My Trip to Kumbh Mela

It was a dream come true to visit Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. My friends say I have springs in my feet. They say so because I could not sit still. I was bitten by the travel bug ever since my first trip (or more appropriately my first trek) to Dodital in Uttarakhand with my college friends.

It’s not that I didn’t use to travel before. As far back as I can remember, I was always traveling, thanks to my dad’s job. I used to explore jungles, hills and streams but those were more of a childish escape e, sometimes from home and later from school.

Traveling took a serious turn after the Dodital trek and every weekend our close knit group of friend would vanish from Delhi to be footloose in Himalayas…we loved Garhwal.

Dodital - Garhwal Himalaya, Uttarakhand

Morning at Dodital – My First Tryst with Traveling

But traveling has taken a toll since I have entered professional life – You see the corporate slave, held on a tight leash.

So out of blue moon, when one of my colleagues proposed that we should go to Prayag Kumbh Mela on one extended weekend, the temptation was simply irresistible.

Here’s a brief intro to Kumbh if you are not aware.

Are you kidding me that you don’t know what Kumbh Mela is?

Never mind!

Kumbh Mela in India is the largest gatherings of humanity on the planet. Kumbh Mela not only draws millions of devotees but also tourists and photographers from all around the world.

You must have seen crazy pictures – a tsunami actually – of ash smeared naked hermits/sadhu (I am not sure whether they should be called hermits or not). Locally known as naga baba (the naked monk), they are the favorite subject of photographers especially tourist and media persons from foreign country.

And no guesses for why so. What better could add to the exotic image of India in the west…a country of hungry and naked, of snake charmers and beggars?

Ha!

Again, never mind!

Kumbh Mela observed this year at Allahabad was special one. It was the Poorna Kumbh Mela which is observed only at Prayag every 12 years. See…my travel luck?

Coming back to the narrative, we boarded the train from Delhi (Prayagraj Express) to Allahabad and arrived in the holy city early in the morning.

Our first venture before heading towards the Sangam (confluence of Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati) at Prayag was to Khusro Bagh. And believe me it was godsend!

It was only when we entered this park that we realized what we would have missed had we headed straight to sector 14 (where our camp stay was arranged).

Khusro Bagh has interesting history. It was built as a pleasure garden for prince Salim (later Jahangir) and served as his refuge when he rebelled against his father Akbar.

The same garden was used as the prison when Khusro rebelled against his father Jahangir and prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan) ascended the throne. Khusrau was later blinded and killed when he tried to escape his prison on orders of his brother.

Khusro Bagh, Allahabad

Tomb of Khusrau Mirza at Khusro Bagh, Allahabad

Oops I did it again. I mean digressed 🙂

Sorry for that!

Enclosed within the Khusro Bagh lie interred 3 wronged souls: Khusro killed by his younger brother, Shah Begum who committed suicide due to rift between his son & husband and Nithar Begum which remains empty till this date.

After spending some quiet hour in the park it was time to move. Our tryst with Kumbh Mela awaited and we were raring to go.

Fortunately for us, the time we had planned our trip was not one of those auspicious days when the “entire” humanity descends for a Shahi Snan (the most auspicious dip at the sangam).

Shahi Snan days are also the days that make media headlines all around the globe. For this is the day when the sadhus belonging to various akharas and naga babas decend at the ghats of Triveni to take a dip in the Sangam. Media frenzy is of course understandable.

We arrived at our Camp at sector 14 late in the afternoon after crossing one of the barrages built over the Ganges to cross the river. During our walk to camp from Sangam, the weather made a lampoon out of our situation by playing truth or dare.

When it was truth – we took shelter in some shade – it rained. When it was dare – as we walked towards campsite – it rained cats and dogs accompanied by storm.

Somehow drenched completely by rain + ankle deep in mud, we were finally at camp. So what do we do?

Should we rest? Should we leave it for today?

Hell no!

Guys, let’s go!

The storm outside has eased but eerie sound reverberated all along produced by fusion of wind, trees and tents. We wash ourselves up, change our clothes and come out our camp, all geared up to venture but not to the other side. We’ll keep to this side of the bank for today.

It’s a good atmosphere outside. Gentle breeze is blowing across my face as I am standing on a high rise vantage point and taking in the beautiful setting.

“First I will see and then I’ll shoot” I murmur to myself. It’s a soliloquy. The setting sun over the Ganges paints an awe inspiring canvas, the colors used: yellow, red and gold.

Mesmerized I stand, transfixed by the vista. And then it’s too late. The color is fast changing to slate.

And it’s gone. I could cry my heart out but I won’t. The paining in my mind will stay with me forever.

It’s the tea time and I put a piece of rolled piece of INR 6 in my mouth.

And behold! It’s MAGIC!

The roll lights up and lo, I am smoking out of nowhere.

Just kidding 🙂

I am the only one in the group who smokes though. And there hangs the burning stick with fire at one end fool at the other. It’s 3 cupfuls already and I don’t want more. So we leave the tea stall and walk back to our camp.

Our camp has 3 accommodation types: Swiss Camp, EP Camp and Dormitory Camp, latter the cheapest and first one the dearest. Interestingly the occupant composition was Foreigners in Swiss, mixed in EP and Indians in dorms 🙂

Well It’s the storm again as we are preparing to sleep. We are fighting for spaces. Because some spaces have water dripping, it’s getting difficult to place our beds.

As it goes; its first come first serve basis. Thanks god! I have a place. Its dry and I am good to go for momentary lapse of reason.

I wake up before dawn. The sky is still a slate but I had decided last night that no matter what I am going to catch the first rays of the sun in my camera. So I wake up and unbelievably so does everyone else.

So we freshen up and walk to the banks of Ganges again. With camera in my hand and light in my mouth I am too much excited.

