Trip to Allahabad Kumbha Mela & Benares in Makar Sankranti
Uttarayan or Makar Sankranti is the day the sun begins to travel north and enters the sign of capricorn. The festival on every January 14 celebrates the end of the harvest season. It also coincides with the rise in temperatures in the north of the country, which this time of the year in India reach minimum levels. One of the main features of the festival is the kite flying which takes place all over India and also in Nepal.
This ceremony is a way of saying goodbye to the month of Poush and inviting the month of Magh. Sweet meats and other vegetarian delights are prepared, shared and enjoyed on this day.
People of all ages climb the roofs of their homes to fly their kites to celebrate the festival. During these days, millions of people are at the same time on the roofs and terraces to fly kites. The goal is to cross the threads and shoot until one breaks. The sky is filled with kites. For me it was like a fairy tale, that's why I start like this.
In the Punjab region, the first day is called Lohri and in the night, the bonfires are lit. I South India the first day is called Bhogi when bonfires were lit in the morning and auspicious rangolis are drawn at the thresholds of the doors.
The second day is Sankranti also called Pongal, but in fact Pongal is a sweet dish made of rice and spiced milk that people eat that day. Kites are flown into the sky in the early morning. On the third day, people eat Kanu, a rice dish with chicken or mutton.
One evening in November, an email announces that I am invited to participate in a kite event in Varanasi. After a moment of doubt and reflection I decided to go. I inquired about travel arrangements and received the booking confirmations right after Christmas.
In Rishikesh I did not stop listening to comments and recommendations to go to the Allahabad Kumbh Mela. Everyone said it was something spectacular. It was unique as it is on the period of Makar Sankranti. The recommendations increased after arriving in Varanasi. Since the fun of a trip is to enjoy the festivals and customs, we decided to go through Allahabad to visit this event.
In Allahabad, where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet and an invisible third, the Saraswati. Millions of people participate in a celebration that fuses mythology with cosmology. It is a unique cultural experience, among cold divine waters filled with pilgrims. In the month of Magha, when the Sun enters Capricorn, the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad is the most important
We got up early and headed to the Varanasi train station from where buses leave for Allahabad. On the way I could see that my karma was still quite bad because my camera under all the possible quality controls, decided that it had traveled enough. The karma is powerful. I go to the largest religious event in India where I will see a lot of gurus, sadhus and saints dressed in colorful ways and my only camera will be a smartphone.
We arrive in Allahabad late morning, after more than twenty-four hours in bus. All, however, are heading in the same direction to the east. I begin to find places for my stay in Allahabad. In the roadside, giant billboards announce preaching or the presence of a particular guru.
We had been warned of how big and impressive the Kumbh Mela was. The truth is that no matter how warned we were, we could not imagine what was before our eyes. Hundreds of hectares near the Ganges were covered with tents and people were everywhere. That was like a refugee camp of epic dimensions.
Then we continue towards Kumbha Mela, where we try to enter with the bus, without success. We do not have the pass and the cops are particularly intransigent at the checkpoints. The bus stops on the side of the road. Our companions get off, talk with sadhus-organizers and negotiate. We spend a good time.
Then the bus leaves, two hundred meters up to a cross, makes a first 360 degree around a fly-over pillar that acts as a roundabout. The traffic is dense. The bus stops on the low side. Then it redo the pillar a few minutes later, before stopping again. It leaves for a third round around the same pillar. We do not try to understand, but we see that we are still not going into Kumbha Mela, whereas we are going to Sector 7,
The bus comes back to its first stop and we re-leisurely after one hour, at the end of which it flutters, luggage out of the cargo hold or down the roof. The bus cannot get permission to go to the camp. And as we arrived late we will have to find another way to get to our final destination.
I see a tempo and find myself standing on a footstool, clutching where I can. Inside, the other passengers disappear under the bags and crates. Then the rickshaw enters the Kumbha Mela site, recalling familiar images. A sea of tents extends to the horizon. Many floating bridges span the Ganges. The railway and road bridges of the Varanasi road overlook the whole.
Large perpendicular alleys, covered with metal plates, structure the space and gigantic orange flags float in the wind. The rickshaw engages on the temporary roads that crisscross what is usually the bed of the Ganges when its level rises during the monsoon. We jerk on the jolts. It climbs towards Sector 7, but obviously does not know where it is going.
