Finally it was the day! We were off to the Kumbh Mela!
This would be my 4th Kumbh experience, and the second time that I would be going to the Allahabad - now Prayagraj - kumbh. The first time I went to the Allahabad was a truly life-changing experience for me, and I had very fond memories of the experience.
This time we would be going by train from Varanasi to Allahabad and staying in the Kumbh area itself. The UP government had invited hoteliers to create tented accommodation camps at the Kumbh venue itself, and had created a very spiffy Kumbh website as well. The individual tents were a bit expensive, so I had booked dorm beds for us for 4 nights.
Bharathi was very apprehensive about the whole idea - she thought the trains might be overrun by rampant crowds and the dorms would be a flea bitten mess. And she was not the one who had booked the tickets! Oh the humanity! She was professionally insulted!
'How dare you book tickets, you witless oaf?' she growled at me 'You are but a gnat or a cockroach compared to my glory!'
'But you only said that you will only book international tickets henceforth and India tickets are not worth your time!'
'Arre! Why should I book India tickets eh? I have seen all of India when you were still mewling and puking in your nurses arms! But how dare you book tickets? BE A MAN! Travel unreserved! Reservations are for wimps!'
Be that as it may - I should first put it on record that the Government machinery in UP has done an awesome job! Whether it's the bureaucracy or IAS or Yogi or Modi or BJP - kudos to all of them! I take my hat off.
Varanasi town and ghats were sparkling, the Ganga was clean and beautiful, and the Varanasi station was spotless! There wasn't even much shit on the railway tracks! The Indian railways is slowly but surely upgrading its train toilets from a hole in the floor to these fancy bio toilets which don't let the crap plop straight down on the tracks, but stores it away and treats it - and this has made a huge change to the stations. The train compartment was also clean and spic and span!
The train was late though. Oh well - I suppose you cannot have everything.
We took a rickshaw to the tent site, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the camp and the dormitory. It was quite a large camp, with umpteen tents and at least 10 dorms. Each dorm had 2 toilet+bath in it, and they were clean and functional and completely non-stinky. The beds and bedding were also fine - comfortable mattress, warm quilts and completely bedbug free! And they were (comparitively) cheap. The camp had its own restaurant where they served ala carte and buffet food - a fancy buffet and a cheap functional buffet!
The next morning we were woken up noisy fellow guests playing loud devotional music and giving no fucks whatsoever for their fellow man. Indians can be real assholes. But never mind - we were at the Kumbh!
We quickly freshened up and went exploring. We were close to the sangam point where the Ganga met the Jamuna (and the mythical Saraswati) and we decided to walk it - but when we were approached by a boatman who offered to ferry us there, we thought - why not? A boat ride would be fun!
And it was! The waters of the Jamuna and the Ganga were extremely clean and looked really inviting - but too cold! Brrr. We decided to postpone the bath to the afternoon and just took a joy ride and got off at the Allahabad fort, where there is an ancient banyan tree. The legend is that in ancient times, pilgrims used to climb up this tree and jump down to commit suicide so that they would attain moksha! Akbar put an end to this by building a fort around it, and now its a Hanuman temple. I wanted to see it, but was scared off by the lines - it would take 3-4 hours in that line!
We walked all over the Kumbh area, looking for the famed Naga babas - but was disappointed to see that we were late and most of them had left already. The organisation of the Kumbh was really remarkable - full marks again to the government. Modi/ Yogi had really pulled out all the stops to make this a showcase event. It was so organised, that the real complaint was that it was over-organised! There were food, water and lodging facilities for pilgrims and loads and loads and loads of public toilets, which were regularly cleaned and maintained!
I cannot stress the hygiene of the place enough. It was a spectacular effort. There were enough toilets to cater to the millions and millions of people shitting and pissing out there. I remember the sad state of the Ujjain Kumbh when me and Bharathi had visited in 2005 - it was a huge mess. This was amazing.
I don't know why our news channels are not talking about this more - to have crores and crores of people visit a place - that too uneducated villagers with no sense of hygiene - and create an experience with no trash, no shit and piss, no outbreaks of illness, no stampedes and no security issues inspite of all the high profile VIPs visiting - is a most remarkable achievement. Great job! Well done!
The Kumbh area was so huge that we were all fagged out by the time we came back to the dorm. We chilled for sometime and then went back to the sangam for the holy dip - by boat. Boatmen had come from all over with their boats - our boatman was from Chitrakoot - 250 km away - and his group had rowed all the way! It was extraordinarily pleasant to sit in that boat and see the river, and the fort, and the bridge over the Jamuna, the hordes of beautiful white birds on the rive and the people lined up for the baths.
The bath itself was also amazing! The Ganga water was so clean! In spite of all the hordes of people around, the water was wonderful. I don't know how they did it - but I hope they keep on doing it. We were so refreshed by the dip that we decided to do several more dips.
This was the pattern of our stay there - we used to go in the morning for a boat ride and dip, explore the kumbh, come back and chill till late afternoon, go for a evening boat ride and dip, come back to the dorm to take a hot bath, have heavy evening snacks instead of dinner and then go and sit by the Jamuna river side when it got dark.
The main snaan day for us was Magh Poornima, when it was an auspicious day to take a bath. We had missed the major snaans - the Makar Sankrant and the two Shahi snaans - which was a great pity. That would have been a spectacle worth seeing! Chalo - next time!
We discovered that there were a few naga babas still around at the Juna Akhara, but it was their last day there. So we went hunting for them, and finally found them! So that was done too!
On our last day, we had a late night train from Allahabad station, so we took advantage of the day to take a look around the city.