As we reach the vantage point, we behold velvet sky with a shade of blue. The sun is about to rise and we are camera frenzy. We have missed the blue hour but who cares. As long as I have one good shot, it will be worth it.

We take a lot of shot then head back to the tea stall. We gulp on small tea cups and then head back to our tent. After a while it’s the breakfast time. The arrangement (its buffet) is quite good and there’s a lot of variety.

After a sumptuous breakfast we head back to our tent to refresh and change. It is time for the grand finale. We are heading back to Triveni…to shoot the most prized catch we could. It’s the naga babas we are looking for.

Our plan: stay back; look for then; but don’t get looked at.

Why so?

It is because it’s expensive to shoot them. They ask for a lot of bucks. That is why I pondered earlier if it is wise to call them hermits.

Again I have my lucky moment.

You don’t believe it?

Never mind thrice 🙂

There are two Naga babas in a shack.

Not interesting I know.

There are 3 Americans with them.

Interesting now…isn’t it?

2 guys and a gal! One of the Naga baba just can’t hide his fascination with white skin. His eyes ever wander towards the gal. And the guys have all they could ask for. They are shooting the nagas like crazy. And the nagas are posing in whatever way they are asked for.

What’s for me in it?

Well I am a stone throw away and with the benefit of my 22 mm optical zoom, I too get a chance to capture the iconic image of Kumbh…A Naga Baba.

Viola. I have it at last! A picture of my own…My Kumbh Mela trip is now what we say colloquially Paisa Wasool 🙂

Prayag Kumbh Mela

A Naga Baba High on Opium – Prayag Kumbh Mela 2013

So merrily I wander after this. I don’t have a care. Why should I? I came for the treasure hunt now I have it captured in my pensive Polaroid.

It’s evening now. It’s the afternoon now we need to get back to the railway station. But the day is just reaching its zenith. We are walking towards Sangam and the sight of Akbar’s fort at the banks of the Sangam of Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati is tempting.

We arrive at the point where we were to catch auto rickshaw for the railway station. But my feet aren’t moving.

“You need to go visit Akbar Fort” the travel bug in me say.

I oblige.

I ask everyone but they are too tired. Only one of my colleague agree to accompany me.

Do I want more encouragement?

Hell no!

So we embark on our quest to explore this legendary fort of Akbar. It’s the largest he built. The ramparts by the bank of the holy rivers look resplendent.

Disappointment! Heartbreak! And what not 🙁

Even as we arrive near the fort we are told that visitors are not allowed inside because the fort has become an army base.

What the fuck!

Why does the army need to deface every good historical building that we have?

Can’t government find them any other residences?

Imagine air conditioners fitted into its walls? Yes that was the sight we were witness to.

Since we were not allowed entry into the fort we took to the boat.

It was an awesome boat ride. Ironic as it is we had an awesome view of the fort and we boarded the boat from near the ramparts of Akbar’s Fort.

Allahabad Fort

This pic of Allahabad Fort was taken during my visit to Kumbh Mela using my Blackberry

The boat took us up till Triveni (meeting point of the waters of Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati) where all boat occupants took a dip.

The dip is meant to cleanse the people from all their sins.

Know you know why I didn’t take the dip?

Yes! You’re right. I have not sinned yet 🙂 I think of myself more as a boondocks saint.

What I instead did instead was I obliged sinners with their request. I filled 5 containers with the holy waters to take back to Delhi.

Whatchhamacallit! Yes. They think that the drops of this holy water can lead them from darkness unto light.

Who cares!

Let them be happy in their garden state.

It was getting dark and we headed back to where others were waiting. After I got back I had 3 plates of golgappas. It was a long time since I had the golgappas with imli (tamarind) water. It was tantalizing. I had forgotten that taste for last 13 years I am residing in Delhi.

After that it was a desperate search for auto rickshaw or for that matter any vehicle that could take us to Allahabad Railway Station.

As the luck would have it – no! This time my travel luck didn’t work – we got a tempo which is normally used to ferry livestock.

And it was no wonder I felt like one. There were 28 people stuffed into the space where only 8 would fit. There were man, women, children, elderly and then there were us.

We held on to our breath and our nerves and for once I did thank god that I arrived at the railway station alive. On the tempo there were cries, there were gasps, there were choking and there were frenzied appeals for space…to stand and to sit.

At one point of time I felt that either the axel or the entire carrier will give in to the pot holes and breakers. But miraculously all of us survived.

The military personnel that were standing where our tempo stopped were awestruck. They kept counting and the number kept growing. They counted up to 28 and they were like…what the fuck! It’s impossible.

I believe if the Guinness people were there, the tempo would have entered the famed Guinness Book of Records or at least our indigenous Limca Book of Records.

Safe and sound, we arrived at station and boarded the train back to Delhi. These 2 nights and 3 days were one of the most unbelievable times of my life till now. It had all the ingredient to make a great book out of it.

There was love (oh the sight and piety! I wonder at human faith), there was drama (the journey from Sangam to our camp), there was thrill (the quest and finally capturing the Naga baba in camera), there was adventure (to Akbar’s fort and the boating) and there was the grand finale or the define dues ex machine (our arrival at Allahabad Railway Station in the Tempo…safe and sound).

In retrospect to witness such large gathering composed of all age groups which are bound together by religion was something that left me with deep scar…woops I mean pyaar 🙂

Visiting Prayag Kumbh Mela was truly unbelievable but an experience which really is enough in itself to indubitably believe in the phrase “incredible India”.

It’s astounding to watch old people – some as old as 90 – taking long walk to Sangam and it is a humbling experience too. Never in a gathering have I witnessed the faith holding together such gathering of humanity clinging on to an ancient legend.

Kumbh Mela is really a cultural event worth attending for once in a lifetime.

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