Kumbh Mela

2 February 2013

Outside the internet café, down the road, and coming closer, I heard some drums, then it got louder. It got louder still, and somebody told me to go outside because it was so beautiful. I went out. Hundreds of and hundreds of people were playing brass and drums, all dressed in colourful marching clothes. In big trucks sitting in the back were the dreadlocked Sadhus. They all wore orange cloth and looked at me curiously.

Then there were more marching bands, more truckloads of people, then enormous speakers on trucks with one man singing into a microphone and another playing a clarinette. It was all loud.

So this is what I came for, I thought. I went through some tough times this morning to get here. I arrived at 5AM. It was still completely dark and I needed a place to stay. At first I couldn’t leave the train station because he cramps from the food poisoning were so painful that I couldn’t walk. After I knew that I wasn’t going to pass out from the pain, I started walking down the street. Two cycle rickshaw men followed me for the whole two hours or so that I spent looking for a place, constantly repeating the same five words in English they knew. Every single hotel was full and most of the time I had to wake people up off their mattress on the reception floor just to find that out. Finally I found an unspeakably filthy place that had exactly the same name as the hotel next door.

I paid anything they told me and rushed to the filthiest toilet. I don’t know why I call it a toilet because it didn’t have any water in the tank. It was more like a fly nest. This was especially curious because there were no windows and the bathroom was already behind two doors.

I fell asleep face down on the pillow because I didn’t want to look at the black and red splatters on the walls. I woke up because of the horrendous traffic fumes and noise leaking through the wooden planks of the door. So that’s how I found myself at the internet café.

A quarter of an hour later, I had been offered little snacks and had orange flowers thrown on me, and I was in one of the parade cars. One of the event organisers asked if I wanted to come along so I hopped in and felt bad for not even going back in and paying for the internet.

Going along in the car, slowly, we went around the town. The streets were bursting with people all looking up at the top of our truck where a Baba and his assistants sat, waving back down at the gazers. Sometimes they would look in the truck and open their eyes widely, then their head would be thrown back in a little in shock at the sight of a white person.

This happened even more when I started walking as a part of the parade. The guys who were taking me along explained this to me: the Kumbh Mela is such a rare event that everyone comes to Allahabad, including those from villages which they may have only left a few times in their life.

Later I met the whole team. Chandan was very proud of his team, which must have had an average age of about twenty, and he loved to show me around and greet the people. The smiles were so warm and grateful. If this gratefulness for me coming to this festival was not clear enough, they would rush to me and offer me sweets, and then some more than I took. A principal of a school called me over and made sure I was next to him, in front of all his staff and students. He shook my hand and grinned, his eyes turning up until they were almost closed.

Piyush and Shivam wanted to speak so much about the event but were were all so tired walking kilometre after kilometre that they settled to say thank you for being here and seeing this. It’s the first time an Indian every said thank you to me. In fact, thank you means so much in Hindi that they kept cutting me off and telling me not to say it.

With all the noise and tastes and fatigue I didn’t realise that we were finally out of the town and were heading towards the Sangam: the holy place where two rivers meet supposedly cleanse you of your sins and infections.

We arrived at the grounds and I had no idea where we were. It was going dark. There was a small road with lots of people either side walking both ways. Large trees lined the side of the road too and occasionally a street light with a megaphone on it. All night it plays sitar and that Indian drum music under that orange light. The streetlights go for kilometres I noticed as I looked up. There was a sea of lights but I didn’t know what they were there for.

Before I could ask, I was taken through the police guarded doors into the tent. Actually no, it was still outside the tent, and then I was taken inside to backstage. Important looking men were eyeing the performance closely. My friends interrupted them to meet me, and these men would all ask really difficult questions about what I made of this Indian culture, as if I was qualified to give an answer… and not like I was picked up off the street and was just very curious… Why?

I was taken out from the backstage and to the VIP audience seating to watch the music performances. There I saw signs about the Department of Culture, UP. So all those people I was meeting were high up people working in or with the government. This explained not only those hard questions but why the catering was some of the best Indian food I have ever eaten.

When it was completely dark, Shivam and I walked to the Sangam. We passed a city of tents, then another city. It was clean now why there were so many lights. Just for these hundreds of thousands of people. Some were sitting by a tiny fire cooking rice or pouring chai for the family all living under the same cloth and sticks. Those who weren’t in their tents would probably be in one of the overcrowded temples.

The temple Shivam prayed in was only about 9 metres square and a couple of metres underground. The constant whistling of the police and the clinking of coins into the donation box helped keep your mind off the damp sweaty air.

