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Kumbh-Mela: A Cultural and Spiritual Journey

  • Submitted by: Gopal Venkat
  • Submission Date: 09th Feb 2005

Ever since I realized in mid 2000 that the Kumbh-Mela was to take place in January 2001, I was determined to attend it. The Cultural, historical and religious significance of the event was too enormous to miss it. I had planned on attending the previous Kumbh-Mela (in 1989) only to realize a tad late that I was on a Project in Europe and therefore was forced to miss it.

This is an event that takes place every 12 years. One Story being that when the Asuras (demons) and Gods were wrestling with a pot of Amrit (Nectar), a few drops spilt on the ground. The 4 areas where these drops spilt are Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain (all in India) thus sanctifying these places. As this duel was spread over 12 heavenly days (the equivalent to 12 human years), it is celebrated at 12-day (12 human year) intervals.

The annual festival (Magha Mela) is celebrated each year.

The Second interpretation being that when the Sun enters Capricorn on the New Moon in the Month Magh (January), the Planet Jupiter resides in Aquarius. This occurs every 12 years and is held to be auspicious. This is celebrated all over India especially at the confluence of the rivers Ganga (Ganges), Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati at Prayag (Allahabad).

The Maha Kumbh-Mela takes place every 12 years and the current one was to be at the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, at Prayag (Allahabad). The river Saraswati is apparently an underground river. The ancient Hindu Name for this place was Prayag. The Muslim conquerors re-named it to Allahabad. (It is located in the State of Uttar Pradesh - the most Populous of the Indian States)

I was working in Sydney, Australia and made numerous telephone calls to India regarding Hotel availability and train reservations. Allahabad does not have an Airport.

Co-coordinating with some relatives in India, I was able to get the hotel accommodation in Allahabad and obtain train tickets to Allahabad. As my dad had never been to this event in his lifetime (he is 63), I decided to take him along. I was to fly to Madras (Chennai), India from Sydney, Australia and then take the train to Allahabad.

Having taken 3 weeks off for this event, I decided to spend some time visiting Varanasi (or Kashi). We were to take the train from Madras to Varanasi, spend a few days there, proceed to Allahabad, and spend 2 days there, before heading back to Madras. The Total Cost of the Train Fare (on Air-Conditioned Sleeper Class) was Rs.8000 (US$160) for the 2 of us.

This particular constellation of planets had occurred 144 years earlier and was not expected to occur for another 144 years. The Most Auspicious of all the Days (The Kumbh-Mela is approximately for 40 days) was to be on January 24, 2001. This was a new-moon day known as 'Mauni Amavasya'. As hotel reservations were extremely hard to obtain, we decided to forgo a dip in the Ganges/Yamuna/Saraswati on this day and instead settle on another auspicious day of January 29, 2001 (Makar Sankaranti).

I reached Madras, India on January 12 and spent around 10 days visiting friends and relatives.

January 22 - 24, 2001

We departed from Madras (Chennai) on January 22, 2001 aboard the Ganga-Kaveri Express. We had booked ourselves on an Air-Conditioned Sleeper Coach. We were scheduled to pass through Allahabad on January 24, 2001 around 6 AM. The satisfaction being that we would be in the city of Prayag (Allahabad) on the most auspicious of days.

On waking up the morning of January 24, we found ourselves around 40 kilometres (25 Miles) from Allahabad around 8 AM! Due to the increased number of trains and people coming into the city on this day, the railway authorities had decided to clear the stations platforms of any newly arrived train, before allowing the next train to come into the station to drop its load of Pilgrims. This process was quite SLOW and we reached Allahabad around 1:30 PM. The last 40 Kilometres (25 Miles) took around 5 hours! There were trains coming into Allahabad from 5 directions. Owing to the number of trains (most of them were special trains scheduled expressly for the Kumbh-Mela) and the number of people they had to discharge and take-in, I guess the delay was acceptable.

We got off the Train at Allahabad (the train stopped there for an hour) and chatted with a couple of people. We met a man from the State of Bihar (North East India) who had taken a bath at 1 A.M. (the auspicious time on the auspicious day!) and was waiting to board a train to take him home. After his bath, he had walked back a distance of 6 miles (10 Kilometres) to the Train Station and patiently squatted on the train platform for his train. And here I was, traveling in an Air-Conditioned Coach on the Train and planning to stay at 3 and 5-Star hotels!

