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!
Bawa's brow furrowed, he sweated buckets, he held his head in his hands and he moaned and groaned. He was in a crisis.
I had just given him a choice - either we can go for a ride somewhere, or we can go to see the Kumbh mela and explore a bit out there. I had won a stay at a resort in Panna Tiger reserve as a prize in a photography contest, and wanted to use that and see new jungle. Also, Panna was very close to Khajuraho, and I had been eager for years and years to see the great temples of Khajuraho. I had tried to get Bharathi to come to Khajuraho but she just sneered at the thought of an Indian holiday.
'I have seen all of India when you were just pissing in your pants re...' she would say. 'Now I do only phoren holiday. I spit me on your feeble plans. How dare you make plans so late in the day? I have already made plans for 2019, 2020, 2021,2022....and you are making plans in Feb for Feb? Tchee...thooo...'
An ugly fat bawa was not the ideal companion to see the sensuous carvings of Khajuraho....but hey, he must have been thinking the exact same thing.
Anyway, I digress. What wasI saying? Ah yes...Bawa in an agony of decision, vibrating fit to burst... and finally he said 'Kumbh! Let's go to the Kumbh!'
'Oh?' I said, raising my e.b.s 'Really? Are you sure? You don't want to take your Thunderbird 350....or your Thunderbird 500....or your Triumph Tiger...for a ride?'
'AAAAAARRRGHHHHHHH' he shouted, like a strong man in agony. 'Noooooooo...we can go on ride anytime! But Kumbh comes once in so many years! We will go to the Kumbh!'
'Yeah?' I looked at him disbelievingly. 'In that case, YOU book the air tickets. So if you bail out, then you will pay for the tickets.'
'Gah!' he was stung, and immediately pulled out his credit card, like a duellist pulling out his epee. (No...not his peepee...epee is a kind of duelling sword) and booked off 2 tickets for Varanasi. (or Benares. Or Kashi. They are all the same )
I flapped around doing a lot of bookings for the trip, which much amused SWMBO. It was like a small baby playing with his doll kitchen in front of Gordon Ramsay. She looked at me indulgently and told me that whatever i was doing was wrong, and what was the need to do any bookings in India anyway, and it was so amusing to see people making bookings a week before travel - but it was good that I was doing something at least, and not sitting on my gargantuan fat butt as usual.
Finally the day dawned - D day. We were flying to Varanasi. Luckily it was not an early morning flight, so I had a relaxed breakfast, and Bharathi had ample time to tell me that I had overpacked and what was the need to carry such a big pack and that I was not carrying enough warm clothes and that I would freeze to death in the jungle and that I was WRONG WRONG WRONG...Oh, your taxi has come. Bye! Have a great trip! MUAH MUAH SMOOCH SMOOCH
I called up Delzad and told him to get moving! He is well known for cutting things extremely fine at the airport and rushing to the check in desk at the very last moment and demanding boarding and scaring everyone there.
'Chill dude.' he told me smugly. 'I got this. I am already in the cab, and might even be there before you, enjoying a cooling drink and flirting with the pretty ladies.'
'Yeah?' I replied, impressed. 'That's good. I have done a web check in for both of us and am carrying the boarding pass print outs.'
'Not required bro....but thank you kindly.' he said 'I shall reach well in time. toodle oo now....I am going to catch a refreshing nap in this taxi.'
'Tell the cab to come by bandra and not by SCLR...' I started to say, but he had already cut the call.
'Go by Sion Bandra and the highway' I told the Uber driver.
'But sir, Google is telling to go by SCLR Andheri...' he said
'Balls to Google. Google can be full of shit. They have dug up that road and the traffic is out of this world. Go by the highway.'
I put on my headphone and went into screensaver mode. The ride was uneventful and fairly soon we were at the airport.
I called up bawa 'Where are you dude? Should I wait for you outside to hand you the Boarding pass?'
This time his voice was tense and funereal, like a bandwala on the Titanic.
'No man....I am stuck in traffic...I am in deep shit.'
'Eh? Where are you?'
'Arre, I fell asleep in the cab and this idiot came by SCLR and we are jammed in traffic. I can't even open the door of the car, they are packed so close together!'
'Shit! What will you do now?'
'I don't know...You go ahead...I don't think I will be able to take this flight...Let me see what are the options.'
I went ahead and checked in and cleared security and made my way into the security well and called again.
'Where are you now?'
'I haven't moved much....'
'Why don't you move out of that silly road and move into BKC and towards the highway...'
'Listen... is Aurangabad in Bihar?'
'Eh?' the sheer inanity of the question caught me off guard. 'What?'
'Aurangabad...where is it?'
'Where...it's in Maharashtra of course. Ajanta, Ellora and all that...why?'
