Sunbeds and Sadhus Kumbh Mela
Jeremy Ramsey, a self-confessed “India junkie”, recently visited India and was witness to the incredible spectacle that is the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahbad.
As the grey clouds roll in and the snow starts to fall, the idea of winter sun seems to be very appealing. Despite considerable tourist development over recent years, Goa remains a relaxed and welcoming destination where ‘chill’ in January involves bright sunshine, warm sea, fresh fish and a Kingfisher beer. However, with the growth of low-cost domestic airlines in India, it is now easier than ever to include a little culture and spectacle with your tan. As a self-confessed ‘India junkie’ on my 10th trip, I had previously visited many parts of the country and seen a variety of festivals and events including Durga Puja in Kolkata and the Pushkar Camel Fair. A couple of fairly short flights and an exhilarating five-hour drive (any drive on an Indian road is exhilarating) took me from the Indian Ocean to the heart of Allahabad and the 2013 Kumbh Mela. Held every 12 years at the confluence of the holy Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers, it is the largest religious gathering on Earth with an estimated 100 million Hindu pilgrims expected to attend over the 55 days of this year’s festival.
An object lesson in planning and organisation, the festival site is a temporary city covering more than 20 sq km of bare floodplain and provides electricity, fresh water, sanitation and tented accommodation for the holy sadhus (and at least one female sadhvi) and pilgrims from throughout India and across the world. In case visions of Glastonbury mud spring to mind, I should point out that Cox & Kings travellers were provided with a superb 5-star tented camp with an unrivalled view from a hilltop overlooking the main festival site and bathing areas. It’s impossible to take in the scale of such an event – wandering around for more than 12 hours over the course of two days, I probably covered less than 5% of the site – so one is left with a wealth of individual memories.
The diversity among the holy men ranged from orange-robed gurus addressing the faithful through booming PA systems in huge, elaborately-coloured bamboo and canvas auditoriums to naked and ash-covered sadhus sat cross-legged by a small hearth. Inevitably, one is drawn to those who take faith to extremes – the wizened old man who has held up his right arm for more than 40 years or the eye-watering displays of strength and dexterity involving male genitalia! It is hard not to be impressed by the joy and enthusiasm of a column of hundreds of probationary Naga Sadhus, freshly shorn of their beards and dreadlocks, as they march down to a mass bathe in the Ganges.
Above all, I was left with a lasting impression of the deep belief, commitment and quiet dignity of the individual pilgrims; many of whom had spent days travelling from the depths of rural India for a perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity to celebrate their faith. A truly amazing travel experience.