We departed Allahabad around 2:30 PM. As this was the first train of the Day to run between Allahabad and Varanasi, it ran as a Passenger train (as opposed to an express train). The next station after Allahabad was Prayag. The crowds here were a sight to behold. The Conductor of the train smartly locked the doors to our Coach. The Crowd being what it is, rules do not apply here. People will board without tickets and will sit wherever they can find a place. There is not much the Conductor can do against that!

We chatted with a Christian Missionary (from the United Kingdom) who was quite amused at Foreigners (read Non-Hindus) being to taken in by this event. You can encounter many Europeans / Americans who travel here for this event. Many go to the extent of growing long hair (like the Sadhus - Monks), dressing up in traditional Indian garb and becoming Vegetarians. (Perhaps for the duration of their stay here). Some even start spouting Ahimsa (non-violence) and peace messages. Live and let live.

We finally reached Varanasi at 8:30 PM. The train was 12 hours late! The Overall Journey from Madras to Varanasi (a distance of 2143 Kilometres - 1340 miles) had taken us 53 hours! We took an Auto-rickshaw (the motorized 3-wheeled vehicle - unique to India) to Hotel Vaibhav (56 Patel Nagar, Cantonment, Varanasi. Phone: 0542-346477 / 346588 / 345055 / 345056). Though we had booked for a regular Air-conditioned room (Rs. 700 / day - US$ 14) we were given a free upgrade to a deluxe room (Rs. 1200 / Day - US$ 24) for tonight as the hotel had run out of regular rooms. This was a really nice room. We had dinner at the Hotel restaurant before turning in for the night.

January 25, 2001

We Woke up early and were ready around 9 AM. A Travel agency located within the Hotel Premises provided us with a number of options on what to see and do and arranged an Auto-Rickshaw for us. The charge was a flat rate of Rs. 150. ($3)

As we had not had our breakfast, the driver stopped at a restaurant where we had breakfast. We proceeded to Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. It was also here that the Emperor Ashoka (3rd Century B.C.) erected a Column (Obelisk) that had a 24-spoke wheel at the top with four lions standing atop it. This 24-Spoke wheel along with the 4 lions is now adopted as the emblem of Indian republic and adorns the flag and the currency.

The present day Sarnath contains numerous Buddhist Temples. Each of these temples are maintained by various countries (that have a strong Buddhist following). A Tibetan Buddhist Temple, a Japanese Buddhist Temple, A Sri Lankan Buddhist Temple and so on. The Tibetan Buddhist Temple also houses a Monastery as well as a very large statue of a Seated Buddha. The Sri Lankan Temple has one of the largest grounds in the area. The Area was milling with a lot of School Children, Pilgrims and the usual tourists.

After visiting the Temples, we visited the Archaeological Museum that contains the remains of the Ashoka Pillar (Obelisk) and numerous Statues of Buddha ranging from the 1st to the 11 Century A.D. The Authorities were charging Rs. 2 (4 Cents) as an entry fee to the Museum! And the way they were displaying and maintaining these priceless artifacts shocked me. I would certainly not mind them charging me a lot more and maintain these priceless artifacts properly.

I wish I could have spent more time here. Since the Rickshaw was hired only for a couple of hours, we decided to head back to the City after the visit to the Museum. We reached the hotel around 1:30 PM. As we did not want to pay Rs. 1200 (Approx. US$ 24) for the present room, we changed to a regular Air-conditioned room that cost us Rs. 700 (Approx. US$ 14). This room was certainly not as good as the Deluxe Air-conditioned room that we stayed in last night. As I was not earning in US$ or UK Pound Sterling (but in Paltry Aussie Dollars), I did not feel like spring the extra US$10 per night of stay. However, if you do earn in US$ or GB Pounds, go for the deluxe room!

As the Restaurant at the nearby Hotel India was quite expensive, we had Lunch at our hotel and rested until 4 PM. We walked to the Railway Station (10 Minutes away) and obtained an Auto Rickshaw for a fixed-fare of Rs.50 (US$ 1) to take us to Hanuman Ghat. Varanasi contains many Ghats on the Banks of the Ganges where people do ritual bathing. Though Auto-Rickshaws are metered, their usage is more an aberration than a custom.

