The Kumbh Mela At Lakshmi Kutir Camp
Following on from Jeremy Ramsey’s blog Sunbeds and Sadhus, Elizabeth Weller tells us about the Kumbh Mela and in particular about her stay at the Lakshmi Kutir camp, a luxury temporary camp set up especially for the festival and built in a month.
After visiting India on so many occasions, I thought it would be interesting to visit the Kumbh Mela, a spiritual event of epic proportions. With 20 million pilgrims and sadhus at the Kumbh and some days up to 32 million people, I thought the traffic would be worse than that of London.
Not at all, I was whisked through the Mela in Cox & Kings’ shiny white Toyota Innova, with its special pass, to arrive at the Lakshmi Kutir Camp, comprising 30 tents. I was greeted by beautifully attired staff in the reception tent, with its wall linings of wonderfully tasteful Indian fabric.
A gift was given of a nada-chadi, an orange bracelet given during puja (a religious ritual performed by Hindus as an offering to various deities or special guests). Escorted to my tent through the manicured gardens of pansies, nasturtium and designer lettuce, the butler then explained the finer points of the tent, its bedroom, bathroom, and shower and light fixtures. The power sometimes failed, but the camp’s generator would immediately take over.
Then to lunch in the welcoming dining tent, which served exquisite satvik vegetarian cuisine. On walking into the tent, I was greeted by Ravi Thakur the charming food & beverage manager and Prem Devassy, the general manager; the traditional home recipes were also explained to me. Particularly memorable was the paneer (India’s farmer’s cheese) palak (spinach). I was then invited to visit the kitchen, which was an exceptionally cheerful place and the notice board had many emails outlining previous guests’ comments in respect of the outstanding cuisine.
The kitchen was always a hive of activity. Daily organic fresh fruit and vegetables being delivered, the baker in the corner baking delicious breads, one chopping onions and carrots, another chopping fruit, a chef stirring the vegetables and Ravi in the corner folding the napkins. Everyone multi-tasks here. What’s more, carrots are red in this part of the world, not orange!
After a delicious lunch, I took a short walk to the camp’s viewing terrace, overlooking the banks of the Sangam and the Kumbh Mela. The Sangam is where the three rivers meet – the mighty Ganges, Yamuna and the Saraswati. More than 100 steps below, 20 million people were living in an organised community of tents. The chanting of the sadhus was very soothing, despite going on all day and night.
Supper in the tent was very social. Guests relayed their experiences of the day and discussed the various dishes. Bread is made fresh for every meal – the pastry chef also produced delicious strudel filled with papaya, banana and cashew nuts. His papaya crumble was particularly memorable.
Upon returning to my tent, with the sound of the chanting sadhus a mile away and the sensitively lit paths, I wondered how I would sleep in a tent, having not camped since my days as a Girl Guide. Mantoo, the charming butler, had placed two hot water bottles in my very comfortable bed – with its crisp linen sheets and warm blankets.
After a restful sleep, I was up early to enjoy a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and a small croissant. Italian guests invited me to join their table, who were in raptures about the cuisine – the best food in India (it was their sixth visit to India) and the focaccia better here than in Italy. Not to forget the delicious coffee, produced in India. The local white rice, too, was always so tasty.
I awaited in anticipation for the trip to the Sangam in the early afternoon. The 103 steps down to the Kumbh Mela would probably have been a bit difficult, so instead I was driven down to the Mela and took a long interesting walk to the Sangam. Here, sadhus were covering themselves in ash, smoking chillem and talking to their pilgrims. The sadhus’ tents were decorated in bright colours, many with flashing lights.
I then joined a boat trip where a guide explained the spiritual side of the Kumbh. We bought diyas (clay oil lamps) to place in the rivers and prayed. The hardy other guests bathed in the Sangam to cleanse away their sins. The sunset in the late afternoon was extraordinary, with a full moon in view, and you can see the colour of the Ganges is totally different to the colour of the Yamuna. It’s a truly spiritual experience.
Walking back to the top of the Kumbh Mela to be driven up the hill to Lakshmi Kutir was like something else. All the tent dwellers were very happy, despite living in primitive conditions, in many cases.
I returned to my tent for a shower as the temperature slightly cooled as the sun went down, then on to the dining tent for dinner, where the guests were once again in raptures about the food and their interesting day. American, French, Indian, Italian, Swiss and British guests all in fine spirits.
After two and a half days, it was time to leave. I visited the kitchen to say a big thank you and then the Cox & Kings driver, in his white uniform, was ready to take me to Varanasi. A remembrance of my stay – a brass pot, sealed and filled with the water from the sacred Ganges – now sits on my mantelpiece.