Where on earth can you find two million plus people trekking endlessly for three months, barefoot and wearing a long dress with veil (saree), decked with fashion jewelry from head to toe? Where can you see stray cows and cow dung all over the place, where people touch the animals’ feet and bow to them? Who would wear orange and or white robes sometimes with a turban, bindi or basma on their foreheads in white or red stripes? Only in India!
Kumbh Mela is a holy festival held in Haridwar that stretches all the way to Rishikesh. It officially begins in February and ends in mid April. It is the ‘washing” of the people to be holy. Indians come from all over the country and begin their pilgrimage walking alongside of Mother Ganga all day long, all month long, all three months long. It is estimated that there are two million of them from Haridwar to Rishikesh, perhaps more. Imagine that!
When I arrived in Rishikesh last January, the Kumbh Melans started to trickle in. It is now April and it’s been a week since I got back. Originally, I planned to come back here to pick up my clothes at Swamiji’s and head south to Kerala to study more yoga there. As I started contemplating on the thoughts of being in Kerala and I decided to stay put in Rishikesh and study more yoga here. After all, I had been moving the past two months with about 20,000 miles traveled. Rishikesh being the yoga capital of the world, why do I need to go to Kerala and subject myself to the heat and humidity? It is hot here too but I do not think it is humid. On the second thought, perhaps Kerala would have been a quieter choice.
On the second day, I wasted no time and looked for a place to study Kundalini Yoga. I found one and I “parked” myself on the cottage house across the street. The next day, teacher decided to move north to Dharamsala for the summer with no notice. That is a common practice amongst the teachers. They go south in the winter and go north in the summer. They too like the traveling yogi life. There goes my plan. That wasted about two days of my time and now I found another yoga, ayurveda and nature cure school in Ram Jhula. It is a nice 15 minutes walk from my pad. My rent is somewhat higher but I decided to stay because I know there will be no room available for rent. It is now tourist season plus all the Kumbh Melans here.
Wearing their sarees in bright and or orange colors, most of them walk barefoot, with anklets on their ankles, layers of bracelets on their arms, bindis and basma on their foreheads and bags on their heads. The bags contain their personal belongings for the next three months or so. Their fervent desire to connect with their Gods is tested with the blazing heat remains unfazed. They walk without holding the bag and it balances on their head the entire time. Some may have a plate to eat from and some changing clothes. For their daily survival, they have a small water bottle that they fill with ganga water. I can not imagine all the ashrams being able to accommodate them all. I wondered where they stay. Many pick a spot on the side road and sleep there. When they begin their day, they find a spot anywhere, squat and do their thing – really, no toilet paper in hand. They even wash their clothes on the river, lay it on a stone overnight and stuff in their bags the next day and off their merry way.
For me, the spoiled rotten westerner, I set my journey on my two backpacks that contain all imaginable health and beauty aids, toilet paper, travel alarm clock, hiking boots, laptop, camera, MP3, towel, trail mix and my yoga mat. What a crack! Or should I say, what a wimp!
As I watch the women walk through their pilgrimage, they would stop to rest and sit on their butts on the bare ground or they would stop and amuse themselves with trinkets, sequened or beaded chains, more bracelets or anklets. I have not seen any fresh fruits except some strawberries, green orange that looked like forced to ripen, some strawberries and papaya. They stop for a break and eat cucumber, peanuts, fried grains or orange popsicle. Yeah It amazes me to observe that majority of them are poor with no food on the table for the next meal. Yet they manage to dress themselves in colorful sarees, fancy jewelry from their toes, ankles, arms, ears to their nose and basma or bindi on their foreheads. They sing together or they pray. They pray to mother ganga in chorus! India is probably the most religious country. That is the most important to them, to pray to their Gods! Only in India!
Two nights ago, I walked across the bridge to drop off my USB to the guy who is recording some music for me. A two minute cross to the bridge took about twenty minutes with no relief of spotting a small space to fit my body and pass the people. There were bodies everywhere and the bridge was swinging. This sight goes on day in and day out. After crossing, I sat on the bench on the side where the police officers were sitting. About five women sat on the ground and one more heavy set stood and looked for a spot next to her friends to rest her aching feet and tired body. There was none. So I signaled her to take my spot and I got up. She was jubilant and I immediately made friends. I was actually looking for kids to give away some granola bars. I brought a lot from home and I decided I did not want to eat this food. It was like showering them with gold nuggets as I was surrounded by many. There is never enough food for everyone no matter how much I bring. But I managed to make some happy. I am certain they were happy as I saw many smiling faces. I smiled too.
Today, Laxman Jhula bridge is officially shut down from my end and traffic is only flowing one way. The other way is Ram Jhula bridge. Ram Jhula is a manageable nice quiet walk during normal season but today and tomorrow, it is not possible.
With less than three weeks into the festival, Kumbh Mela will end soon. Rishikesh will return to its normal quiet state. For now, the thick crowd of nomads have moved in at an astounding rate. The only places not invaded are the restaurants serving western and tourists’ food. My room is about 15 yards from The Little Buddha Café so I hang out there. Now, I only eat two meals a day. With yoga in the morning (and I practice on an empty stomach), I eat a big lunch, sometimes with dinner but often times I skip dinner. I drink about three liters of water a day. This is how I keep myself healthy and thin; a habit I take home for about a week then succumb to the glutiny again. What a shame. Well, not too bad really.
I have disciplined myself because time is ticking. There are 19 days left for me on this trip. I must make every day a meaningful and productive one. I am preparing outlines for workshops and studying my kundalini yoga. I am also getting an ayurveda rejuvenation treatment (not pancha karma but similar). This is something you must experience when you come to India. For now, I shy away from the streets.