A city of canvas appears, made up of tents which stretch as far as the eye can see. Music blasts out from every angle. People smoke, and then smoke some more. Temporary toilets provide a challenge at every attempt.
I love Glastonbury.
But no, this is not Somerset. This is Kumbh Mela, one of the biggest religious festivals in the world. And the toilets are worse.
SOUTH ASIA BLOGS
Back in 2007, aged 25, I was in a sort of cul-de-sac. I'd graduated from university with a top degree, but I didn't want to commit to the wrong career. So I went to India to 'find myself' instead.
As I travelled I uploaded a series of random blogs to my new MySpace page (remember that?) From the mystical Kumbh Mela festival to Delhi's Toilet Museum, these include a mixture of humour and insight, fact and emotion. I'd like to think there's something for everyone here. I hope you find something you enjoy...
Kumbh Mela pays tribute to events which happened thousands of years ago, when gods and demons agreed to work together to capture the nectar of immortality. But when the Kumbh (urn) containing that bounty appeared, the demons snatched it and ran.
The gods gave chase.
For twelve days and twelve nights, the gods and demons fought in the sky. Mighty blows were met with powerful retorts. Sweat mingled with tears. Eventually, Vishnu triumphed.
But in the process, four drops of the immortal nectar fell to the earth. And so, to commemorate, Hindus celebrate the ‘Kumbh Mela’ every three years, taking it in turns to visit one of the four spots where those drops landed.
I arrive in Allahabad after a long journey, and head for the tented city, hoping that I might find somewhere to sleep. Every hotel has been fully booked for months, and I’m alone in this vast desert of sand that stretches between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Tents, made of rice bags which have been torn open and sown together, surround me in a sea of brown.
I ask for directions at one junction, only to end up at another junction. The process repeats itself, until I finally get into a rickshaw.
“Please take me to somewhere I can stay?” I ask.
The rickshaw wallah looks at me with a blank expression.
“Sleeping,” I add. I gesture, tilting my head and pressing my hands together to make a pillow.
The rickshaw driver starts peddling, but I cannot be sure that he has understood. Then, after a few swerves and a few dashes, we are stopped by an Indian couple and a Canadian.
“There’s nowhere to stay around here,” Prayagdas (the Canadian) tells me.
I look back at this alien figure, whose Indian clothes juxtapose with his Western features.
“How are you staying here then?” I ask.
It’s a petulant question. Prayagdas has obviously acclimatised. He’s earned his place at this festival. Not only does he dress like every other pilgrim here, he speaks Hindi and seems to know the locals too. But my question is genuine. I need to find a way in.
Prayagdas is not impressed but Rani takes the lead.
“You can come to our camp,” she says. “But only for one night!”
I sit, barefoot, beneath a canvas roof which undulates in the breeze. With a peeler in one hand, and a potato in the other, I keep my head down and talk when I’m spoken too.
So when, later that evening, I get permission to stay from the Guru in charge of our camp, I feel it is because of my contribution to dinner. A large bowl of peeled potatoes attest to that.
But Rani has other ideas.
“It’s a sign from God,” she says. “God sent you to us!”
Normally I’d just nod and pretend to agree. But I must admit that there is a small part of me that agrees. I had never planned to visit the Kumbh Mela. I only headed north because I heard that my cousin was in Delhi, and I decided to stop off at this crazy festival on the way. It was as if circumstances had conspired to bring me here.
A million people lurk behind a temporary canvas wall; so near and yet so far. For in here, all eyes are on the Guru, as he inhales deeply from his pipe and then passes the charras along.
Next to the Guru, the overall daddy of this holy operation, are the Saddhus; with their dreadlocks wrapped around their heads, their waists wrapped up in white shawls, and every inch of their skin decorated in an even layer of white ash. These bearded mystics are allowed to spend more time with the Guru than anyone else. But even they are not averse from the Guru’s commands. If they stay too long they are sent away to perform their duties, which include serving up vegetarian food on giant banana leaves.
As for me, I’m not sure what my duties are. I’m not sure of anything at all: The places where you can wear shoes. The three times a day you’re supposed to shower. The direction your feet are supposed to point. (Never at the Guru). The way you’re supposed to drink. (Without your lips touching your cup). Everyday actions have become a minefield.
And so this is how I spend the night: Preparing the food, eating, getting high and drinking tea, whether I like it or not:
“Would you like some tea?”
“Okay, here’s your tea.”
“Would you like some more tea?”
“Okay, here’s your tea.”
I retire to my tent; a large, open affair which hosts about fifteen men. When each of those men have told me to go to sleep, I eventually do as I’m told. It makes me feel eight years old. It makes me feel ageless.
Thousands of pilgrims watch on from either side of the road as we parade from our compound to the Ganges. I can feel their eyes staring at me. We are the entertainment!
Our Guru is surrounded by his Saddhus, sat on a mini temple. The elephant which would have once pulled it has been replaced by a tractor. Sacred tradition replaced by motorized efficiency.
Music plays. Drummers drum. Trumpets toot. Dancers dance with staffs and swords. The crowd observe me. I observe the crowd. We all clap. It’s surreal.
The Ganges reveals itself – jumping out of the crowd. Our Guru and Saddhus jump in. We jump in after them.
The Saddhus leave the water, and cover their skin with ash once again.
I bow down and a saint places his hand on my head. But this is no ordinary saint. This is a man who once spent twenty years of his life standing up. Not squatting, not sitting, not laying. Not even once. Only standing, for a whole twenty years!
“Array-oom”, hands held together, on my knees the Guru blesses me.
By the time I leave, the next day, morning fog has replaced the evening smoke. Meditative sounds have replaced the night’s drumming. Sounds and smell wash over the landscape like a true music festival. Everything is calm. Everything is still