I finished the previous post about my First Time in India on a slightly impulsive side – I finally reached the Taj Mahal that everyone was raving on about and in the middle of the tour received an email that changed my plans completely.
I had gotten a last-minute confirmation for a bed at a Hindu festival called Kumbh Mela! Most travellers that I met during those first few days in India were completely hyped up about this event, some even flew in especially for it.
Taj Mahal suddenly lost its appeal to me and I became more than eager to cut that trip short by jumping on the overnight bus to Prayagraj. Unsure of what I was getting myself into, I was about to become one of the millions of people to embark on a chaotic adventure to the biggest gathering in the world.
I received the same question again and again from both locals and foreigners:
“Are you ready to witness the ‘REAL’ India?”
My answer was always the same.
YES! YES! YES!
This is a recap of a once in a lifetime event that shook me up completely – it swallowed me whole, chewed me up for dinner and spat me back out four days later. But somehow, during that time, it managed to kickstart the process of removing illusions, ignorance and aloofness that we, as Westerners, tend to carry with us.
Many things have been left unexplained from this experience – call them coincidences, synchronicities, whatever you will… but to me, the entire Kumbh Mela, set in Prayagraj/Allahabad where the three holy rivers of India (Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati) come together in a confluence or Sangam, felt like pure energetic magic, that kept me buzzing at a steady and continuous pace for weeks to come – much like a heart it kept on pumping one realisation after another into my brain, and all I could do was learn how to stop swimming against the current, let go of my idea of reality and simply…float away.
And so it happened that, like most participants at Kumbh Mela, I went down to the river, dipped my body three times and made a conscious decision to surrender to the Sangam.
Kumbh Mela to me became a lot more than just the biggest religious gathering in the world – it became a place where everything was possible – including finding a head of cauliflower in my bed!
My friend Libby has been waiting patiently for an explanation surrounding this mysterious cauliflower…
So, Libby, this one’s for you! 🙂
What is Kumbh Mela?
Like myself, most people have probably heard of the largest religious gathering in the world, also referred to as the ‘Woodstock on the Ganges’ (Pamela Constable, The Washington Post) but had trouble remembering its name (it’s not the easiest to recall – it took me many repetitions to memorise!).
According to medieval Hinduism, Lord Vishnu was transporting drink of immortality (Amrita) and spilt it from a pot (Kumbha) in four different places: Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik District (Nashik and Trimbak) and Ujjain. These four sites have been hosting Kumbh Mela ever since.
An article by Geeta Pandey for BBC News sums up the event perfectly. Quite frankly, the info is quite mind-blowing.
Kumbh Mela 2019 facts
- Held every 12 years (2019 Kumbh lasted from January to March) in Allahabad/Prayagraj at Sangam – the confluence of Ganga, Saraswati and Yamuna rivers
- This Kumbh Mela was an “ardh-Kumbh” (half-Kumbh), which occurs half-way between two Kumbhs, but still managed to be bigger than the full Kumbh in 2013.
- Around 120 million pilgrims came to bathe in the Sangam to wash off their sins
- The gathering can be seen from outer space
- This year’s budget for the festival was around $400m
“Which way to Sector 18?!”
This has been the most used sentence in the first few hours of my arrival at Kumbh Mela. The plan was to try and get to the camp of the ashram that my Brasilian friend Camilla spoke so highly of.
I had the address written on a piece of paper:
“Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Sector 18”
I heard how big this event was, but again decided not to look into it too much – I thought as long as I grabbed a rickshaw to drop me off at Sector 18, I’d be fine. From there, it should be easy to find where my ashram was based, right?
First of all, not even my rickshaw driver knew where he was, so he just dropped me off wherever felt the most convenient for him:
It definitely sounded close enough, and all I wanted was to get away from him for trying to raise the price of the ride. So after spending a few minutes arguing I decided that the best thing to do at that point was to pay for the first price, agree to disagree and run away, as both of us seemed too stubborn to meet half-way.