'I am getting a cheap flight to Aurangabad.'
I clutched my head. 'What?'
'Yes...spot ticket to Varanasi is very expensive. flight to Aurangabad is cheap.'
My head was reeling. 'But why would you want to go to Aurangabad?'
'Google Maps shows that Aurangabad is very close to Patna.'
'Abey IDIOT. That might be some other place. Some ersatz Aurangabad. Definitely won't have an airport. The fare you are seeing is for Maharashtra.'
'Oh really?' I could just feel him deflating like a Chinese balloon. 'Are you sure?'
'Of course I am sure. Anyway - why are you doing this? Call Bharathi and ask her for options. She will have a spontaneous orgasm at the thought of making a last minute travel itinerary and criticise you at the same time.'
After some time he called back, even more morose.
'Bharathi laughed at me.'
'Well...what did you expect?'
'Then she told me that the best option was to take a flight from Bangalore to Gorakhpur.'
'Yes...she said that I take an overnight bus to Bangalore and then catch a flight from Bangalore to Gorakhpur, then take a bus to Kanpur and then take a train from Kanpur to Varanasi.'
I started to laugh out loud.
'Don't laugh fucker!'
'HAHAHAHAHA HOHOHOHOHOHO HEEHEEHEEHEEE'
'Oh fuck off.'
By this time I reached the departure gate. It was now less than 20 min to the flight, but the gate was closed and everyone was just standing around morosely.
Hey, what's going on?
I went and checked and sure enough, the flight to Varanasi was delayed. Very interesting. I went and caught hold of the Indian Airlines guy and asked him. he admitted that the flight was delayed but we should be on our way in a few minutes.
'No no no..' I said and explained the situation to him. How long would the flight be delayed by? Was there enough delay for my friend to catch the flight?
The dude pursed his lips, unwilling to commit himself. But then he told me 'Look at it this way...the incoming flight has just landed. It needs to deboard passengers and luggage, get cleaned and serviced and then load all the passengers. Say half an hour. could be a bit more.'
Well! Looks like there is hope!
I called up Bawa 'Where are you?'
'I have just gotten out of the jam and am heading towards airport.'
'Listen...the flight is delayed, so if you can make it here - as in to the boarding gate - in under half an hour, you can still make it.'
The poor guy sounded like the guy with his head on the block and the executioner saying that he has to go and take a pee before the next chop. A stay of execution!
In the meanwhile Bharathi was in hog heaven, churning out idea after idea. Every 2 minutes she would call me
'Arre...Tatkal ticket available for Mumbai to Varanasi on train. only 8K.'
After 2 min. 'Arre... tell him to fly to Ahmedabad and then take train from Ahm to Benares'
After 2 min 'Arre - Tell him to fly to Delhi, open the emergency window and parachute down to Varanasi.'
After 2 min 'Arre...Tell him to fly to Dubai and take flight from Dubai to Benares'
After 2 min 'Arre - there is a horse and cart here...'
I had a relaxed cup of coffee, while the bawa nearly gave himself a heart attack sprinting through check in and security and what not. It's a good thing the CISF guys didn't shoot him or something.
But his karma was strong! He made it!
Gasping, purple faced, winded and mortally chastened - but he made it in time for the flight!
Just then Bharathi called.
'Arre - tell him to fly to Kolkata and take a boat to Benares...'
'No no...It's alright. He made it for the flight.'
'He did? Oh Damn! Er...that is to say... I mean...that's great!'
All praise to Air India! May they always be late at the right time!
Baba Vishwanath ka bulawa aaya hai! We are on our way to Kashi.
bawa showing off his boarding pass
Thank god for Air India. May they always be late.
"Kumbh Mela or Kumbha Mela (/ˌkʊm ˈmeɪlə/ or /ˌkʊm məˈlɑː/) is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. It is considered to be the largest peaceful gathering in the world where around 100 million (10 crore) people were expected to visit during the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 in Allahabad. It is held every third year at one of the four places by rotation: Haridwar, Allahabad (Prayaga), Nashik and Ujjain. Thus the Kumbh Mela is held at each of these four places every twelfth year. Ardha ("Half") Kumbh Mela is held at only two places, Haridwar and Allahabad, every sixth year. The rivers at these four places are: the Ganges (Ganga) at Haridwar, the confluence (Sangam) of the Ganges and the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad, the Godawari at Nashik, and the Shipra at Ujjain. The name Kumbh Mela comes from Hindi, and in the original Sanskrit and other Indian languages it is more often known as Kumbha Mela. Kumbha means a pitcher and Mela means fair in Sanskrit.