We zigzag for half an hour in the Kumbha Mela before finally finding our location. We pass on the way in front of high porticos decorated to the glory of this or that guru. It is 1 pm when we arrive. Our camp is rather modest, set back in a small alley. A large rectangular tent used for ceremonies is surrounded by small tents. At the bottom, a structure houses the kitchen.
At the side, a large area covered with corrugated iron is used for communal meals. A palisade of corrugated iron surrounds everything. An unpretentious porch overlooks the entrance. A few light garlands adorn the walls of the camp. We settle in one of the tents with about ten people. The tents are not equipped and we put a floor mat, on which we extend some blankets.
It's spartan, and the soil is uneven. Exhausted by the night on the bus, we try to ask a moment for a nap, but we are immediately called for the meal together. The vegetarian meal, is succulent like all those that will follow during the week. There might be a god in the kitchen will become my mantra.
The meal is over. I try to go to rest, but it is lost time. Our rajasthani friends do not stop moving. Because it is a no-smoking camp we find quite quickly that we are surrounded by sadhus, the latter refusing theoretically the consumption of any intoxicant, including tobacco.
So for each cigarette, I leave the camp, regularly followed by one or the other who discreetly came to take a cigarette from me. It also gives me the opportunity to see the life outside. Throughout the coming week, almost 24 hours a day, cohorts of pilgrims do not stop arriving in groups.
I'm starting to feel uncomfortable. Following the bug in Delhi, I have been wearing my only kurta for a week, while all our guests are dressed to the full. I will have to find an emergency solution. In the evening, after dinner, we allow ourselves a little trip in the neighborhood, just to drink a chai and start our exploration.
At the chai shop, we meet a German backpacker who has just arrived and is looking for accommodation. Being ourselves in the position of guests, we do not dare to propose him to come to the camp. Our walk confirms some feelings we had when arriving with the rickshaw.
The Kumbha Mela, in some respects, looks more like a fair than a place of recollection, with its porticoes covered with flashing diodes and the diffusion of various and varied songs and music. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the bhajans and Bollywood songs at the moment. And it looks more like a concentration of ego than a detachment school.
A young saffron dressed babe with mobile phone in her ear goes behind the wheel of a big buggy jeep, before rushing under a portico on which giant posters display her smile. The first night plunges us a little more into the mood. With piercing speakers, all in the treble and installed throughout the Kumbha Mela, it emits prayers and bhajans without stopping.
It create an impressive cacophony and it is to him who will have the most powerful sound. It is perfectly illusory to hope to sleep without earbuds. While all almost sleep, those who are still awake do not hesitate to turn on the light and bawl with friends in the tent next door. The soil is uncomfortable.
Around 5 o'clock in the morning, even before dawn, I get awake early after a bad night sleeping on the floor. We decided to take advantage of the early hour to explore the Kumbha Mela. We also need to be alone. If the Rajasthani guys are good, they are also very demanding and, from sunrise to sunset, we have not had a minute without them.
But above all, we are feverish, excited to finally discover this famous Kumbha Mela! We depart for the Sangam, the holy center of Kumbha Mela, which is at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna, five kilometers to the south. Our camp is at the northeastern limit of Kumbha Mela on the left bank of the Ganges.
The Kumbha Mela, entirely located on the bed of the divine river is squared with straight roads. Metal plates screwed to each other form driveways in the fine dusty sediments of the Ganges that cover everything and fly away at the slightest breeze. During the day, when the sun is beating, tankers pass and repass untiringly by watering the ground. Despite this, dust infiltrates everywhere, continually.
We swallowed a considerable amount and my camera and computer equipment too. Between the main roads, are a sub-grid of small dirt roads. Our camp is on one of these secondary roads, on which haystacks have been thrown, in anticipation of rainy days. The main arteries are usually lined with stalls selling ritual objects, clothes, blankets or religious books.
Sometimes we see a little food stall selling pakora and samosa, but there is no real restaurant. At almost every junction, there are chai shops and cohorts of cops who hang out all day long. At first, we look for landmarks. It's nice to go and discover the Kumbha Mela and its four or five million permanent residents, but we will also have to find our camp back. And that's where it gets complicated.
The streets and intersections are all alike. So we take the first big street, the one that passes next to the camp. Slowly, as in a theater in darkness, the shadows gather details, colors, features. Then comes the time of the ubiquitous chai (tea), the chapati, the vegetables and the pungent smoke, which make me perspire despite the cold of dawn. Whispers give sounds to the multicolored scene.