After the first few days in India, it started to dawn on me that many will try and squeeze as much money out of me as possible. Naturally, I was getting a bit furious and I guess spending more than 10 hours on an overnight bus makes a person slightly, hmmm…irrational!
So there I was, leaving the driver firmly behind in an attempted speedwalk through Sector 16 with all my possessions bouncing away like mad on my back and the sun slowly waking up to illuminate makeshift tents one by one.
I turned around to make sure rickshaw driver was out of sight me before I deemed it safe to stop and have a moment.
I’m sure you’ve had those ‘drama’ moments before… they’re usually pretty damn spectacular, full of breathtaking views, awe and gratitude for being alive, breathing and sane (debatable) with an occasional tear rolling down the cheek.
I couldn’t believe I was at Kumbh Mela!
The scenery looked insanely surreal. I stood in the middle of a temporary city with millions and millions of tents and a backdrop of the New Naini bridge reaching over with all its might to the other side of the river.
I just stood there in the middle of the road (or huge metal plates laid down in the mud), observing people waking up from their slumber in massive tents bursting with hundreds of families; some gathering water to cook that first morning chai, some washing their faces, and some waking their children to go and take part in morning ceremonies.
It was 6.30 am when the penetratingly loud sounds of chanting started coming from every direction.
Right there and then, life was perfect.
Oh, how quickly things turn…
I made a promise to myself to be as open and honest as I can be while sharing my experiences on this blog, including all the bits that some might find inappropriate or embarrassing. The thing is, and I’m sure most will agree, we’re all human and it’s about time we start accepting and normalising the not-so-comfortable facts about our species.
You see, when we choose to shed a light on only the ‘perfect’ sides of existence, then we distort the truth and fail our Throat Chakra, which quite often contributes to the feeling of disconnectedness from ourselves and others. I really dislike the fact that I only disclosed around 65% of myself in the past, and quite frankly, I’m now ready to bring that number up to..hmm, let’s say 99% (that 1% is perfectly fine lurking in the shadows, believe me!).
I say this because right after that moment of blissful perfection in the middle of Kumbh Mela’s Sector 16, I felt a warm sensation streaming down my inner thigh.
My period had started – and I wasn’t prepared for it.
Usually, my moon cycle is extremely light, but this time my body must’ve realised it came to India to purge. So it purged like there’s no tomorrow!
In the middle of searching for any sign of toilets, I had to convince my brain to multitask and find the way to Sector 18 at the same time. Exhausted and bleeding heavily, I was going from a chai stall to a chai stall asking people for directions but was met with confused looks, that made me think Sector 18 was just an illusion. The stream was becoming heavier and heavier and I started feeling extremely uncomfortable, knowing that my clothes will be visibly stained very soon!
And still, no goddamn toilets!
…Or Sector 18!!
I walked and walked and walked, and many people tried to help – some formed groups around me and took me closer to (what they thought was) the way to Sector 18. I was quite an attraction as the only bloody (quite literally, ha!) foreigner around! After about an hour of ‘exploring’ Sector 16, a young Indian man who spoke very little English managed to bring me to Sector 17 (woohoo!), where a Sadhu (holy man in Hinduism and Jainism) took the responsibility of showing this Gori (pale skin/white girl) the way to her ashram.
He spoke no English.
I gave him my little piece of paper with the address of the ashram written on it and off we went… up and down, back and forth, around in circles.
Sector 17 had finished a long time ago, and we finally made it to Sector…
It was definite progress, but what the actual F!
For a moment there, I actually started questioning my sanity and doubting whether this was all just a dream(due to tiredness and rapid loss of blood).
Finally, we found a few military men near the bridge. The sun had been up in the sky for quite some time now, which confirmed my suspicion that we’ve been walking for hours (my phone clocked out as soon as I reached Prayagraj – thank you, life!!). The men pointed to the other side of the narrow makeshift bridge – the opposite riverbank looked so far away it felt more like a Fata Morgana at that point.
“2km to the other side,” they said.
My heart sank. My jeans were soaked in blood, the blisters on my feet had popped, my vision was blurry and the heavy backpack wasn’t getting any lighter.
