Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
How can I get my head around a place which will hold 100 million bathers in 45 days? Words like” chaos”, “suffocation”, “claustrophobia” and “stampede” come to mind. Even so, curiosity gets the better of Dick and I and we must see it with our own eyes. We also secretly wondered if any of the faith and spiritualism would rub off on us.
There are several bathing days that are peak experiences and since we could not stay the entire time, we had a difficult time deciding on which days would be optimal. Teesta, our travel agent, laughed when we kept asking, “But will there be people there?” Her response? “This is India – where are there not people?”
We decide to go at the beginning because I was very curious to see the “expansion” or I should say “explosion”. I also just could not understand how an event of this magnitude could be planned. People eat, sleep, poop and walk… 100 million of them!
We arrive at night. The scene is surreal – dusty, beige monochromatic dotted with electric lights lining the roads – all ‘temporarily’ constructed on the silty banks of the rivers (the Ganges being the dominant one). Monsoon season floods immense sections of land leaving behind in the dry season a perfect flat plain on which to build the Kumbh. Well, not so perfect as I notice tens of thousands of 3×6 foot iron plates bolted together in parallel lines making all the roads in this massive complex. Without them, no type of transport can deliver the building materials, food, fencing, etc. Next, water. Yes, I know there are rivers but still the water must be piped into the interior. I wonder about sewage but after visiting a makeshift toilet shed – basically a shallow hole with two bricks to step on, I decided not to go down this path of thinking about 100 million pilgrims pooping and peeing. I am just grateful for my tent camp with my own makeshift ‘flushing’ toilet.
We walk watching the hundreds of guru complexes being built with fanciful gates of paper mâché horses, Hindu gods, draped with colorful satin and lit up with Christmas lights (I name the main drag the Las Vegas ‘strip’).
But the image that still remains with me is not the lights or pageantry. It is the huge billowing cloud of smoke set against the black horizon. Well, not actually black. The evening air is actually like pea soup, with tiny, fine dust particles reflected against the jarring fluorescent streetlights. Add to this soup, a toxic insecticide being sprayed from a tanker truck coming our way and knowing there is no escape. Just like there is no escape when they heavily spray throughout the cabin on every flight to a new country. Dick says for all we know it is DDT. Even before this night, I have wondered why my lungs have not rebelled into a coughing asthma attack. But, once again all I can do as a traveler is smile and “do as the Romans do”. But with one precaution, I discreetly pull my scarf over my face.
I could go on and on about the processions where holy men are paraded in silver palanquins giving candies and blessings to throngs of followers or watching 1000’s of poor pilgrims being fed free and given medical care at the more prominent guru complexes, the hundreds of locals who smile and ask “From which country you come from? Oh, America!”
I could talk about the notion after witnessing so many poor that I am now convinced I don’t need much in this world… A piece of tarp for a home, some rice and dahl and a sense of family and community. That’s about it.
But no expectation prepared me for the bathing day.
Waking up at 1 AM, we put on layers against the cold knowing by midday it would be sweltering, downed a cup of tea and a biscuit and set off on our own pilgrimage, walking 4 km to the Kumbh (no cars allowed this day foe safety and security).
First stop, the Nagas – the naked ash covered holy men who never cut their hair and are stoned with hashish most of their lives. (How else could they stay “holy” and withstand the cold?). There are many types of Nagas – one has stood on one leg for over 10 years and another has held an arm up until it is atrophied and ‘stuck’ in place. My personal highlight was giving my Love Cards out to any holy man I saw and seeing it accepted with a sincere smile.
There are thousands of them. As Dick said, “I have never seen so many penises in one day in my whole life!” I could not have said it better.
We are taken to an important ceremony that looks a lot like Iwo Jima – that is, if the soldiers had taken off their clothes and rubbed ash all over their bodies. The Nagas ceremoniously raise a flag pole (with the help of a modern machine called a crane!) and thus begins their own procession, decked in marigold garlands and Christmas tree tinsel, a bit frenzied and very happy to run to the river behind their naked leaders riding bareback own white horses.
As we approach the river, we find a little corral where all the foreign press are staged. They are squeezing together like sardines to get that ever so famous shot of the Nagas taking the first plunge in National Geographic! Our own young guide sheepishly asks me I’d I would watch his clothes so he could participate in his first Kumbh. Quite poignant! Wave after wave of naked Nagas go by, running, jumping for joy – eager to get in and just as eager to get out of the freezing water. One amazing sight was watching them warm up by doing yoga, head stands, calisthenics and contortions of all types.
The fence would prove very useful, as police would warn us of a particular violent Naga group carrying sticks to beat anyone who comes near them.
I was impressed by how incredibly well organized the police were and how compassionate they were in working with enormous crowds of believers only using very shrill whistles to effectively control the crowds. Also, the holy men are segregated from the common pilgrims who were right on the other side of the fence… millions of them.
There is one unforgettable event on this day for Dick and me. By 10AM, we had been standing for 9 hours with nothing to eat. Dick announces he needs a brief power nap and convinces me that there is an open plot of land to do just that. We go there only to realize it was an open air public toilet where Indians have this uncanny way of privately but publicly just squatting and peeing. Nothing deters Dick so we find a “dry” section and plop ourselves down. Our guide, who had been told to stay with us every minute, thought we were crazy and went off to find a hunk of cement to sit on in a more civilized way then his wards. Dick closes his eyes, head in my lap as I am writing in my journal when I scream, “Wake up, NOW, RUN!” Approaching out of nowhere in a cloud of dust are hundreds of naked stoned Nagas stampeding our way to get to the water! So much for Dick’s nap!
Finally, we are watched out. Our souls are tired witnessing the spiritual journeys of others. At the end of it all – a spectacle the likes of which I will never see again – brings me to one more final question. Why did human beings evolve needing such rituals and beliefs? But BELIEVERS we are! Well, at least, most of us, anyway!