3/12/2010 | India , Uttarakhand

Kumbh Mela Part I: Arriving in Haridwar

From Nasik I would continue my festival hopping heading North via Delhi to the mother of all Indian festivals, the Kumbh Mela, which was taking place in Haridwar.  Billed as the worlds largest religious gathering the Kumbh Mela is a bathing festival that rotates between 4 sites, Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik, and Ujain.  The four cities where Hindus believe that the four drops from the pitcher containing the nectar of immortality fell as Vishnu fled with it.  In each city the festival occurs every 12 years, the exact dates of which are determined by auspicious astrological alignments.  The cycle is staggered in such a way that there is a Kumbh Mela approximately every 3 years at one of the sites.   While the festival lasts months and on any given day there are thousands to tens of thousands of pilgrims, on specifically designated days which are deemed the most auspicious the crowds swell to millions.  I had timed my visit to coincide with the second most important day of the festival called the Second Royal Bath (Somvati Amavasya – Dvitya Shahi Snan), one of three days during the festival when all schools of the Naga Sadhus join in a grand procession to the ghats and bath at the most auspicious hour in the most auspicious place.

I arrived in Haridwar 3 days before the big day.  I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, I had left most of my things back in Delhi so that I would have minimal gear to haul and to worry about losing among the masses.  My first task was to find a place to sleep.  Procuring a room for the first two nights would have been fairly straight forward but nearly every whole in the wall dive of a place was booked for the night before and after the “big day.”  In retrospect I should have tried harder to find a place in the camps around the river but my brief excursion yielded little results.  It was difficult to find anyone in charge amongst the sprawling tents.  I was directed toward encampment of “Pilot Baba,” a sadhu who apparently has a large foreign following.  Being a foreigner those I asked about accommodation directed me towards his camp, assuming that’s what I must be looking for, while actually I was just looking for any old place to bed down for the night.  Pilot Baba’s camp was indeed a popular one especially with Russians, so popular that I was told there were no places available.  This was actually fine with me, since I found the place to have kind of a creepy cult vibe to it, and was not to keen on spending my time with “true believer” foreign Hindu converts.  I walked back to the other side of the river and eventually found a small hotel with no English sign that would give me a room for 300 rupees and would let me stay in the staff room on the two nights that the hotel was fully booked.

With my lodging now secure I set out to explore the festive atmosphere of the Kumbhh Mela.  It turned out I was in luck some rich Punjabi had paid a huge some of money for a large procession taking place that very afternoon.  It was an endless stream of Sadhus on camel back, elephant back, horse back, vehicle back, and on foot.  Sprinkled amongst the Sadhus were entertainers, bands, dancers, and devotees.  Above the grand procession the wealthy patrons had hired helicopters to drop rose petals from the air along the processional route as it inched its way through the streets of Haridwar.  My camera shutter was smoking as I tried to cover the colorful event.  It was sufficiently impressed with my first day at the Kumbhh Mela, and looking forward to the days to come.

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