The Kumbh Mela occurrences follow the Hindu calendar, as follows:
In 2001, more than 40 million gathered on the busiest of its 55 days. "
The last maha kumbh mela happened in Prayag (Allahabad) in 2001 and this is the story of how I ended up there.
I wanted to go to the Kumbh Mela.
The Kumbh Mela was on same day as the Mahakumbh which happens only once in 144 years and the whole world seemed to be converging to it -- umpteen crore Indians, hordes of foreigners and an innumerable number of reporters.
I had been watching the developments on the TV and press curiously. But when I tried researching it on the Net, I was really hooked. The internet itself was pretty new to us, and stuff like wikipedia and blogs were still some years away. The Indian presence on the web was still quite low and the best sites on the Kumbh Mela were by firangs, and the bulletin boards were all about how so-and-so was planning to come to the Kumbh, and where they could stay, and some so-and-so saying that he had reached the Kumbh, and how he was totally overawed...
I was getting more and more cheesed off… how come all kinds of firangs were able to go to the Kumbh, and I, as an Indian, couldn't. Bah!
The issues were simple - I was not going to get any leave, as the big boss didnt like me much; I didn't have any money, and air tickets were pretty expensive back then, and it was just too difficult...and the crowds and health and law and order issues and what not.
The big issue was mental - it always is - I was simply scared of going there, as the papers were full of horror stories about how crowded everything was, and there was a huge crush every where, and the law and order issues, health issues....yada yada yada.
At that time, however, suddenly a lot of things fell into place.
The big boss who didn't like me went on a long vacation, and my immediate boss was new and hopefully more easily handled. More importantly - I realised that if I really wanted to go, I could just go and damn the leave.
Always better to apologise after having done, rather than ask for permission to do.
Suddenly I got an interview call from a company in Delhi, and they wanted to meet me and they were willing to reimburse the airfare. And they wanted me to book the ticket.That meant that I could do the management myself - cancelling and rescheduling and so forth. So the money problem was solved.
And I had just experienced the joys of backpacking, and my mental bonds were loosening. Nothing is as bad as you think it is - just go and try it.
Wow, I said.
At that point the plan started crystallizing in my mind that Kumbh really seemed to be calling. I decided that Kumbh would happen.
The next issue was company. It was difficult to find someone crazy enough to go with me at such short notice.
I tried to catch my old backpacking mate Chinmay, but he thought I was crazy. Then I tied up with another dude, but he ditched at the last moment.
To hell with it, I said.
I'll go alone.
On Friday, I took the morning Delhi flight, with some 2K in my pocket, a backpack and my trusty Lonely Planet. No reservations, no hotel bookings, no clear plans, nothing. That's what real adventure is all about anyway.
Landed in Delhi at about 12 noon. Called up some people i knew from the airport to ask about a ticket to Allahabad , but got only cribs. No tickets, no room, all trains booked, huge crowds, no rooms in Allahabad, lawlessness, his own sales people had left Allahabad and were avoiding it as much as possible... and so on.
Okay, Okay I said, forget it. I'll handle it myself.
This was back when the huge national highway was still under construction, and there was only a small little road to go to Gurgaon - which was still a small backwater at the time. Companies were just discovering it, and Nestle was among the few companies who had taken the plunge and relocated there. There was no easy way to get to Gurgaon from Delhi airport, and I ended up taking a terribly crowded government bus that left me crushed and gasping in Gurgaon.
A 2-minute walk, and there I was at the Nestle building. A huge place, positively awe-inspiring, new structure, new age architecture, very hep indeed. The lobby was totally fancy, marble and chrome, and a video wall continuously showed Nestle ads, various meeting rooms etc., very hep indeed.
The company seemed to be quite straitlaced - with a pretty formal tie-clad culture. There seemed to be a lot of expats around and the people were conservatively dressed, and quiet and reserved.
And me? I was dressed in a formal blue shirt and a formal black pair of pants. No tie. But, as I did not want to wear black leather shoes to the Kumbh, I was wearing a dirty old pair of sneakers. And I was carrying a bright red backpack.
When the HR guy came down, he looked at me for a couple of minutes, as if he couldn't believe his eyes. Then he came to me hesitantly and asked, "Ketan?"
"Yes!" I answered enthusiastically, thoroughly enjoying myself. Words failed him for a minute, then he manfully mastered himself, and invited me to a conference room. As I was early I would have to wait.
"No problem," I said and brightened up when he asked for my ticket so that he could reimburse the money. That was the main reason why I was there!
Then he treated me to a hot chocolate from a really neat vending machine and left. I whiled away the time drinking hot chocolate, making phone calls, reading the Lonely Planet... In the meantime, the guy brought the money in lovely cold cash... ahhh, solved my solvency problems.