The Traffic was quite Horrible. You certainly would need nerves of steel to drive in this area. No one worries about hitting / scraping nearby vehicles. They are willing to accept a couple of scratches to their vehicles as the price to get ahead in Traffic! After being dropped off by the Rickshaw, we walked to Hanuman Ghat. These Ghats are all situated on the banks of the river Ganges. Despite being an Indian, this was my first time here. It was quite a surreal feeling finally being here after seeing numerous pictures of the place.

The light fog and the boats on the river, along with the numerous Oil lamps set afloat on the river by the Pilgrims, truly enhanced the scenery.

Of all these Ghats, Harischandra Ghat is famous in a way. This is where bodies are cremated. The Hindus do not bury their dead. They cremate them. And cremating the bodies on the banks of the Ganges is considered auspicious. Though the government has built a new electric crematorium on the banks of the Ganges, some folks do not use them. Furthermore, if there are an excessive number of requests in a day, the attendants at the crematorium push the half-burned bodies into the river to make way for the next one. This is what many people (including me) find objectionable. Needless to say, the Government does not want to offend the religious sentiments of the people and turns a blind eye to the goings on here. The other Ghat where cremations are done is Manikarnika Ghat.

Anyway, after our little walk, we had an inexpensive dinner at a nearby restaurant that specialized in South Indian Food and shared an Auto-rickshaw back to the Train station. We were charged Rs.5 (10 Cents) per person! Guess as a round-trip, things evened out cost wise. We walked back to the Hotel from the Station where I wrote my diary for the day before turning in.

January 26, 2001

I woke up at 5:20 AM. Though I was planning on having a Bath in the Ganges, I chickened out and decided to have a shower in the room. The Water in the room was lukewarm. We departed the Hotel at 6 AM and boarded the same Rickshaw that we had taken a day earlier. The Driver wanted the business and we were comfortable with him. We drove to Kedar Ghat and waited to board a rowboat. We finally managed to find a rowboat and we proceeded on the river Ganges along the Ghats. The Sun was just rising. The Atmosphere was great. After 5 minutes of rowing, our 20-something boatman pulled over into one of the Ghats and a teenager took over the rowing of the boat! (That contained 6 Adults)

I noticed many people were bathing in the Ghats. I should have braved the weather and done the same. I reached down into the river, scooped some water on my palm and sprinkled the same on my head. This being the Symbolic equivalent of an Actual Dip in the Ganges!

After 10 more minutes of rowing we reached one end of the Ghats and the Boatman (rather Boat Kid) turned the boat around to take us to the other end of the Ghats. As we reached the Prayag Ghats, we observed hundreds of Pilgrims taking bath in the Ganges. Took pictures of the same. We reached Manikarnika Ghat that is famous for the cremation of the Dead (along with Harischandra Ghat).

The Boatman requested us not to take any pictures wherever the dead were being cremated. I complied. That's the least I could do to respect the dead. We returned to our initial drop-off point at Kedar Ghat around 8 AM and I tipped the boatman Rs.10 (20 Cents). The lone foreigner who was travelling on the boat did the same thinking it was the Boat Fare. As we had arranged for a package deal with our rickshaw driver who in turn would have paid the boatman our fares for the boat ride, I explained to the foreigner that we (my dad and I) were on a Package deal and that 10 Rupees was a TIP and not the fare for the ride. Being a non-English speaker, he nodded assent and mumbled something. I hate tourists who do not do their homework and thereby deprive someone of their earnings!

We proceeded to have breakfast in a nearby restaurant where the food was edible! We then continued to Benaras Hindu University (BHU) and the Birla Mandir located within the same campus. As I had studied in a University run by the Birla family, nostalgia about my college days surfaced as we entered the campus of BHU. After spending around 15 minutes at the Mandir (Temple), we drove around the campus. This is a huge campus. Compared to this my university was small!

We continued to Tulsi Mandir where we watched the Hindu epic Ramayan being reenacted in puppet shows. This was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it. We headed back to the Train Station and booked our tickets to Allahabad for the next day. We got back to the Hotel and paid the Auto Driver Rs. 300 (US$ 6 - for the 2 of us) for the entire trip. Quite a bargain, if you ask me.

