Kumbh Mela (3)
Surviving Kumbh Mela
I’ve been in crowds before – concerts, protests and the local IKEA on weekends – but none of these gatherings could compare to Kumbh Mela. In fact, my first ten minutes in Kumbh City, the great fifty-square-kilometre tent city erected along the Ganges, were as intimidating a stretch of time as I can remember, engulfed as I was in the kicked-up dust and campfire smoke of tens of millions of pilgrims, all struggling to get down to the riverside. I finally got my bearings and headed toward the Ganges with them, dodging curio sellers and keeping pace with the scrum-like masses in an effort not to get trampled on. The odd thing was, once I got in step, marching with the riverbound crowd was like joining a massive queue at bath time. Everyone has assorted toiletries tucked under their arm, whether it be a simple towel, or some soap and shampoo, and everyone is eager to get cleaned up – not just ridding themselves of the grime of the day but of eighty-odd generations of sin. The confluence of the rivers is of course the most popular spot, but the crowds thicken the closer you get, so only true believers and those who’ve staked out the area earlier can reach it. I settled for a stretch of river upstream from the confluence and found no shortage of bathers. The water was afire with brilliant saris trailed by women; the riverbank dotted by the orange robes of passing sadhus; on both banks of the river tents spread as far as the eye could see; and on the fifteen pontoon bridges erected to facilitate river crossings an unceasing tide of people shuffled from bank to bank. Overwhelmed as I was at first, I soon realized why the Western media and tourists alike are drawn to the Kumbh. While the festival is one of Hinduism’s holy of holies, the actual events themselves have a carnivalesque feel. There are lots of circus-like tents, for a start, full of carved and painted likenesses of Shiva, Ganesh and the whole pantheon, where, after walking by the gods, you make a donation. Meanwhile, sadhus bearing tridents and strutting about in their lungis add a freak-show element.
Surface appearances aside, it didn’t take me long to realize that logistics for the Kumbh are astounding. Though dusty, Kumbh City’s streets are some of the cleanest I’ve seen in two months in India; somebody is picking up garbage, and the latrines at least manage to keep the waste away from the living spaces. Loudspeakers make all sorts of announcements, including the whereabouts of the inevitable lost children (at the last Kumbh, 252 children disappeared without a trace), and post offices, telephone booths and, yes, Internet cafes, allow pilgrims to contact home. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any of the rich telephoto-toting Western tourists vilified in the Indian news (branded neo-colonialists for their voyeuristic exoticizing of the event). I did, however, notice an inordinate number of hippies playing hackeysack and wowing Indian children with magic tricks, even having chillum-inspired chats with sadhus, on their way to a nearby Rainbow Gathering upriver. I talked to some of these bummed-out Rainbows, who, predictably, are gaga over India – full of half-baked theories of how much more spiritual the East is by comparison to the West. Whatever you think about this, and however great it is to get stoned off your tree at these kind of things, there’s no doubt how big a spiritual event the Kumbh Mela is. And I guess jiving with sadhus and jumping in the river side-by-side with devout Indians, many of whom have come from far-flung, often isolated parts of the country, is about as close to a shared cultural experience as you’re ever going to get.
So, determined to get into the spirit of things, I joined the loud, passing 4×4 and elephant train of an ashram that’s decided it’s as good a time as any for a dip in the Ganges. A long line of Western yoga practitioners played tambourine and trumpet, while atop the lead vehicle was a big, bearded American who looked eerily like Jerry Garcia. “Isn’t it awesome, man?” he said to me. “Yeah, it is!” I yelled up to him. The Indians stood agog at this parade of Western wannabes, and we headed down to the river.