The interview was an amusing thing as well. I was pretty sick of Marico by then and was keen to get out and Nestle would have been a really cool option. But they wanted to launch a brand of mineral water water and were looking for a brand manager for that. I was pretty disappointed - I was handling a brand of salt in Marico and the essence of a commodity was that there was not much profit margin in it; and everyone used to look at me as if it was my fault that the product was not profitable.
I explained to the swiss interviewer in great detail as to why his idea was a terrible idea and could never work. he tried to defend himself, but I countered him at every point and showed him how the launch would be a total failure.
Not a great way to clear an interview. Must have left him scratching his head and wondering about the strangest interview he would ever have taken.
Nestle did launch the product later, and it crashed and burnt exactly the way I told him it would. sigh )
After the interview , I left for Delhi station with a spring in my step.
I was no longer an interviewee... I was a backpacker!
The Great Train Journey
The bus dropped me at the New Delhi railway station, and now being an experienced person, I went immediately to the ticket counter and bought an open second class unreserved ticket to Allahabad (Rs 142). Armed with the ticket I barged into the first platform. There was a train already standing there.
"What train is this?"
"Allahabad jaati hai?”
"Jaroor jaati hai."
Very good, I thought, and went to the unreserved compartment. On seeing it, I recoiled... it was packed like a Bombay local in peak time, like a can of sardines. And it was full of weird characters -- normal guys, sadhus with tridents, some seriously warped looking characters -- no way I was going to travel like that for 12 hours, all night.
Then I went up and down the train, generally checking it out -- it was quite full.
Then I went to phase 2, the TC pleading phase... went and caught the TC -- saa'b jagah chaahiye -- berth, No.… seat, No... Attendant’s seat, No... anything at all -- No. Arre, what to do now?
Then I went and spoke to the stallwalas out there.
"Boss, I want to go to Allahabad, no reservation -- what to do?"
The first person suggested waiting for the next train, so that I could get a seat in the unreserved compartment (ugh), but it was the next guy who really gave the jackpot suggestion. "Arre saa'b, just pile on to the reserved 2nd class compartment...TC thoda fine marega, wo bhar do."
Yes! That is a good idea. The train was due to leave at 8 p.m. Two minutes before departure, I jumped into the train in the reserved compartment. Stood like a good boy until we were well out of Delhi, and then sat down.It was bloody crowded even out by the door and was a total crush - couldn't even stretch out my legs -- first squatted, then sat cross-legged, then tried vajrasana -- was changing my position every 2 hours, as I got fresh cramps. I had bought a newspaper - not to read, but to sit on.
I had to get up a couple of times, as we stopped at Aligarh, and some other place, and there I lost my newspaper on which I was sitting. Later though, some space was created as people got off, or went to other compartments. And it was getting colder and colder, and I was chilled to the bone. It was February in North India, and it was bloody freezing sitting outside the railway compartment like that.
Luckily, I had worn my sweatshirt over my shirt, then I dug out my sweater and put it on, then I found a scarf and put it on, then I shoved all the newspapers i had left inside my clothes for insulation - then I had nothing else, so I shivered through the night. Brrrr.
I finally reached Allahabad at six in the morning, and was really glad to get out of the train -- being half frozen and half dead. I first made a beeline for a cup of tea and stood there watching various people get off, all of whom seemed to be people in various shades of ochre, with or without tridents, all bound for the Kumbh. Then I walked out of the station.
It was cold and dark, and the city had not woken up as yet. Some pilgrims were sitting around a small bonfire under a shelter. As I was leaving the station, a cyclerickshawala approached me.
"Saa'b, hotel chahiye?"
I looked at him. Yes, I do want a hotel, but you will take me only to the place where you get your commission.
"Nahin saa'b. I will show you as many hotels as you like. Only after you are satisfied, you pay me 5 rupees."
Just 5 rupees, eh? That was fine by me and I hopped into his cycle.
And the very first hotel he brought me to was perfectly fine, though we had to wake up the proprietor. He just gave me a reassuring smile, shouted for the flunky to show me the room, and went right back to sleep. The flunk showed me the room, and it was perfectly fine -- clean room, with clean white bed sheets, and an attached bath. Rate? Rs. 300. Inwardly I gave a big smile -- the net was talking about 1000 -1500 rates… but I frowned and said, "It's expensive."
"Yes," he agreed, "don't want it?"
"No, no -- I do want it. Definitely."
So with no problem whatsoever, I got a nice cheap room -- others reported hunting high and low for a room, or paying huge rates.
The first thing I did after checking in was slip under the two blankets on the double bed and get some sleep. I was totally zonked after that terrible freezing night journey. After an uneasy nap of a couple of hours, I woke up and left at about 10 o' clock.