I was again impressed by how clean the city was! The place was spotless, disinfected with boric powder, beautified by wall paintings, and was not at all crowded!
UP govt - take a bow.
We checked out the Allahabad museum - one of the oldest museums in India - and the Allahabad cathedral - huge and impressive, but unfortunately open only on Sunday and Anand Bhavan - the ancestral home of the Nehrus. There was a really nice photo exhibit on the life of Indira Gandhi, with superb B&W pics. Those old time newspaper photographers were real masters!
We still had time to kill, so we asked an autowala what to do, and he deposited us in the wonderful Chandrashekhar Azad park (formerly Company gardens) which is a real gem - one of the finest public parks in India!
Finally, we went to the station area and had some chicken after a long vegetarian stint. Delzad was tempted by some roadside rabdi - and this had some unfortunate effects...but I anticipate!
We had a day more in Kashi, and we originally planned to just veg out on the ghats and soak in the atmosphere and see the world go by. But just then I saw a sign at the hotel offering a taxi to Bodhgaya at a reasonable price.
I was instantly interested. I had been curious about Bodhagaya for a long time and this was a good opportunity to check it out. We closed the deal and left early morning by taxi. Getting to a taxi is an interesting experience here, btw - we were staying right on the riverside itself, and the only access there was through tiny labyrinthine gullies, where there was no question of a four wheeler coming through. Thus we had to walk through gullies and gullies till we got to the main road. I loved it - it was fascinating to see the life of Varanasi at such close range.
As it turned out, it was fortunate that we decided to go on a road trip that day - because it rained and rained. We were comfortable inside the car - but we would have been cold and wet on the river.
It was a long way to Bodhgaya - about 260 KM - and took more than 5 hours each way. The roads were amazing though - beautiful wide cemented highways - probably part of the golden quadrilateral. India Shining! Never thought roads in UP and Bihar would be so awesome! I would say that they are much better than Maharashtra roads! Inspite of heavy truck traffic - must be part of a great industrial corridor - we made good time and didnt get stuck in any jams.
At Bodhgaya the driver handed us over to an E Rickshaw guy, as petrol vehicles are not allowed to ply there. The E rickshaw took us to all the major points - the various statues, temples and monasteries built by all the Buddhist countries around the world. Japan, China, Korea, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Mongolia - there was even one from Bangladesh! The whole place was clean and neat and orderly.
The giant Buddha statue (Japanese) was clearly the main show - but each temple had its own nation specific charm.
The piece de resistance of Bodhgaya is the place where the Buddha went click, and said - Oh, I see! That is the whole point!
The 4 main points in the Buddha circuit are
1) Lumbini in Nepal - where he was born
2) Bodhgaya - where he said 'Aha! Eureka!'
3) Sarnath - where he have his first sermon
4) Kushinagar - where he copped it
As you can see - Bodhgaya is no. 2. He sat under a peepal tree and meditated till he saw the light, and that tree is called the Bodhi tree. The original tree is long gone - this tree is the 4th generation of that tree. There is an ancient temple built by Ashoka and various Buddhist kings in front of it, and there are many other places around....
the tree was where the Buddha sat, then there is a place where he walked around for a bit, then a place where he stood for a while, then a place where he took a bath, then a place where he....well - you get the idea.
Having come such a long way, the devotees want value for money, so they go around worshipping everything in sight.
The interesting part about Bodhagaya for me was the international range of devotees - there were faithful from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Nepal, Japan, Bhutan, China, Korea...all sorts...and also a handful of firangs. Each of them seemed to be praying in their own style, in their own language and with their own rituals. I found it fascinating!
There was a tibetan yagna going on, with a whole bunch of robed monks sitting and one guy rumbling out prayers in a very deep bass. There were some guys who were prostrating their way around. They would stand, then prostrate themselves, stand where their head had been while prostrating and then again take a dive! There was a whole bunch of people on a package tour from Sri Lanka - all looking like Indians...but not exactly. I smiled at them and they smiled warmly back.
It was a lovely place, and we spent a lot of time there.
So much time that our E rickshaw fellow was cheesed off. We were not allowed to carry phones inside the complex and had put them in safe deposit - and when I redeemed it, I saw 40 missed calls from the poor guy.
We had a bite to eat from a roadside rollwala and then left to get back - because it was a 5 hour journey back.
It was lucky that we left in time, because we got stuck in some ridiculous jams on the highway, and had our driver not gone off the road and into some really deep detours in deserted dark places where I thought he was going to rape and loot us - we might be in the jam still!
But alls well that ends well and we were back in the Palace on Steps and enjoying a last night looking out on to the Ganga.
We got into the Air India plane which had waited so graciously for bawa and he fell asleep almost immediately and probably dreamt of bawi temptresses, exhausted as he was by emotional tension, the unaccustomed physical effort of running in the airport and the mental trauma of getting shouted at by Bharathi SWMBO
Soon we were in Varanasi, and bawa didn't have to fly to Gorakhpur or jump with a parachute or sail down from Kolkata, so he was pretty chuffed with himself.
The airport taxi was a rip-off as usual, and I booked an Uber instead. Uber and Ola is the BEST thing that has happened to travel in India, and if any slimy government stooge or gunda political party tries to nobble these two services, then they will die of leprosy via special curse from me.
I was very impressed by Varanasi! This was my third visit here over the years, and I had never seen it looking this good! Wide roads, spic and span cleanliness, beautiful wall paintings - it was looking amazing. Yogi and gang have done an awesome job - Well done UP administration!
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!