After Lunch at the hotel, I wrote my diary. We walked around the cantonment area in the evening. It is quite a dump. Nothing of any interest lies here. We returned to the hotel, chatted for a while before proceeding to the restaurant for a light dinner and heading back to our room. We were to depart for Allahabad by train the next morning. Hope it is not too crowded and it arrives at Varanasi on schedule and reaches Allahabad on time!

January 27, 2001

We finished breakfast by 9 AM and departed the Hotel around 10:15 AM. On reaching the station we found out that the train was late by 2 hours! The Train finally arrived around 12:30 PM. The Compartment we were travelling was quite empty and we encountered 2 youths from the State of Bihar who also boarded the train at Varanasi and were going to Allahabad. Theirs was an interesting story:
The two young men had come to Varanasi and Allahabad carrying the ashes of their paternal grandfather who had passed away some days ago. Their objective was to dissolve these ashes in the Ganges at Varanasi and at Allahabad. This is a common custom among most Hindus. When we say dissolving the ashes, we are talking about a small urn here. No more than 3-5 Ounces. I digress. The younger of the grandsons was a University student who had shaved his head as well in lieu of his grandfather's death. This is yet another common custom among Hindus. These gentlemen were carrying their Grandfather's ashes in a small urn that they hung around their necks. Whoever was carrying this urn of ashes was not to sleep or wear any footwear while carrying the same. Whenever one of them was transferring the urn to the other person, he sprinkled the other with some water from the Ganges (which they carried in a bottle) before transferring the urn to him. In other words, one of the young men was always awake and carrying the urn during their entire trip from their hometown to Varanasi and thence to Allahabad.

I was pleased to have met them and conversed with them.
Getting insights into the beliefs and cultures of people always fascinates me.
We finally reached Allahabad around 5:45 PM. We took a rickshaw to our Hotel
that was ½ Kilometre away and cost us Rs. 5. This was the hotel ( that I had belaboured
to book 3 months in advance. We did get a nice Double room. We were paying
approximately Rs. 3000 (US$ 60) per day. This included all meals (Breakfast /
Lunch / Dinner) for the 2 of us. I approached the front desk to obtain some
information about the Kumbh Mela. These folks were downright rude. As I
observed during my entire stay at this Hotel, they would interrupt answering
your queries to answer someone else's queries and attend to their request while
leaving you unattended! As I would observer over the next few days, apart from
the Staff at the front desk, the rest of the Hotel staff were quite nice.

We had dinner around 8 PM. Dinner was buffet style and it had a decent vegetarian selection. Since we had not had any lunch, we gorged ourselves on the food. We went for a walk after dinner. This place has a lot more life than the cantonment Area (where we stayed) of Varanasi. We got back around 9:20 PM to the Hotel. We requested a wake-up call at 6 AM the next morning with the intention of taking a dip in the waters at the Sangam!

January 28, 2001

We woke up on schedule at 6 AM and had a cup of coffee before setting out. We departed the hotel at 6:45 AM and hired an Auto-Rickshaw to take us as close as possible to the Sangam. (The Tri-Veni Sangam as it is called is the Confluence of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the Mythical Saraswati). Needless to say the rickshaw driver profited from our need. He charged us Rs. 100 (US$ 2) for a distance of approximately 8 kilometres. This took us almost 25 minutes as the police had blocked Vehicular access on most routes to the Sangam. We were dropped about 1 Kilometre away from the Sangam.

We proceeded to walk to the Sangam from our drop-off point. The Crowds though huge were not bad. Guess it depends on your sense of perspective. On the Holiest of days (January 24), there were apparently 30 Million people at this Place. Guess a lot of them had departed after that. On reaching the water's edge, I took off my outer garments and out them in a plastic bag before wading into the water. I did the same with the sandals I was wearing. Even though this was around 7:20 AM, the water was quite cold. Just decided to bite my teeth and brave it. All I had on was a pair of trunks and a shirt. We decided to get as close to the Sangam as possible.

