A Ganges Dip ‘n Run
A mini pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela, a massive Hindu festival in India, was quick, rich, and holy
As an attendee, you have to be prepared for the intense poverty and pollution of India—times a thousand. The makeshift tents and shelters devotees set up by the river (and everywhere else around India, really), are unfathomable to a typical Westerner, even when you’re looking right at them. As a journalist in Bangkok for the past five years, I’ve traveled around India and Asia enough to see all of that as part of the paradoxical beauty of the region—and was very excited when a yoga friend and fellow native New Yorker asked me to come along on a trip that coincided with the Kumbh Mela.
But about six weeks before the event, my friend’s plans fell through. I was ready to let it go, but the universe’s Plan B kicked in when a different friend, Rob, told me he was coming to Delhi for a trade show the week before the First Royal Bath (or Maha Shivratri) of the Kumbh Mela. When I told Rob how excited I was to check it out, he wrote: “I'd kind of like to be behind glass and see it for about an hour” and “Any given day in New Delhi feels like the largest human gathering in the world.”
But he agreed come along—non-hermetically sealed—for some quick holy pilgrimage vibes on the last day of his trip.
Our driver took us to the outskirts of Haridwar, which was as far as he could go since traffic was diverted off of the main road. We were told we had to walk three-kilometers to the holy sites on the river, and we couldn’t complain about it really, since many pilgrims walk barefoot for months to get there. On the way, we passed some devotees wearing all orange, some wearing all pink, as well as some naga sadhus (Nag means “naked”; sadhu literally means “good man” in Sanskrit--essentially they are wandering holy men who have renounced society to follow a spiritual path) who wore nothing besides long dreadlocks. These devoted sadhus, who arefast-tracking to the end of their reincarnation cycles walk in trance-like states covered in sacred ash, blessing the many who kneel to touch their feet, which are considered holy.
Drumming and chanting were everywhere, as were soldiers. Though obviously necessary, since there have been awful stampedes at previous Kumbh Melas, it was a bit of a buzzkill when soldiers dispersed a crowd of musicians in an area they were trying to crowd-control—a classic India moment of extreme simultaneous paradox. After walking for three hours (the initial three-kilometer estimate was laughably wrong—also par for the course) we arrived at a sufficiently holy place to bathe in the Ganges. The moment of truth arrived: Would I actually go in?