What is it like to be at the biggest human festival on earth? Maybe it depends on the people you meet, maybe it depends on the purpose of your visit. One thing is the same for everyone, though: It is crowded. Like no other place on earth.
The biggest congregation on the world
Some of you might have heard it in the News, lately. In India, the Kumbh Mela was happening again. In fact, it was just the Ardh Kumbh Mela, a half Kumbh Mela. That does not mean that just half the amount of people came, but just that it is put in-between the full 12-year Kumbh-Mela period, to give more people the opportunity to take a holy bath. Maybe it has also commercial and political reasons. There will soon be elections in the state, where the Kumbh Mela was held. Such a religious mass-event could serve as great advertising for the Hindu-nationalist BJP party in India. Just guessing.
But what is going on there? It is said that in ancient times the gods and the demons had a little quarrel about a cup of water that brings immortality. While they were fighting about it, some drops spilt over the cup, and fell in different parts of the country. One big drop hit the ground at the place where the three sacred rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati meet. There is no proof of Saraswati today, but the Ganges and Yamuna meet at the Triveni Sangam close to the city of Allahabad. The Hindu-nationalist party decided to rename Allahabad to Prayagraj to eliminate a little Muslim history at the place. To make it more complicated: If you want to go there, the train station is still called “Allahabad Junction”.
Free yourself from sins
Every twelve years, Hindus meet in Allahabad for taking a holy bath. Taking a bath at a certain day, when the stars are in the right position, is meant to free them from their sins. Less sins offer the opportunity of a better existence in the life after death. Hindus believe in the rebirth cycle called Samsara. They aim for a higher form of being, eventually reaching a state beyond the everlasting cycle of death and rebirth. If that sounds strange to you, you might wonder about the mere number of people who take the pilgrimage to the festival. In 2013, about 30 million people took a bath in just one single day. This year it was probably more, but official estimations have not been published yet. In total, there will be more than 100 Million people who have taken a holy bath by the end of the two-month period.
Maybe it’s a little insane
Being lucky to be in India at the time of the Kumbh, I decided to go and take a look at what is going on there. My friends declared me insane, when I told them I just go without arranged accommodation and just a small backpack with my camera, a thermo-shirt, a sweater, sweatpants and a thin blanket (my favourite travel gadget since years, btw.). In her last blogpost Marleen stated: “The rule of thumb is generally if there is a road, there will be a bus.” I want to give you another rule of thumb: If there are people, there is a place to sleep. Indians can become very creative when it comes to places to sleep. I was totally ready to sleep under a bridge, at the train station, inside an ATM or wherever I get tired. If think it's crazy, consider the amount of people who actually do the same. Just come, and then see what you can do. Perhaps the only stupid idea was going to the festival with a cough. It turned out to become serious bronchitis, which still lasts until today. Whatever, once-in-a-lifetime-experiences demand a sacrifice.
“I want to give you another rule of thumb: If there are people, there is a place to sleep. Indians can become very creative when it comes to places to sleep.”
The tent-area is giant. Even from a helicopter, you could not see it in its totality (air pollution is another reason). Located on the sand of the dry riverbed of the Ganges, the area's size is up to 25 km². That makes it bigger than the 4 smallest countries on earth. Basically, it was a massive, repetitive scene. Small tents in huge wards and in-between areas with giant tents of some famous (and filthy-rich) Gurus. But of course, I did not see everything. I just stuck around the area, which became my short-term residence. Finding a place to stay was very easy, indeed. It took me an hour of sitting with a Baba and smoking a really bad Chillum (If you want to hear about my experiences with good chillums, check out this episode of Stranger Talks). Baba is the formal title of the Gurus -the religious teachers of Hinduism. When you enter the Kumbh, they are everywhere. Especially the Naga Babas - the naked Babas who cover their body in ashes. Their tents line up the major roads of the festival area. They are the stars of the Kumbh. I was astonished by the mere amount of naked people in ashes.
Do you get the vibes?
The chillum definitely did not cause any other physical reaction than a lot of coughing. Yet, it was a gate opener, as I got to know a few more Babas and got the opportunity to stay in a tent with one. I was happy. Just like I expected, this festival yielded a sharing-community. I was even ready to pay a few rupees, because hey, the tent saved me from the dust at least. “No. Everything is for free.” My new Baba friend introduced me to the naked Baba, who is the owner of the place, and he gave approval for me to stay in their tent.
One of my Indian friends always tells me, that being a Baba is just a business. I soon realised that he was mostly right. I had a horrible first evening (I will report about it in the upcoming Podcast. So far I can just say that it included a stoned Baba, who permanently fell asleep while walking, me having no clue about the way back; my backpack in a tent I cannot find). Quite soon, the Babas started demanding. I was not unwilling to pay some amount for the stay, but I hate it when people sneakily try to trick you and think they can play you. I kept distance from some of the Babas. Some were just stoned and nice, but my contact-person was quite annoying. Most Babas who had their tents at the popular roads, where constantly demanding money from the people. I also witnessed mis-behaving Babas, who used a language full of swearwords. I have never heard people speak like this in India before. They also made fun about physically challenged people and took newspapers from a young boy, who was selling them at the festival. They were not willing to give him any form of compensation, so I ended up giving the boy some money for the four newspapers which were stolen from him by old men in orange.
It’s getting worse
I got increasingly annoyed. The dust and smoke were burning my lungs. Even though I kept my distance from the chillum, my cough was getting worse. The massive amount of people annoyed me, mostly the Babas. Wherever you want to sit, they welcome you with their hand stretched out. I expected some conversations about everything and anything, about god, the world, India, spirituality. What I got instead was “Can you buy me a gas stove? I need one.” Without shame, two minutes after I entered the tent of the Guru of the Guru of my tent.
During daytime, I often left the venue to recover from the chaos at the a train station, which was about 10 kilometres away. Yes. I recovered at a train station, because there were less people. Don’t ask questions. It was like that. Yet, I forced myself to stay strong. The big day was still to come, and I wanted pictures. Taking photographs was hard. Everyone got their standard images of the Naga Babas, but I wanted some closer images. So I had to work during the good time, when the light is nice. The dusty environment combined with bright sunlight proved to be a challenge during the day. , These challenges contributed a lot to my increasing feelings of annoyance. On the morning of the 4th February, the big bathing day, I finally had enough. I went with one Baba to another tent, to get ready for bathing. There, the tent-owner started physically abusing one of his students, who seemingly was mentally a little left behind. It was so cruel that I decided just to stand up and say something like “This is the worst behaviour, I cannot stand you people.” And then I left. I left the Kumbh and never came back. It was a big relief.
No festival for outsiders
If the biggest festival of the world sounds fun to you: think again. If you are a Hindu and find some spiritual meaning in the practices and words of the Babas, you might find what you are searching for. Definitely not on the main roads, though. There are a lot of Babas in districts further outside, a lot of them in tents far from the main-roads. They might be different. At least I hope they are. But whoever catches your attention: They want your money. And just that.
Let me conclude with a good word. The organisation of the festival went smooth. I don’t know about a big stampede, mass panic or anything like this occurring. The police were guiding the masses of people through the city. Roads were opened just one way and the public transport (kind of) worked. As much as it can work for tens of millions of people at a time. My train was 4 hours late. That’s fine. I could capture one or two intimate moments of the festival, great. Still, I will never come back again. That’s what every foreigner said. Maybe we will meet again in six years. After all, it was an experience that you can have nowhere else in the world.