“India is like LSD” proclaimed Raj, our guesthouse owner, adopted Indian Daddy and source of all wisdom. “You either have a good trip or a bad trip, but either way, at least you’ve had a trip! And,” he added, waving a chubby, ring-clad hand towards my face “you girls are going to have one hell of a trip at the Kumbh Mela”.
It was difficult to imagine, as I sat munching on my cornflakes, listening to the BBC breakfast news, what event could possibly be so important that it could draw crowds from all over India to one single location. I am sure many of you will be familiar with the feeling of wanting to return to India the moment you arrive home. So when I read about the 2013 Kumbh Mela I knew I could not put off this trip any longer. For those of you who have been to India before, you will be aware of the vivacious approach most Indians have towards life. Nowhere, in my experience, was this more apparent than at the Maha Kumbh Mela. This was not only a festival for only the devoutly religious, but for friends, family and travellers too.
As we drove along the turbulent road from Varanasi to Allahabad we began to see a glowing haze in the distance. The sight that greeted our eyes, as we pressed our noses against the jeep’s dusty windows, was a world turned upside down. A universe of street lights expanding in front of us as far as the eye could see, blotting out the natural starlight with its own man made galaxy. No newspaper report or personal account could have prepared us for the sheer scale of this pop up “tented city”. You simply have to see it to believe it; and even then you don’t.
To put it into perspective, the site is divided up into sectors, each containing around a million happy campers. This is over three Glastonburys in one sector. There are 28 sectors. That’s around 84 Glastonburys all going on at once over the course of not a weekend, but an entire month. And that only includes the die-hard devotees who stay for the entire festival. There would be an additional 100 million festival goers attending for the main bathing days. A bit like the entire population of Mexico deciding that they wanted to join in the fun.
But what could possibly be so important that it could draw such a colossal number of people to one place? I struggle to imagine anything creating such frenzy in the UK as the Kumbh Mela did in India. Hindus believe that four drops of nectar fell from the ‘Kumbh’ or ‘pitcher’ carried by the gods, creating the holy rivers sacred to Hindu religion: the Ganges, the Sangam, the Yamuna, the Godawari, the Shipra and the mythical Saraswati. It is believed that at certain times of the religious calendar these rivers take on increased religious properties and have the power to cleanse anyone who washes themselves in the river’s waters of their eternal sins.
As the sun began to rise, the street lamps dimmed and the festival spirit began to take on momentum. We watched the first of the pilgrims quietly making their way to the banks of the river Ganges before quickly de-robing and even more quickly braving its chilly waters: just three dunks is all it takes to rid one of their eternal sins.
For anyone that has not been to India, in my opinion the Kumbh Mela would be an incredible introduction to this country so rich in history and culture. And for those who have been several times it will offer something new. The next Kumbh Mela will be held in Nashik on the banks of the Godavari River. It will take place between August-September 2015 – only a couple of years to go! My friends Alice, Natasha and I intend to embark upon our version of Berwick’s famous “Walk along the Ganges” and make the pilgrimage on foot. Come join us!
If you are interested in finding out more about the Kumbh Mela the BBC made an informative documentary on it recently. Whilst there are some aspects of the BBC doc that do not quite ring true for me, I like the fact that they put great effort into communication the peaceful nature of this momentous occasion and it’s significance without sensationalising it. Shortcut to Nirvana is also an excellent watch.