What Lonely Planet Won’t Tell You About Visiting the Kumbh Mela

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What Lonely Planet Won’t Tell You About Visiting the Kumbh Mela

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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nce you’ve been smacked in the face hard enough to see Lord Ram himself, you’ll know you’ve entered the largest spiritual gathering in the world, the Kumbh Mela. It’ll probably be around 4 am, because that’s rush hour at the Hindu Magnetic Fields. It’s also around 5 degrees Celsius because the festival has to be held in the winter, on the parts of the Ganga bed that have dried up. Don’t worry though, the leftover water still has enough empty coconut shells and garlands for you to bathe in!

The grand procession of sadhus making its way to the banks of the holy Ganges for one of the shahi snans is a once-in-a-lifetime experience — note that attending twice may lead to serious emotional distress. It’s the greatest accidental spiritual experience you could have, if struggling against fellow countrymen and the occasional mouth-wide-open firang to get a breathtaking view of the back of one baba’s head is your definition of spiritual.

By the water, the babas flip their hair à la Ameesha Patel, and the man behind you has now broken the world record for the number of times “Radhe” can be said in a sentence. It’s now time for the piece de resistance, the moment everyone’s travelled to Prayagraj for — taking off all your clothes and entering the freezing water of the Sangam, where the three holy rivers converge. Once you get over your fear of hypothermia and eventually take the dip, you may feel the urge to cleanse yourself of your sins by almost drowning yourself. While you’re at it, look out for the hundreds of rabid swarming birds, who’ve become a fixture at the Kumbh ever since some genius set up a bird food stall.

When you’re done bathing, take a quick walk around the Sangam. It’s a stunning landscape, not comparable to anything you see on the internet. There’s almost a moment where you think to yourself, “Sunrise at Kumbh Mela is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Then a kid kicks you in the shin because he assumed you were participating in his make-believe, violent game, and you end up ruining the start of your religious awakening by cursing loudly in front of his entire family.

You could attempt to yell at the kid, and risk getting weird stares from the bystanders, or you could just take the L and begin a 20-kilometre walk back to… somewhere? The mela is spread over a giant chunk of land, divided into sectors, numbered from four to 20-something. Perfect, now if only Sector 4 wasn’t right next to Sector 14, and Sector 16 wasn’t by Sector 3, you’d be able to find your way around this place. But alas… you’ll find it pretty ironic at this point that people come here to “find themselves”.

You could try asking a rickshawallah for directions, or dare I say it, a ride even? But apparently, the rickshaws of the Kumbh Mela are just a decorative display, meant to add flavour, and set the mood. Any attempt to actually get into a rickshaw requires a great deal of people skills, a spare cigarette or three, and a quite a bit of cash. For the rest of the normal folk, to actually get from place to place, you walk. To add to this general tension, just a few hours after you almost froze to death, it’s now 40-degrees. And now you know why you see so few Uttar Pradesh tourism ads.

"Make sure you don’t mistake Khade Haath Baba I for Khade Haath Baba II, or, in fact, Khade Haath Baba III, because they’re all totally different and also original."

As you walk aimlessly through what looks like Dadar station at peak hour, make sure you don’t accidentally photobomb someone trying to take a picture with God himself. Eventually, if you stay hydrated enough, you’ll arrive at one of the akhadas, home to all the babas you see on TV. The babas at this point have given enough Nat Geo interviews to know they’re going to have to do something special to work the crowd. No more cliches like meditating on ghats, addressing bhakts, or studying Puranas. These days each baba comes with their own gimmick — lambe baal baba, sunglass baba, kabootar baba, petrol baba, ad infinitum.

Make sure you don’t mistake Khade Haath Baba I for Khade Haath Baba II, or, in fact, Khade Haath Baba III, because they’re all totally different and also original. In case you miss Netflix, do look out for the baba who keeps trying to bury himself before he’s stopped by the police. Also, make sure you avoid the one who pulls a Maruti 800 with his genitals because that generally sounds a lot cooler than it looks.

Most of the babas sit beside fires in their enclosures, welcoming anyone who can say “Jai Shri Ram”. Make sure you have a camera handy when you enter because you don’t want to be the only person in the world who’s gone to the Kumbh and returned without a single picture of a chillum-smoking baba. If you make it through some basic conversation with the “junior babas” outside, you may be invited inside to meet with the “senior baba” of the akhada. When this happens, mind your manners and don’t bring up your views on organised religion.

As you leave the akhada area, and the crowds get too religious, babas start walking around with tridents, and the chorus of “Radhe Radhe” intensifies. Once again it’s likely you’ll be in awe of the whole experience. This is exactly what people come to the Kumbh for! You’d possibly consider yourself lucky to be there, able to witness this grand spectacle. But then it’s also likely that a passer-by might spit some of his excess paan masala on your shirt, so stay sharp.

Eventually, though, all good things must come to an end — and in this case, a sharp pain in your calves signals that it’s time to make your way home. On your long, dark walk out of this glorious Kumbh Mela, prepare to deal with a number of UP’s famously friendly locals, who walk right into you and then avoid eye-contact as they mutter, “side”. (This happens so often it should be included in Prayagraj’s list of major tourist attractions). Once you’ve crawled back, prepare to Mortal Kombat your way into a rickshaw to experience the most divine emotion of them all — relief. Wipe the sweat and tears off your face, and down a bottle of water, because if you can survive the Kumbh, you can survive anything.

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