I had no choice.
It was this old Sadhu’s smiling and carefree face that encouraged me to keep on going as he happily initiated the walk towards the other side of the bridge.
The bridge was narrow and anything but straight as it brought us to the middle of the misty river. Everything was so still and calm that for a moment I could feel an intense sense of peace slowly starting to fill up my soul.
The peace was quickly interrupted by my chatty mind – it reminded me how rude it is not attempting to speak to the kind Sadhu. Plus, typically for a Westerner, the silence made me feel quite uncomfortable.
I started rambling on about anything I could think of and checked his facial expressions regularly for any sign of language recognition. I was speaking in English and he was speaking in Hindi, and for some time it seemed like we had a nice conversation (speaking about completely different subjects, I believe!) until we finally discovered a word that we both understood.
We both sighed at the sheer relief of mutual understanding.
There was God, after all!
The Sadhu pointed at me. I was correct to assume he wanted to know my marital status.
I remembered a friend’s advice suggesting I make up a loyal fiancée while travelling to deter any unwanted harassment from men. Just to be on the safe side I followed the advice and made up a story of a beautiful demi God-like creature waiting for me to come home so we can get married. Having just a boyfriend doesn’t mean much in India, and I definitely wasn’t ready to be married (in reality OR imagination!) but I figured a fiancée might do the trick.
I was in a Sadhu’s company so I felt pretty safe even though there wasn’t a living soul around us at that point. He continued the conversation (about God knows what) and started smiling at me in a very charming way. He must’ve found something amusing, and all I could do was guess what that was and smile back. And then this Sadhu shuffled closer to me and f***ked it all up by putting his arm around me, plucking up his lips in a very childish manner and leaning in for a smooch.
His entire approach seemed entirely absurd and humorous, but it still managed to shock me into oblivion!
I shrieked in sheer panic and jumped away from him, surprised, angry and disgusted at the same time. He turned on his innocent looking charm and started apologising instantly with his ever-present gappy grin.
I was quite unsure of what to do next – I still needed to get to Sector 18 and he knew the way so we continued walking, but this time with a safe distance and a massive (unfortunately purely metaphorical) elephant between us.
We finally came to the other side and flagged down a rickshaw for the final part of the way.
And, long behold, this kind Sadhu tried again by putting his hand on my knee (ALARM BELLS!) and then moving his hand up my leg to the inside of my thigh (HELL, NO!!) before I shoved him away. Now I was clearly furious and refused to talk to him. So many things went through my mind!
A holy man feeling me up??
What is this?!
I specifically want to address one of the feelings that popped up for me. I did nothing wrong but still, I managed to feel ashamed of the situation. I tried to understand all viewpoints and didn’t take it too close to my heart, but the shock and disbelief stayed with me for a while. The Sadhu was extremely cheeky, but my gut feeling was telling me he wasn’t there to hurt me physically.
Every situation has a lesson attached to it and my bizarre experience wasn’t going to put me off the rest of my travels. If anything, it made me stronger and more ruthless when setting my boundaries. It’s taught me to stop being so freaking nice all the time and put my foot down, even if I appear rude.
I found India to be a land of extreme polarities and want to stress that I’ve met plenty of truly inspirational Sadhus and spiritual people along the way and that this specific man was an exception in my case.
After finally reaching my ashram I decided not to share what had just happened – purely because I imagined people accusing me of making things up about their holy men.
I kept quiet about it for another couple of months until I visited The Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh, where I found out The Beatles ended their ashram stay early because of Mia Farrow’s accusation of their guru Mahariji trying to assault her sexually. Something clicked inside of me when I realised that my case is not an isolated one and that some of these holy men might not be as holy as they claim to be.
More importantly, my experience has highlighted a problem that Western women face in India – the belief we’re ‘easy’, thanks to the way we’re portrayed by the Western media (I’m mostly pointing my finger at you, porn industry!). Of course, there are other contributing factors too, but that is a subject that deserves a whole new post.