Went out and immediately went to a chaiwala to put some hot tea into my still frozen body. There I asked a passerby how to get to the Kumbh...
"Catch an auto -- go to (some) place, catch a cycle rickshaw from there, go to (some) place, and then walk..."
"Haan theek hai -- but how far is it from here?"
"Oh -- about 8 km."
Well, I was still cold, so I thought -- let's walk.
I walked and walked and walked, and as I came nearer and nearer to the Mela, the crowd went on increasing. Soon it consumed the entire road and there was a mother-of-all-traffic-jams. Huge number of devotees, trucks, cars, tempos, buses and hajaar cycle rickshaws who were doing their best to screw up the traffic as much as possible.
I went on walking; the bloody township was huge. Tents and people everywhere, lots of dust, janta around.
The janta was basically of 4 types:
a) Pure devotees: These actually impressed me the most. Tons and tons of these guys -- totaldehatis, no possessions apart from the clothes on their back and a bundle of oddments on their head -- they had come from all over the country to take part in the Kumbh. Janta from Nepal, Himachal, Maharashtra, assorted south and large numbers from UP and Bihar. They had come out of pure faith -- no other aim than to take a Ganga snaan and wash away their sins. Normally quite a cynical person, I was quite humbled by their faith -- no jokes.
b) Sadhus: These were the most eye-catching. All kinds of them -- many real weirdos. Some were the standard ochre clad, trishul wielding, some were mendicant / beggar kind, some were propertantrics, some Naga kinds with ash smeared and matted locks, some posh-looking fair-skinned silk adorned ones, kapalis holding skulls and so on.
c) Indian tourists: Semi-devotional types, rich / semi-rich pot-bellied Punjabis en famille -- generally came in Sumos, made a lot of noise, took a bath and went off with huge 5-liter canisters of 'gangajal'.
Also many poorer ones with smaller cars or none at all, making less noise, less irritating and carried smaller canisters of 'gangajal'.
d) Firangs: Either the budget backpacker types, which can be further classified into 'devotional / discover myself types' and 'see the freakshow' types or the expensive 'package tour with European tent' types or of course the media guys with expensive camera equipment and with an eye out for the most 'happening' shots.
Of course, there were the original Kumbh people -- the kapalwasis who stay by the riverside for the entire month, and bathe three times a day and spend the time engrossed in prayer, but to be honest, I didn't see them. And of course there were all those people who were making a living out of the Kumbh -- stallwalas, boatwalas, curio sellers etc., honest and dishonest in equal measure.
I walked around in a daze... well... not quite in a daze, to be honest, but taking in the whole atmosphere and trying to absorb as much as possible. While I had read a lot about the Kumbh on the Net and in the papers, being part of it was quite an experience, which I cannot really describe. The collection of people around, though huge, was not really overpowering. For one thing, for Bombayites, crowds are not such a big deal, as we seem to be in one at any given time of the day. And secondly the area of the Kumbh was so huge (40 square kilometers) that the crowd was spread out. It was the composition of the crowd, which was really interesting.
All kinds of people, as I said earlier -- all coming together, for a common cause, without any problem whatsoever. In a 10-minute walk you would encounter large numbers of dehatis / small towners, weird sadhus, who may or may not accost you for money ( generally not, to be quite honest), a couple of bemused looking firang backpackers, lots of stallwalas, and lots and lots of cops.
That's one thing, which was quite impressive -- the government preparations. I really can't describe them all at once, but it was really impressive. Numerous tents, ropeways all across the river bank, information booths, lost-and-found booth, first aid tents, roads, sand banks, lighting, public conveniences everywhere, lots and lots of licensed stalls selling food and drink, PCOs... and a huge police presence. Thus there was no mara mari, no lawlessness, no wholesale ripping off of tourists, no harassment. Good show, hats off to the government.
Well, anyway, getting back to the Sangam... I was generally roaming around finding my way to the actual Sangam... stopped at a phone booth (yes, there were STD booths aplenty right in theKumbh area -- I told you the arrangements were good) to call Dad at home and reassure him that I was alive and well. He got damn excited when I told him that I was at the Sangam: "Took a dip, eh?"
"Well no," I replied a little apologetically, "I am not actually at the Sangam, but in the vicinity."
Finally (whew!) I came in sight of the actual confluence. Quite a sight -- the deep blue, cleaner, faster flowing Yamuna meeting the sluggish, muddy Ganga. Yamuna flows straight, with better formed banks, while the Ganga takes a huge loop around -- which makes it difficult to make out. The colour change is quite dramatic, the deep blue Yamuna combines with the muddy Ganga and you can clearly see the different colours and the third colour of the Ganga after the confluence.