To reach the Sangam (the meeting point of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the Saraswati) we had to wade for approximately 150 metres. As the water at its deepest was no more than 3 feet, this was not difficult. We were gradually getting used to the Cold. It was more difficult for my Dad as he was 63, while I was just 36! As the flow of the two rivers (Ganges and Yamuna - especially the Ganges) varies, the Sangam is not at a fixed point. A Wooden barricade had been erected near the Sangam. This was to separate those of us who chose to wade a long way into the waters and those who chose to use the services of rowboats to reach the Sangam. As we got close to the barricade, I decided to take the first plunge in the thigh deep waters.

Handing over everything to my Dad, including my spectacles and watch (did not want to test its water resistant nature!), I squatted in the thigh deep water, faced east and immersed myself thrice as per the Hindu Tradition. My dad promptly informed me that I did not immerse myself fully as my back was not wet! Doh! I did it again. Taking the towel offered by my dad, I dried myself quickly and took over all the stuff from my dad. My Dad then proceeded to take the Symbolic 3 dips in the Sangam Waters. Since the waters here are considered holy, we proceeded to fill a small bottle with the water from the Sangam. This was primarily for my family back in Madras who were not able to make it here. They would sprinkle this water on their heads thereby taking a symbolic dip in these waters. Owing to the millions of people taking a plunge in these waters, the silt had mixed with the water, resulting in muddy coloured water. Needless to say, we will have to wait for the sediments to settle down before using them.

After completing our Dips at the Sangam, we reached a less crowded area on the banks of the river and dried ourselves thoroughly and dressed up (We had carried a fresh set of clothes with us). We decided to visit the nearby temple dedicated to the God Hanuman.

According to the Hindu Epic Ramayan, Hanuman assisted the God Rama in his quest to rescue his (Rama's) wife Sita from the Demon King Ravana. This temple was unique in that it had a reclining Hanuman. Usually Hanuman is shown in temples as kneeling at the feet of Rama. This reclining posture was therefore unusual. As in many places of worship, the crowd was trying to surge through a narrow opening to get a glimpse of the deity. Prudently my Dad decided to stay back, while I surged through the crowds and emerged victorious at the other end after having glimpsed the reclining Hanuman.

Since no transportation was available back to the city from this area, we walked approximately 2 kilometres to get a rickshaw to the city. It cost us Rs. 20 plus a Rs. 5 tip and a 35-minute ride to get back to the city. This was a pedal-operated rickshaw. Similar to a tricycle with a passenger carriage on top of the hind wheels. We got back to the hotel around 10:10 AM and decided to have breakfast before it closed at 10:30 AM! After breakfast, my Dad decided to take a nap, as he was a bit tired. I took a shower and went in search of an Internet Café! (I was having withdrawal Symptoms!) The Prices were quite reasonable (Rs.50 / hour = US$ 1). I spent around half-an-hour on the net and was charged just Rs.20. (40 Cents)

This being a Sunday, most shops were closed. I wandered aimlessly for a while before heading back to the Hotel. It was 1 PM. We headed for Lunch around 1:30 PM. This was a buffet style Lunch and also had quite a decent selection of Vegetarian food. After Lunch, I spent some time writing my Diary.

We decided to go to the Sangam area to take some pictures. We departed a little after 3 PM and took a rickshaw (pedal-operated) to the Sangam area (Rs. 20). The driver informed us that he would take us as close as possible. We were dropped (read stopped by the Police) about 2.5 kilometres from the Sangam. After walking for approximately 1 Kilometre we reached the banks of the Ganges. The army had constructed a number of pontoon bridges across the river to help the pilgrims move to the other bank of the river. These bridges (approximately 10 of them) were filled with people in both directions. It was an awesome sight. As the sun was behind me, I decided to walk a bit further to take some pictures. We finally reached the Sangam area after a 40-minute walk. I took a number of pictures of the Sangam area as well as the pontoon Bridges filled with people, before we decided to head back to the hotel.

A brief note of the faith / belief and persistence of the people who had come here:

We took a rickshaw wherever we wanted to go. Many of the pilgrims walked for many miles to reach the Sangam. We stayed in a 5-Star Hotel and experienced comfort. Many of these people simply stayed on the Banks of the Ganges for the night braving the cold weather. A question of faith triumphing over comfort?