Are you a solo female traveller and have experienced something similar? Feel free to share your story below or message me privately on my email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Surrendering to devotion
Reaching Parmarth Niketan camp was like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert. I was dirty, tired and fed up with life, but the excitement of taking a cold bucket shower and lying down in the tent was real. I was shown around by Meghan, an Australian girl who came to Kumbh Mela in search of a spiritual experience. She planned on staying for a few nights but was so captured by the whole event that she prolonged her stay for a few weeks.
Despite her efforts, I felt completely lost and out of place at the ashram, so I stayed in my tent until the evening – my anxiety surrounding socialising had popped up to greet me with a bang.
I am forever grateful to Meghan for putting in the effort to drag me down to the river bank at sunset to experience Sangam Aarti.
Aarti… it sounded like something related to art, perfect!
As it turned out, it was better than art.
After reaching the river bank we joined masses of people who gathered around a small group singing kirtan (devotional songs) on the stage, made comfortable with an abundance of beautiful rugs. Strong reflectors illuminated the stage and cameras were fixed on what seemed like important people, whom I later found out were Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati and Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati of Parmarth Niketan ashram.
Their presence was mesmerising. I could swear I saw a cloud of pure peace floating around them!
Let me take a moment to share my newly acquired knowledge and explain what was going on.
Aarti is a daily ceremony (no matter the weather!), an act of worship (puja) in Hinduism in which brass lamps are lit while singing religious songs to give an offering of light (fire) to certain deities. Sangam (confluence of rivers Ganga, Saraswati and Yamuna) Aarti was performed every evening at Kumbh Mela at sunset as a sign of humility and gratitude to River Goddess. Usually, Aarti is followed by Satsang (Q&A gathering ‘of the Truth’).
Prior to Aarti, I appreciated Hinduism and how deeply embedded it’s been in Indian culture, but coming from an atheist background I honestly couldn’t understand people’s motives for such deep devotion. I clapped and hummed along to kirtans and was ecstatic when I could finally sing along to Hare Krishna mantra (thank you, Hair musical!). It was fun but that was all. I was looking around at people’s faces and many had their eyes closed while singing along.
I tuned into them to try and experience what they felt.
I wanted to understand them.
Slowly and slowly with each passing mantra, the peace inside of me was increasing its presence and subtle joy took over my body and mind. A knowing that everything is alright and exactly as it’s supposed to be crawled its way into my heart and switched off the left, rational side of my brain.
And there it was.
I began to feel it.
My heart took a massive leap towards understanding all those people.
I caught a glimpse of their gratitude and appreciation for Mother Earth, for their holy rivers, for their Gods looking over them, for pure divinity inside each and every one of us. I realised that the world doesn’t spin around me and noticed just how small I really am, never alone but connected to the rest of the world and the nature around me, within me.
I realised that all this knowledge has been with me already, originating from my past lives and Aarti was just a gentle reminder.
The level of gratitude was immense – I was humbled for gaining a better understanding of their devotion even though I knew I’ll never fully understand it no matter how hard I try.
I tuned in to the energies around me even more and noticed the veil had begun lifting off my eyes. My western glasses were being removed and I could see the Truth: the importance of cherishing your family and loved ones, helping one another, giving without expecting anything in return, being grateful for simple joys in life…
I saw the strings that linked people to their devotion and worship and began to understand their strength.
And, my God, it was beautiful!
The ceremony continued with lighting up the lamps and giving thanks to the rivers. The energy in the air was electric. I closed my eyes and tried to soak everything up. My emotional side got the best of me again, and a tear of gratitude rolled down my cheeks (it’s been making quite a regular appearance it seems!).
I knew the next few days would be extremely powerful and would contract a string of internal avalanches that would bring change on a large scale.
Luckily for me, I was ready.
The next morning we attended another breath-taking sacred fire ceremony called Yagna and then planned to make our way to the other side of the river to experience the real, raw and uncensored version of Kumbh Mela.