On the Yamuna, just before the Sangam, there is a huge fort that was built by Akbar, which dominates the surroundings -- even now it looks very solid and in excellent condition, very beautiful and scenic right on the banks of the river, the trees on the fort bending over the river and gently swaying... very nice indeed!
It took quite some time to absorb all this (and to be perfectly honest, I didn't -- the whole thing sunk into me over the whole day as I was pottering around in the area). I had hardly walked five minutes when a boatwala spotted me as easy prey -- "Saa'b, boat ride?"
Sure, why not.
He took me to his boat, and in fact had some trouble locating it, there were so many boats on that blessed river! Thousands and thousands! Well... hundreds anyway. All dilapidated looking wrecks, but floated fairly well. We went over three boats until we came to his boat and headed out. Like all the people I met, he was mystified by the fact that I had come alone to Kumbh, all the way from Bombay and had no interest in bathing!
We finally got into the river, and luckily I was the only one on the boat, so I was very comfortable and had a 360-degree view. (Not so lucky perhaps, as I had to pay for the whole boat by myself.) We floated down to the Sangam point, and what I earlier thought was a rocky promontory, jutting out into the water -- turned out actually to be a long, long line of boats anchored at the Sangampoint, with hajaar janta stripped down and taking their holy dips. Everyone was busily scrubbing away with soap -- why soap? I wondered. The water is too dirty for the soap to make any difference -- you would probably come out dirtier than when you went in first, and whatever positioning statements we marketers make, nobody has appropriated the 'good for soul' segment yet.
I wanted to take photos of that line of well-scrubbed holiness, but my boatman cautioned me, "Nosaa'b. Very strict rules against taking photos of people while bathing saa'b." Probably, the furore of our moral guardians after the press guys went wild taking photos of some firang babe bathing in the nude. I looked around desperately for that babe, but she seemed to be as invisible as the Saraswati river.
Out there again my boatman asked me, "Saa'b, Sangam nahaaenge nahin?" He was quite foxed as to why one should take the trouble to come all the way, and finally not take the obligatory dip. But seeing the general condition of the river, I politely refused, though I did fill some Sangamwater in a plastic bottle. Finally the boatman was satisfied -- something as per tradition finally. Then, to assuage his feelings rather than mine, I cupped up some water in my palm and poured it on my head as a token bath. (Some thing which was to become famous later as the 'Sonia' bath, when Sonia Gandhi did the same thing.)
After the Sangam, I told him to take a general chakkar of the river and take a long route back. An amusing thing I saw on the river was a floating post office -- a boat painted red and actually a fully functional post office -- I was impressed.
After the boat ride, I did the usual tourist thing and visited the fort. There's a 1000-year-old 'akshay vat' in a temple full of rapacious priests demanding money at every step (not getting much though) and a Hanuman temple, which had a two-kilometer line in front of it -- so I did not enter it.
I spent the rest of the day roaming about the Kumbh area -- paid a long visit to the Sangam shoreline, watching people take holy dips. As today was not a particularly auspicious day, people were able to take dips without any hassle. One sight that I remember very vividly was seeing two huge police dogs frolicking about like puppies -- a very cute sight. On the ghat, I had a chat with a policeman, asking him about his experiences with the Kumbh, and congratulated him on the excellent arrangements. In turn, he was impressed that I had come alone, all the way from Bombay to the Kumbh.
Later I went across to see the famous 'Naga' sadhus -- they were in a separate enclave the other side of the Ganga -- a very reasonable walk. How much I walked out there, must have walked 25-30 km everyday. I did see a few of them -- naked, smeared with ashes and smoking pot, and doing some sundry yagnas, but very frankly, didn't see it worth pursuing much. I saw some, got bored after some time, and then left. Taking photos is actually not allowed, but I did sneak a photo.
Spent time till nightfall, then walked back. Blessed with a sense of direction, which, if it was present in birds, would help them migrate to a different place every year, I naturally walked confidently in the wrong direction, got lost and had to double back and walk nearly twice the distance required. Was dog-tired when I reached the hotel and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next day, I went to Anand Bhavan -- the ancestral house of the Nehrus. Being on my macho walking kick, I eschewed autos and walked all the 8 km there and back. Anand Bhavan was OK, quite a well-maintained house, with beautiful lawns. The interior has been maintained as it was in Jawaharlal Nehru's time, and looks like the dwelling place of very serious-minded people -- all dark mahogany furniture and loads of serious books.
I came back to the hotel, and then walked back to the Kumbh. There was nothing much new there, except that I got lost yet again and was totally fagged out when I reached the Sangam, having had to walk double the distance. Listened to the evening pooja and walked back, being careful to ask directions this time.
