Everyone tells us you must go to Haridwar to see Kumbh Mela. It only happens there every twelve years; by 2022 we’ll be too old to travel. We’re conflicted – should we take the easy route and go straight to Dehra Dhun? But no, we decide to take an overcrowded bus down to Haridwar first. We have no hotel reservation. The bus drops us outside of town on the other side of the river, but once again my trusty guide gets us across the bridge and through the crowded streets to the Inder Kuter Guesthouse quite close to the river, where we get a shoebox of a room with a surprisingly soft bed.
The town is not what we expected – much larger, dirtier and noisier, exacerbated by Kumbh Mela. It seems a total circus. On the edge of town is a sea of dusty tents where the different sadhus discourse, peddling their spiritual wares. The sight of sadhus and rishis has become quite commonplace after being in Varanasi and Rishikesh, but the sheer volume in Haridwar is impressive – also their bizarreness. Some are clothed in the usual yellow robes, others are naked, except for a loincloth. Nakedness symbolizes giving up everything that is wordly. Some wear turbans, some have shaven heads, other have matted dreadlocks, their faces and bodies grey with the ashes they’ve smeared over themselves as a reminder that death is not far away. If we were searching for a guru we might find it all more attractive – but we’re not.
Elaborate houses are built right on the river bank; some are private homes others are ashrams. Further up the river the ghats widens on both sides, where bathers are protected from the fast flowing current by iron railings and chains. We are not there on one of the auspicious bathing days when hordes of naked sadhus parade through the streets to bathe en mass – but there’s still plenty of people in the water. I dip my dusty sore feet into the Ganges briefly, and the ice cold water feels wonderfully refreshing
In the evening we walk through the busy bazaar swept up in a sea of people to to watch the nightly Arti ceremony the spot beside the river. Thousands have already gathered. Unlike Rishikesh, there are so many Indians, the few Westerners present are obscured. Among the Indians, a fine line exists between tourists and pilgrims. They may not be pilgrims in the truest sense, but no one is here for a vacation; they’ve come to take a spiritual bath in the Ganges and experience Kumbh Mela.
A man with a baton orders us to remove our shoes and fight through a disorderly queue to leave them at a kiosk. I seriously doubt if we will ever see the shoes again even though we’re given a token. If people fail to remove their shoes, the man brandishes his baton threateningly at their legs, while simultaneously praying. Other official looking men walk among the crowds of seated people calling for donations, and writing pink slips as receipts. They seem a bit like wandering bookies at the horse races. As the sun drops, the singing begins and the monks appear from the waterside temple lighting the sacred fires and waving torches. Immediately the crowd stands up and the limited view we have is obscured. After stretching and straining for a while we give up, retrieve our shoes and move away to higher ground up some steps and behind a wall. Immediately some kindly Indians move aside and give us their view. Once again, I’m touched by the spontaneous friendly generosity of Indians toward total strangers.
For me, Kumbh Mela becomes a spiritual version of Comdex in Las Vegas – evening Arti/water performance at the Bellagio… spiritual discourses/hi-tech panel discussions…attendees seeking spiritual advancement/venture capital…big crowds, big headache in common…
Early the next morning we return to the river and watch a huge throng of naked sadhus bathing together in a cordoned off area, guarded by police. We’ve had enough. There may be more to see but we decide to get out of town. At the bus stand we find out there is a bus strike and we must trek off to the railway station and find a train to Dehra Dhun