We began our journey to the main Kumbh Mela grounds at 2am, piled three on a motorbike that would take us only a few kilometers closer before our feet became the only transportation. It was one of the main bathing days when tens of millions of pilgrims come from hundreds and thousands of miles away to dip three times at the intersection of India’s most sacred rivers with the hope of achieving moksha, for one’s soul to be released from the cycle of reincarnation and transcend beyond the physical world after death.
The roads all around the Kumbh’s mega tent-city, which will host more than 100 million pilgrim throughout the two-month long festival, begin to be cordoned off to only foot traffic the night before as rivers of people come streaming in guided by miles of wooden fences. Imagine those lines at Disney World or Six Flags that you snake around for half an hour before boarding a much anticipated roller coaster, now put that in India with muddy dirt roads and millions of people.
Entering the grounds so early, there was a peacefulness to the surroundings like a calm before the storm. The yellow flood lights peered through an ever-present mist of dust and dirt stirred up by the shuffling of the oldest man taking one of his last bathes to the mother carrying her newborn baby for the first of many lifelong rituals here in India.
Our hope was to catch the running of the Naga Babas, naked and covered in ash, surging at the head of the masses to be the first to take the holy dip as they have for hundreds of years. But, like most things in India, if you hope and plan something, it’s probably not going to happen.
We arrived at Sector Four expecting the major akharas (different sects of holy men and women) to be preparing their chariots for the procession of saints and a flurry of activity, but it was quiet. Apparently, it would not be until the following bathing day on February 10th that they would march.
Onward we walked toward the Sangam, which is the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers to witness the growing crowds and flowing of hundreds of thousands on the singular mission to be blessed in the waters.
I watched every sector of society from saints to tattooed tribal women from the North that looked more Nepalese than Indian emerge dripping wet from the water having completed the task that brought them there. My friend began to disrobe for a dip, but I stayed back – partially because I didn’t feel connected enough to appreciate the meaning of immersing myself in the water — but also because my spare pants had ripped right through the crotch area earlier and one must be modest in India (just another sign that the time wasn’t right).
From the Sangam, we walked back to the Avahan Akhara where we found ourselves sitting with a Naga Baba, tending to his fire and chasing off onlookers, who stared too long, with his fire poker. We spent sunrise (Brahma Murat) with him which is considered the most auspicious time when god is on earth.
Unlike the sightseers, we sat as he made chai in a dented tin pot over a fire tendered with the crudely chopped trunks of trees. As the milk came to a boil, he fed the pot and the fire with sugar to sweeten one of India’s more popular beverages. He again offered the fire a taste of chai before serving us in small plastic as fire is said to be the mouth of god and the great purifier.
It finally hit me that I was at the Kumbh Mela, where the masses come together to commune with god and reach a deeper connection in themselves to the divine. And as the sun rose above the rivers of people flowing toward the river, we were blessed by ash and began the long walk home to begin another day of work for the Ganga.
Namaste my friends. Til next time.