When I came back, I had enough of the Kumbh, and decided to go to Benares (Kashi / Varanasi) the next day. I checked out the next morning, and got a bus to Kashi. Bus was cheap, but bloody crowded, and left us quite some distance away from the city. Again, being on my walking kick, I walked all the way to the river side -- the Dasashwamedha Ghat. This time, it was not quite so enjoyable, as I had a heavy backpack on me.
Anyway, I finally reached the ghat and took my bearings from the map in the Lonely Planet. Located some cheap hotels nearby (as nearby as possible, I was close to collapse). The first one was full (I asked him whether he had any problem with Indian tourists), but the second had room. It was more expensive than my Allahabad room, but was a good deal nicer, being directly on the river side, so you had a beautiful view of the Ganga from the gallery. And being a LP recommended hotel, it was mainly firangs all the way. And indeed the owner had put in all the possible things that a firang crowd could want -- rooms, river side café with Indian and continental food, cyber café, STD/ISD booth, travel agent and money changer, some reading material for sale, and even a music class, teaching Indian classical music. The only thing missing was a yoga class.
In fact, later I got chummy with the owner and asked him why there was no yoga class. He replied that the owner of the nearest yoga class was a friend of his, and so he did not want to hurt his business!
The owner himself was an interesting character -- hardcore UP-ite, but very smart-looking. He had converted his ancestral house into his hotel. In fact, it was hilarious when he started pointing out rooms to me… "See that room -- our cow used to live there -- now I rent it out for 500 rupees per day. The cow's hay used to be stored in that room -- I rent it out for 400 rupees per day." He had certainly done a good job of building up his hotel's equity, and had a reasonably good review in the Lonely Planet as well. Also, he had somehow patoed a Spanish babe and married her, and now he had a shop in Spain, where he sold Indian curios at exorbitant prices. In fact he lived half the year in Spain, as he claimed he couldn't bear the heat in India. Enterprising fellow!
Anyway, I spent the afternoon lazing around in the hotel, and went for a dusk river ride across the Ganges. A very beautiful experience indeed to float across the Ganga in the failing light. The boatman pointed out all the ghats on the river -- including Mankramanika Ghat, the funeral ghat where pyres burn 24 hours, and Harishchandra ghat where the king served as a servant to the king of the 'Doms' (funeral workers), and Dasashwamedha Ghat, supposed to be the oldest ghat in Kashi.
This is really the heart of Kashi, and of Hinduism too, in a way. There were a huge number of devotees having their holy dips (and a lot of people like me -- spillovers from the Kumbh). For a single person like me, who was having pleasure cruises on the river, there were a hundred pilgrims for whom this trip on the river was the fulfilment of life itself and were singing hymns and doing aartis, or deep in prayer and meditation. The rationalist in me scoffs at such superstition, but the human in me salutes such faith and devotion. I myself desisted from bathing -- the water was filthy.
As we came back, the light was failing and my boatman proudly showed me a really jhatak aartion Dasashwamedha Ghat, with some 20-odd priests swinging their diyas in tandem and a fearful racket of cymbals and ghantas and other instruments. The devotees seemed to be in good spirits, and all the firangs were photographing and camcording away to glory, but I was not very impressed.
After some more relaxation in the hotel, I set out for the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The Vishwanath temple was the focal point of Hinduism, and so to cow down the populace, the fanatic tyrant Aurangzeb had it razed to the ground, and a mosque raised on that spot, breaking the hearts of Hindus all over the nation. The current temple was one built by our fellow marathi lady, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi , and the gold canopy on the top was provided by Ranjeetsingh of the Punjab.
Lately the VHP has been making threatening noises about breaking down the mosque and rebuilding the temple (and after seeing the spot, I must say that I sympathize with them) -- so the police have cordoned off the place in a rather ham-handed way, and an easy entry into the temple has been made rather difficult. Anyway, I went to the temple and had a long and comfortable communion with the deity for nearly half an hour.
After this, I had enough religion for a day, so I decided against going to the Gyaan Kupoor (the well where the original shiv linga is supposed to be hidden) and chose rather to wander through the amazing gullies of Benares. Small labyrinthine gullies with shops selling all kinds of stuff from paan, to bhaang to pickles -- lots of mithai outlets, religious artifacts etc. I spent nearly two hours generally roaming about -- absolutely fascinating. (If I was fascinated, I can just imagine how overwhelmed the firangs felt.) Going back to the hotel, I felt a bit lonely, but later started chatting with the owner till bedtime.
