2nd Post: The Hindu Pilgrims of the Kumbh Mela

The crowds gathered before light for a chance to take a bath and supposedly wash away their sins.

The Indian government’s efforts to control what was supposed to be a million dippers today turned out to be unneeded. This Kumbh Mela was different from 12 years ago as luxury camps were set up and tour busses dropped off the wealthier folk right next to the Ganga River for their holy dip. Stockades were contructed to   slow down crowd movement – sort of like the way they do at airport check-in counters, weaving back and forth. I found myself in such a security stockade now as we worked our way to a place where we could see the special dip of the thousands of Sadhus and their smaller counterpart, the Nagas.

This man and his son had traveled many miles.

The Nagas are men and woman Sahdus who have taken a next step of commitment and give up all clothes and haircuts – the men with piles of snakelike hair like Rastafarian Bob Marley. The Nagas also put ashes on themselves. Later as we watched the Sadhus parade back away after bathing these striking looking Nagas walked in-between the “chariots” of the wealthier Sadhus to the adulation of the crowds, some waving, holding their arms up in some in-explicable emotion, others walking with the heads down. Always as the Sadhus passed there would be those who ran out on the rubbish-strewn street to kiss the ground the saints walked on and to gather up the flowers that the wealthier ones tossed (anything that touches the hand of a saint..).

Sadhu on a Chariot

We were among only a 100 or so that wove through the stockade that morning. Many of both the young and old wiggled through the fence to shorten the wait to the benevolent calls from the guards in Hindi, “be careful, don’t get hurt.” At the end there were guards holding back what was about 500 people. The Indians were impatient but subdued. An older British lady was demanding loudly to be let through immediately in advance of the crowd.  As she ducked under the ropes anyway, her worried guide kept glancing the soldiers and trying to get her to be patient. Finally, the commanding officer told the crowd in Hindi and English that he was doing this for our own good so we did not get hurt. So be patient…. In the next moment the rope was dropped and we surged together down an incline of smooth stones. I felt the push and shove of the men, women and children as we all hurried to the next security bar. The last time I saw the British lady was as she trailed behind the crowd…

At the next stopping point, we waited in lines to cross one of the several new utilitarian looking bridges.  Much of this area is older and the bridges and buildings have architectural features like the Hindi temples one sees throughout India. All the new bridges are orange metal and narrow. In this case the soldiers were funneling us and another group into two lines and conducting security checks. It was interesting that they were most concerned with matches!

So many men with beards and turbans. Striving for “salvation” but never attaining it.

I was shooting some pictures in line and a man waved from across the way to get my attention. He had his son in his arms and smilingly invited me to take some shots of them. About that time, a soldier came by to say it was against the rules to take pictures and to put my camera away. My Indian friend JG said this had been an announced rule but by the number of cameras and picture cell phones it was generally un-enforceable.  Later I heard that the number one camera company in India is the Nokia cell phone company as evidenced by the number of Indians using their phones to commemorate the sacred event. As we walked across the bridge and through a convoluted series of alleyways, it became clear that there were just as many pilgrims coming to bathe as leaving. JG  found a small Nescafe shop with tables and we sat to have coffee and a breakfast of bread and butter. Apparently, the attraction of an American suddenly filled the shop but soon it was empty except for ourselves and Joseph, an American from New York.

As we chatted we learned that he had been traveling for a month in India and after visiting Varanasi for a week, he had heard of the Kumbh Mela and decided to spend a few days in Haridwar. He asked me if I was there to take a bath – I was taken back – who would have thought that this festival was for anyone but Indians? As I interviewed him it was clear that he was playing religion, be believes that  there is no specific way to heaven and maybe a bath in the Ganga would help. So I asked him if he considered himself a Hindu. He said he did visit a Hindu Temple in New York from time to time but he “…didn’t identify with only one religion…I don’t believe there is only one way – I believe that in everyway there is a way.”

It was very cold!

It seems to me that Joseph is like a lot of people there at Haridwar, many searching and believing that this act of bathing will really do something, but many, like Joseph and a Sikh security man I’ll tell you about next time, just going through the motions – just in case.  As a Christian I stopped to evaluate myself – what are the things I do just to go thru the motions, just in case, as opposed to the motivation of spending time with the living Christ?

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