We took a pedal-operated rickshaw back to the Hotel. After going for almost a Kilometre, he gave up, as he was unable to get through the traffic. He did not accept any money from us either! We walked a bit further up the road and took another rickshaw that cost us Rs.12 (24 cents!). As the prices were so inexpensive and as it involved a lot of manual labour, we tended to tip these folks.

As my dad was not feeling too well, we had dinner around 8 PM and got back to the room. If he is not feeling good, we may not go to the Sangam tomorrow (one of the Auspicious Days) for a Dip.

January 29, 2001

As my dad had a coughing fit the previous night, I knew we would not make it to the Sangam this morning. I Woke up around 7:15 AM and turned on the TV. The Super bowl was ON! (Live). The Baltimore Ravens were playing the New York Giants for the Championship. As the game was already into the 3rd quarter, I sat-up and watched the rest of the game. I was quite pleased with the final result (Ravens 34, Giants 7). The Support for Ravens was by default. I just love to hate all NY Sport teams.

We finished breakfast around 9:30 AM. I inquired with the folks at the front desk on whether they could provide us Lunch and extend our checkout by a couple of hours at no extra charge (We were to depart Allahabad for Madras that Night). Though they agreed to provide us Lunch at no extra charge, they refused to extend the check out time by more than 1 hour. We walked to the station and found out that the incoming Varanasi Express (from Madras to Varanasi) was delayed by 2 hours. This would be the same train that would depart Varanasi in the evening and Stop at Allahabad on its way to Madras. We also found out that all the Upper class waiting rooms were full. We were planning to check out of our Hotel and find some inexpensive place to rest for a few hours.

We took a rickshaw to the civil lines area to check up on the availability of cheaper hotels in the area that would host us for a couple of hours. The Samrat Hotel wanted Rs.1400 (US$ 28). We found a place called GND (Guru Nanak Dev) Guest House (23 M.G. Marg, Civil Lines, Allahabad) that was willing to host us for Rs.500 (US$10). Since our train was not expected to depart until 9 PM, I wanted some place where Dad could rest and recuperate from his bout of coughing.

We got back to the Hotel (Kanha Shyam), packed up our stuff and went down to the lobby a little after noon. We had lunch, checked out (of Kanha Shyam) and then walked to the GND Guesthouse (100 metres). I left dad to rest in the room and walked out. I went to an Internet kiosk and surfed the net for 30 minutes, and spent some time browsing through a bookshop before deciding to take in a movie at a nearby theatre. I saw 'Taal' a Hindi language romance musical! I enjoyed it. The songs were quite catchy. The Movie finished around 6 PM and I walked to the Guest house. Since we heard that the station was teeming with people, we decided to leave the hotel at once and took a rickshaw to the Station. The police had blocked all the access roads leading to the railway Station in their attempt to control the crowds. I informed a Police inspector that my Dad was not feeling good and managed to get by the barricades. Otherwise we would have had to walk a long way around to get to the Station.

The footbridge leading into the station was packed with people! We took a long time to reach the vicinity of our platform. And we waited. Surprisingly the train was delayed by just 30 minutes! Once the train arrived, the Boy scouts (who were on duty along with many policemen) sprung into action and kept the ticket less travelers (and the people with no reservations) at bay while those of us with reserved accommodation on the train were allowed through. We managed to wade through the massive crowd and reach our coach. By the time we departed Allahabad, the train was running an hour late.

January 30, 2001

I woke up to find out that the train was running 7 hours late. It had something to do with the train being rerouted on a loop-line. At this rate it was not expected to reach Madras (Chennai) before evening on January 31, 2001. I had purchased a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez the previous day (at the book shop). Just settled in to read the same.

January 31, 2001

The Train did manage to make up for some lost time and reached Madras (Chennai) a little after 1 PM. We got home a little after 2 PM.

In all in was a truly memorable experience (as can be evinced by the fact that I still felt like sharing my experiences nearly 8 months after the trip!). In theory, by taking a dip at the Sangam, I have washed away all my sins accumulated in my 36 years of life thus far. A word of advice: People should plan on arriving at Allahabad at least 1 or 2 days prior to any auspicious day and leave 1 day after the auspicious day. If you are, however, allergic to large crowds, even this would not help you.