The next day, I got up bright and early for a dawn river ride on the Ganga, equally enjoyable, but nothing very new, except the exhilaration of the dawn over the river. Then I went back to the hotel and decided to go to the Buddhist relics of Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. The owner's cousin offered me a lift, and it nearly gave me a holy death in the holy city. Rushing about on a bike in those narrow gullies had me scared stiff -- and sure enough we slipped on a glob of cowdung on a steep turn and BAM we were both on the ground! I was unhurt, but 6 inches further, I would've split my skull open on a stone step. Flustered by the fall, the guy drove a little more safely, but as soon as we emerged on the main road, there were a hundred two-wheelers as reckless as him, and we promptly banged into another lunatic coming from the opposite direction, breaking somebody's clutch lever (I saw the piece fly in the sky). Anyway, he dropped me at a point where I could get an auto, and in due course of time I landed up at Sarnath.
It was a very beautiful place. The local temples are sponsored by Buddhist nations like Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand etc., while the actual archeological site is maintained by the ASI, and indeed, is the first time I have seen any good work done by the organization. Very beautifully laid out site, with well marked excavations and lawns, and even a deer park with very tame deer.
I was approached by a very good and knowledgeable young guide who showed me the birthplace of the Jain tirthankara as well as the Buddhist relics. He was an employee of the local Buddhist refugee organization, which teaches the locals to form cooperatives to make and sell Banarasi silks without getting jacked by middlemen. So I went and saw a real traditional silk handloom, and later bought a couple of silk sarees for mom. The first time ever that I bought a saree!
When I came back in the evening, I had another interesting experience. In the evening I had again gone to roam about in the gullies, when I suddenly felt like having hot milk from the corner doodhwala. (After all, this is the USP of the region -- hot milk in winter.) I was standing there and chatting with the doodhwala, when an acharya also came along to chat with us. He was a font of information and told us the significance of the Mauni amavasya, and then told me about the Vichalaxmi mandir nearby. (I later found out that it was one of the major Devi temples in India.)
Suddenly one crowd came our way. I was wondering what this crowd was all about, when suddenly I saw a familiar face. "Arre...Ravishankarji!" I blurted out, as he passed on, and somebody in the crowd said "Yes, yes" and hurried on.
It was Sri Sri Ravishankar, the new famous Guruji of 'Art of Living' fame. How strange to see him here. I finished off my milk and the acharya offered to show me the Vichalaxmi mandir. Ok, I said and we went there, only to find that the entire crowd was there.
This seems to be fated, I thought, and stood there. One beautiful aarti happened... not the normal type, but some beautiful devotional songs, sung extremely well. I was very impressed.
After 15-20 minutes they came out, and suddenly I found myself face to face with the Sri Sri himself! What a surprise!
"Pranam Ravishankarji," I said. He gave me a smile and hurried on. People were really impressed that I had the good fortune to meet the Guruji, even without doing the 'Art of Living' course.
Meanwhile, the acharya had given me a solid dose on 'Mauni amavasya' which was the next day. He praised the holiness of the day to the skies, and gave me a detailed SOP on how to take the bath. (Wake up before dawn, keep silence (maun) until you take the bath, take achaman from abrahmin and give dakshina and I will get maximum moksha.) Well, I thought, why not -- I was in Kashi on such a holy day, and right on the river side.
I went back to the hotel, and chatted with the owner's cousin till bed time.
The next day, I duly awoke before dawn and took my holy bath in complete silence as recommended by that acharya, which I hope has blessed me and erased my former sins!
After coming back, I checked out of the hotel and asked the owner what I could see in the town until my flight later in the day. He gave me directions and a walking route.
Given the adventurous nature of the trip, it was only fitting that it should also end in a thrilling fashion.
I had some bhaang in the market and was feeling very happy indeed and had just finished seeing the new Vishwanath temple on the Benares Hindu University campus, when I heard someone shout out for me.
I was shocked! Turning to see who this could possibly be -- it was my host, the hotel owner!
'What the...' I blinked in amazement. Did I have too much bhang? Was I stoned? Where did this guy spring from?
He grinned at me and said 'Thank god I found you...You need to rush back.'
'Rush back! Why?'
'Arre...your flight has been pre poned! The flight will leave 2 hours earlier than planned. Thats why I came rushing to find you.'
'Preponed! I never heard of such a thing....how can they prepone a flight, bloody rascals. And how did you find me?' I asked in amazement.
'Arre, I had chalked out the route for you, so I came running all along the route to look for you.'
'Running all the way! What a thing to do....thanks a lot.'
'Arre...what thanks...you are our guest! This is the least we can do.'
I was very touched.
We had a rushed trip to the hotel to pick up my luggage, then to the travel agent to pick up my ticket and then to the airport.
It was a smooth flight back and I was at home-sweet-home, with another backpacking vacation concluded - thanks to Nestle and the fates.
Mom met me at the door and touched my feet, as befits the first of the Joshi clan to do a pilgrimage of the Mahakumbh and Kashi.
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!