Now if the pilgrims were neither in their tent nor temple, then they would be by the river at the Sangam. Those lights at the other side of the river were so distant that this river seemed more like a large brown lake. But it moved so quickly too that at least where we were, they didn’t let you go more than 2m from the shore. The Indians dunked themselves in five times over. When they weren’t more than 15cm underwater, they would completely disappear under the mud and filth suspended in the water. That music was still playing over the speakers and the voice was very soft against the splashing water.

On the way back to our tent we had a peek at some other tents that were inevitably less funded. Like in the Easter show, entrances were covered in bright flashing lights, all colourful. Even the facades of the entrances were just as colourful. Inside, extravagantly costumed dancers played out the story of a certain Hindu god. Ten or two hundred people sat on hay and watched carefully in silence.

There were many tents like this and the next evening I was taken to meet Chandan’s uncle; a Baba who like others, oversaw everything about the tent and would speak there every day about the god there. We went into his small leaf hut, sat down, and waited for him there with his servants.

He came out from behind the draped cloth, wearing long orange cloth. He had a shaved head and wore no shoes. Chandan stood up and touched his uncle’s feet with his hands, then put his hands to his forehead, bowing. I stood up too, but he knew I didn’t know what to do, so he shook my hand very lightly and offered me a place on the rug on the floor. He spoke very good English and it seemed that he wasn’t actually so fond of India at all; he lives in Canada most of the time despite being a very holy man. I wondered what his followers would say about that. After ten minutes he had to go because he has meetings all the time, even at that hour (11pm), so his servants took our little plates and Chandan and I got back on the motorbike, crossed the rivers, and went back to our tent.

The last music performance on the final gave me a nice eastern farewell, reminding me that I really had no idea what was going on.

The musicians had stopped playing music, and one was talking about how he was in Canada last year.

Music plays again. A young boy translates for me when he speaks.

The boy stopped translating and starts howling with laughter, nudging my arm, gesturing for me to turn around. The man on the stage was smiling at me and I then realised he was pointing at me the whole time he was talking about his time overseas. I turned around and my eyes met thousands and thousands of others all looking right at me. Some were smiling, some were laughing. The boy tried to speak to me to explain, but was laughing too much, so I look back and forth and still see the whole tent staring at me at the front of the stage in the VIP section.

I don’t know what exactly was said, but I don know that it was not malicious as the musicians were Muslim and were preaching unity at this most holy Hindu festival. It was time to go back again, but first Piyush invited me into his home.

Accepting the offer meant meant hopping on the back of the motorbike again and riding through narrow spaces. This time, we needed to squeeze between a building and the foundations of a bridge, on top of which the train ran. Before we made it to the end of the passage we stopped. It was the entrance to Piyush’s home. I thought about how Piyush would walk through these same uneven rusted metal doors a day later. This student of biological sciences would leave for his appointment with the state minister of culture, and would make sure to step over the little hole in the doorway which was full of old black water. That is difficult, considering he may have beforehand lost his footing on the crumbling stairs that lead up to his family’s rooms of this building. We walked up and up until we were level with the train bridge about five storeys up. We took our shoes off and stepped inside his home. There were incense burning. The floor was painted a rich turquoise colour, and on it was a small hot plate with a chai pot on top. The wires were dangling bare from the wall and almost touched the family shrine to a god. ‘This my god’ Piyush said and smiled, as he saw me eyeing the elaborate decorations around the little pictures. Piyush’s father sat on the bed in the main room wearing a skirt. I could just see through the door into the other room, and noticed an aquarium, which I now know is extremely extravagant to have in the home. A little bit of chai boiled over and sparks started flying. Piyush crouched down and dexterously avoided the sparks, and poured me some chai. He was telling me about how his parents didn’t speak any English, but was interrupted by the train sounding its horn, kindly reminding me and the family that we were level with the train tracks. That deafening horn tore through the night air. ‘This is one of busiest lines in India. Very busy. From Delhi to Calcutta’ Piyush explained after it had finished.

The western farewell came after yet another treacherous ride on the back of a motorbike back to my hotel. Even at night, the traffic is bad enough for it to be quicker for a motorbike to squeeze between rickshaws. Not a problem for the bike driver, but for the passenger on the back of the bike, it became a little hairy with your knees brushing against traffic.

Chandan, Piyush and Shivam said farewell to me over sculling bad rum and water drinks (though Piyush is a strict, strict Hindu, so no drinking). There was a lot of excitement about because we were drinking a very taboo substance, and also a lot of sadness, despair and disappointment that I was leaving in the morning. I didn’t fully understand this intense despair, but I certainly didn’t, and still don’t, fully understand the time I, one of the one hundred million, spent in Allahabad for the once every twelve year Kumbh Mela.