We left our picture-perfect camp firmly behind in the safe and calm touristy side of the festival – we were nicely tucked in and guarded by the military. We couldn’t even imagine what life was like on the other side of the river bank…
But we were more than eager to find out!
There we were, two overly excited and extremely nervous white females in our late twenties nearing the river in a fakely courageous manner to catch the boat to the other side when we noticed ourselves becoming surrounded by Indian men, women and children asking to take selfies with us.
I’ll be honest, at first, I completely misunderstood the selfie side of requests and thought they wanted me to take pictures of THEM – I considered that a reasonable request, which could easily play out even on the European streets.
” No, no, no!” they laughed.
I struggled to comprehend why on Earth they wanted pictures of me – it weirded me out completely! I heard about blondes being quite a sight for Indians, so I assumed I would be left alone as a brunette. I guess coming out of a European winter with such sun-deprived skin didn’t exactly help.
From what I’ve seen, most people want fame.
Sometimes I’d have a weak moment and desire it too… until that day.
The feelings that followed after all the selfie requests and stares were that of extreme uncomfortableness – as if my every step was being closely observed. My inner introvert wasn’t having fun AT ALL, and I shrank within myself. My mind became painfully conscious of my every move.
People followed us, took pictures of us, some wouldn’t stop when asked to. I felt suffocated and wanted to run right off the face of the Earth!
…Or into a cave to be more realistic but maintain the level of desired solitude.
However, that was just the beginning.
When our boat made it to the other side of the river, the crowds just kept on getting bigger and bigger…
There was chaos everywhere around us, but we seemed to be the only ones affected by it.
A cocktail of noises coming from the laughing pilgrims, stray dogs, sadhus, nagis, screaming children, whizzing rickshaws and beeping scooters (India’s trademark!) were drowned out by the sounds of chanting coming from the speakers. We couldn’t walk a single step without being stopped by either the sellers or people wanting selfies. At that point, I realised I couldn’t please everyone so I started refusing their selfie requests.
I had enough after about half an hour – my storage of fake courage had been emptied, which made me feel extremely vulnerable and exposed. Thankfully Meghan finally initiated the move to the main street famous for all the holy men giving blessings and smoking in their tents.
I haven’t had so much cow dung (in a form of blessings, thankfully!) scattered on my head before.
Well, actually, I’ve never had cow dung sprinkled on me – ever.
Okay so, the way it works… you walk down the main sadhu street (let’s call it that!) and stop over at the ones that give you an encouraging smile or invite you into their tent. Most of the sadhu’s goal is to host as many people as possible in their tents by giving pilgrims tea, biscuits, blessings and spiritual gifts (like rudraksha prayer beads) to collect brownie points and improve their karma.
India’s Holy Men and Women
According to Wikipedia, a sadhu or sadhvi for a female is a religious ascetic, monk or any holy person in Hinduism and Jainism who has renounced the worldly life. They are sometimes alternatively referred to as jogi, sannyasi or vairagi.
Sadhus (also known as babas – to confuse things further) are solely dedicated to achieving moksha (liberation) and often wear simple clothing, such as saffron-coloured clothing in Hinduism, white or nothing in Jainism, symbolising their sannyasa (renunciation of worldly possessions). They are divided into different groups (akharas) and follow different deities (Shiva sect, Vishnu followers, etc.)
Some of the main types of Sadhus are:
– Naga sadhus: They’re the naked sadhus who smear their bodies in ashes and have long matted hair. Constant exposure to the weather makes the Naga sadhus resistant to temperature extremes. Their eyes are bloodshot from constantly smoking charas (marijuana), which they believe contributes to enlightenment.
– Shirshasinse: They remain standing and sleeping with their heads resting on poles, as well as meditate by standing on their heads.
– Kalpvasis: They are known to stay close to the river bank, bathing many times a day, performing rituals and meditating.
– Urdhwavahurs: Their bodies are emaciated from rigid spiritual practices.
– Parivajakas: These sadhus have taken a vow of silence.
