feces, dead bodies (those who can’t be cremated, including sadhus, are dumped into the river after death) and animals. I put my feet in (mostly to rinse them after having broken my only pair of sandals on the first night, which left me barefoot between the randomly abandoned flip flops I was able to find), but that was as far as I was willing to go.
On day four without a shower, it was time to move on. We found our way to the bus station, not even considering trying the train again, and soon discovered that leaving via roadway could be quite another story. We parted ways and I boarded an already full, rickety bus bound for Varanasi (the holiest city in India where the pilgrims are supposed to come to temple after bathing in the Sangam) and was made to sit on the spare tire just behind the driver. The tire was doable, and certainly better than standing, but I had to share it with two others, and the three women in the seats facing me had no qualms about resting their disgusting, dry, bare feet on my legs and my tire.
I had just walked barefoot on India’s streets (have I mentioned cows and other animals roam freely and all trash is thrown on the ground?), but now these women’s feet were threatening to make me vomit. Not because they were particularly gross, I just don’t like feet. Especially when they’re touching me.
I guess my unpaid-for, top-of-the-class arrival into the city, in true karmic fashion, had to be met with a bottom-of-the-line, under-the-feet departure.
- 36 dead in stampede at Hindu festival in India (sfgate.com)
- India Ink: Faith, Loss, Luck and Tragedy at the Kumbh Mela (india.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Gallery: Millions of Hindus gather for Kumbh Mela festival – 10 February 2013 (metro.co.uk)
- Indecisive India (jessicajhill.com)
Kumbh Mela India