Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India 13- 15/2/13
First, the Maha Kumbh Mela. From the beginning, I knew it was going to be a long day, but to see an event that only occurs every 144 years, it had to be worth it. Generations of Hindus come and go without the opportunity to see this, so it had to be done.
The Kumbh Mela is a mass gathering of Hindu pilgrims at a river to bathe which occurs every 3 years, and rotates between four holy sites – Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The dates are decided in accordance to the location of Jupiter and the sun. There are half Kumbh Melas every 6 years, The Purna Kumbh Mela which happens every 12 years, and a Maha Kumbh Mela every 144 years (cheers Wikipedia). In reality I am unsure how much difference there actually is between the events apart from the numbers of people that turn up, but hey, once every 144 years, I was there, thats all you need to know.
It was a 4 am start for me as I had to walk half an hour to where the jeep would pick us up. This walk was surprisingly ok – I walked along the ghats of the Ganges and was surprised at the amount of activity going on. Chai stalls were open, people were milling around chatting, getting ready for their early morning dip in the Ganges – there was so much going on. They say New York is the city that never sleeps, well try Varanasi. I must add Varanasi is even more busier that normal at the moment because of the celebrations in Allahabad 100km away. I say even busier than normal, its crazier than normal. All the hotels are fully booked, the roads are closed off and the streets throng with people, cows, buffalo, dogs and goats. Today we walked past a queue of people lining up for The Golden Temple that would put Brits to shame. We walked for 10/ 15 minutes and the queue was still it was going. It was mostly made up of old people, all stood out in the baking sun. You realise how much faith means to people when you see things like this.
Anyway, Kumbh Mela. After a cramped and bumpy (standard for India) 6 hour journey, we arrived… One and a half hours walk away from the Kumbh Mela. Through the dust and the beating sun, we walked with the millions of pilgrims to the river. I cannot overstate how many people there was on this walk. As far as the eye could see in either direction, people were walking to and from the river. It was relentless. As a group of 8 westerners, we stood out like a sore thumb in the crowd of Indian pilgrims. We attracted the usual level of attention, if not more. Mostly good natured, often friendly and always inquisitive, there is never any malice in this attention from strangers, but by the end of the day I had just about had enough of the usual questions, the handshakes, the stares and the pictures. It was quite relentless and in the end, it became exhausting. Nothing personal, India.
It was a long day, but worth every second. The thousands/ millions of people bathing was an unbelievable sight. As far as there the eye could see in every direction there was just PEOPLE. 30 + million were already at the camp, and were joined by a few million more on this important day. Thats half the population of the UK in one place, for one purpose. I find it difficult to comprehend such a number of people. When stood on the hill, walking down to the river, all that could be seen was a mega- city of tents. It was mind boggling.
I have taken a couple of boat rides in Varanasi in the morning during sunrise, which have been pretty special. Watching the hundreds if not thousands of pilgrims carrying out ‘puja’ (worshipping – in this case by bathing in the Ganges) in the early morning light is pretty special. On the last boat ride, my and my friend Linda got to row (or drive?) the boat, and as I suspected, it was much harder than I imagined, but a lot of fun!
The sitar lessons have been going well – I have made some good progress through my lessons and lots of practice. It was a great decision to come back and learn – by the time I leave, I feel I’ll be
good enough to teach myself until I can find tuition wherever I might end up. It has also made me want to take guitar lessons when I get the chance as I realised some time ago I had hit a wall in terms of getting better, and having sitar lessons made realise how much more I can learn with some professional help.
The other day we took a trip to Sarnath, and its quietness was a welcome respite from the chaos of Varanasi. I met a Tibetan monk there who I have now met three times – once in Amritsar, once in Pathankot (some god- forsaken dive in between Amritsar and Dharamsala) and now Sarnath. What a small world. Meeting the same monk three times has got to bring some good luck…
I was going to write about how nice it has been to not have to wear a thousand layers due to the cold weather, and how nice the weather in Varanasi has been. But this afternoon it began to rain, which has turned the filthy streets muddy and slippery, and tonight there is a thunderstorm. This has of course, meant the electricity has been more intermittent than usual. So screw you Varanasi, your weather aint all you made it out to be.
Walking through the streets of Varanasi at night when the power is out is a pretty interesting experience. It always conjures up images of Victiorian- era London – the candlelight of the shops and stalls flickering over the keepers’ faces as they smile their toothy grins at you, the occasional electric lamp illuminating the corners, the narrow cobbled alleys, the free- roaming animals, the hobbling figures lurching out of the darkness. It is a little scary at first (a torch is your best friend after dark here) but theres not much to be afraid of – there seems to be more soldiers (who are, most of the time, as placid as you’ll find in India) than anybody else, and everybody else keeps their business to themselves. The most dangerous things after dark when the power is out are the black cows, which are virtually invisible, until they’re swinging their horns in your direction whilst looking around!
I have met so many great people on my trip so far, and today I said goodbye to someone I have known a week but felt like I had known them a year. It is quite incredible how well you get to know somebody and how close you can become over such a short space of time, but when you share an interest in the same things, travelling destinations, books, music and outlook on life then I guess it doesn’t matter how long you have known somebody. And thats the amazing thing about travelling – its not just about the places you see, the things you experience and the memories you make – its the amazing people you meet along the way who remind you how good humans can really be.