**I really hope I spelt these correctly! 🙂
My eyes were spoiled at the sight of various types of sadhus, and my jaw dropped in awe when we reached the one who’s had his arm raised up in the air for years. This is the sort of stuff I used to read about in the National Geographic as a young girl, which made me feel like I stepped right in the middle of one of those exciting articles!
There were babas everywhere and what I found most amusing were a few cheeky kind-faced sadhus asking for dollars (“NOT RUPEES!”) in exchange of a blessing to finish off the collection of different currencies on their flamboyant home-made hats.
During our slaloming between different tents and figuring out correct ways to bow to sadhus (I found nagis the trickiest – where do I keep my gaze?!), I’ve learned to always (ALWAYS!) be prepared to be followed by a hoard of Indian men snapping pictures paparazzi style.
It would appear seeing two awkward-looking Goris receiving blessings from the babas is too good of entertainment to miss out on. 🙂
When we came back to the camp I was ready to fall into my bed and curl up like a hedgehog. My bedding was folded nicely and as I was spreading out the heavy quilt appropriate for the Indian winter (yes, they exist and they’re freezing cold!) a full head of cauliflower tumbled right out of it and fell on the ground with a massive thud.
Try and imagine my face as I stood there frozen in time, confused to the max, staring at this white large-headed wonder.
A fully grown head of cauliflower in a perfectly healthy condition!
I loved having the whole eight beds in the tent all to myself, but was kinda gutted when I realised there wasn’t anyone around to witness one of the most surreal moments of my life!
Later at dinner, Meghan and I tried to get to the bottom of the mysterious vegetable appearance, so naturally, we turned to the one and only all-knowing oracle…
“Google, what is a spiritual meaning of finding a cauliflower in your bed?”
As anticipated, no one seemed to have reported such an experience just yet.
After heavy search and reaching result page number 7, we’d given up and settled on the heavily googled interpretation of cauliflower dream symbolism.
“To see or eat cauliflower in your dream symbolizes spiritual nourishment, purity and perfection. It also represents sadness and a need to be uplifted. Your dream indicates that the tough times you are experiencing will soon be over.“
This explanation managed to sum up beautifully what I was going through internally for the duration of my stay at Kumbh Mela.
But there was still one problem with this interpretation…
the cauliflower was real, lying in the showering bucket (mistaken for a bin) in the middle of my tent, awaiting my return.
It definitely wasn’t a dream…
…or was it?! :O :O :O
“The gut has spoken”
I stayed at Kumbh Mela for four days which felt like months. Time slowed down or even ceased to exist. A lot of upsetting emotions resurfaced from the subconscious to greet my conscious self, being followed by sporadic feelings of pure ecstasy, peace, gratitude and joy, turning my ‘spiritual’ experience into a wild rollercoaster ride.
I met a few people with whom I felt an instant and powerful connection, one of them being Maarten, a happily married Dutch father of two. He came to India to do yoga in Parmarth Niketan’s ashram in Rishikesh but had relocated to their Kumbh Mela camp alongside the rest of the ashram crew for a few days.
Time of his return to Rishikesh came and went, but there was something about his description of Rishikesh that triggered a deep longing within me.
And then on the fourth day, just as abruptly as it all started, my time at Kumbh Mela came to an end. My gut had spoken again in an urgent manner – it was time to get myself to Rishikesh ASAP!
Don’t ask me why.
I still had nearly a week before the start of my yoga teacher training and a ticket for a 2-hour bus ride to Varanasi, but something didn’t sit well with me about this plan. So I checked out of the ashram, cancelled the bus to Varanasi (last-minute change of plans became my speciality) and prepared myself for a long bus journey to Rishikesh via Delhi.
That is if the bus actually managed to arrive as scheduled.
“No fun in that,” you might say.
As it turned out life had one more adventure up its sleeve for me, which later became one of my most memorable experiences of the entire trip by showing me how helpful, selfless and pure Indian people really are.
Be sure to read all about it in my next post: Kumbh Mela Part II – Making Police Headlines.
Love & Light
Spela Elan Rei