We drink a chai at the first crossing on which we fall and we look around. A high voltage line goes right by. Then we continue our route until we reach a temporary bridge that spans the Ganges.
We take one of the big alleys which goes in the direction of the south and thus of the center of Kumbha Mela. We do not see the end. It is lost in the distance in a mixture of haze and dust in suspension. We meet a few people, but by far not as many people as I expected.
What strikes me as input is the lack of modesty of the gurus. Everyone has their own camp, with their meeting space that can sometimes accommodate several thousand people. Each camp has a portico supporting large effigies of the said guru. Decorations with strong diodes seem to be popular, especially those that flash, which gives a carnival atmosphere.
Powerful loudspeakers fixed on the walls of the camps emit prayers and bhajans 24 hours a day, in a deafening cacophony. The more one camp increases its sound, the more the neighbor increases its. The sadhus all have their mobile phone in their ear and many fancy driving in large cars, when they are not parading on the roof of the vehicle. We meet people from all over, from all social levels, from all ethnic groups, in a dominant of yellow, saffron and orange.
So we walk south, skirting these camps in the dust of the Ganges. Small sellers spread their tarpaulins on the floor, with a few items, such as cords or tilak powder cones. Some invite us with a gesture, but we decline, too eager to cross the Kumbha Mela.
After an hour of walking, we arrive at a large pyramidal structure, from where we take a bridge to cross the other side of the Ganges. Along the river, pilgrims bathe, protected by barriers, under the more or less attentive eye of lifeguards perched on boats. We meet true ascetics, bling-bling babas, honeymooners, the members of a brass band dressed in the box of a truck, as well as a cohort of cleaners spotted in their yellow vest.
All day, they clean the streets, toilets and camps, sprinkling the places with quicklime. We do not see a Westerner so far. We stop at a chai shop from time to time to observe the world around us. Everywhere, groups of pilgrims arrive, walking along the streets with their bards on their backs or heads.
After passing under the two bridges, that of the railway and the road that connects Allahabad to Varanasi, we arrive at the Kali Marg. It is the main street of Sangam, where in the camps congregate major gurus and large congregations of sadhus, including nagas. Gigantic porticoes line the path and the crowd grows.
Western tourists, with cameras in play, appear. One of them passes me a garland of carnations around the neck. The subjects of photography are innumerable. The heads are often surmounted by turbans, the foreheads proudly display Shivaite or Vishnouite tilaks. The looks are sometimes smiling, sometimes proud and serious or sometimes provocative or hostile.
Naga sadhus parade the body covered with ashes, or smoke the shilom with impunity before the cops who patrol. The traditional religious consumption of ganja by the sadhus is indeed tolerated in India, where the authorities do not dare to oppose the holy men whom they fear and worship at the same time.
We do not linger and we continue our journey towards the banks of the Yamuna, where a denser crowd of pilgrims bathes. Here, in an atmosphere more festive than pious, families do their ritual ablutions or immerse themselves with their children, while the younger ones splash. On the bank, sticks of incense are lit and planted in loose earth, offerings of flowers are delivered to the waters of the river.
The waters of the Yamuna reflect an intense, bluish and transparent color. We navigate through them among hundreds of barges that transport a crowd. In the cold dawn of January, during the boreal winter, other waters begin to mix. The brown is that of the Ganges. We reach the exact point where two rivers meet to the Sangam or union, in the city of Allahabad, also named Prayag.
Stunned, I hear the murmur of millions of pilgrims who pray and immerse themselves in the current, in the chilling cold waters.
A little behind on the sandy slopes, women, who bathe dressed, dry their saris in the sun or wind, holding them at arm's length. Groups of devotees sitting on the ground sing bhajans, accompanied by harmoniums, while sellers sell candy floss and toys. A group of tourists passes by strafing everything that moves.
We head towards the fort along the Yamuna. The closer we get, the denser the crowd becomes. Located at a strategic crossroads, a sadhu accompanied by a decorated cow ostensibly poses for the photographers. Small street vendors set up their booths and sell everything for a few rupees.
There, also begins the court of miracles. The aisle is lined with disabled people of all kinds begging, sitting or lying on the ground, with a bowl in front of them. Some receive some coins, while some rice.
At the other end of the aisle, the crowd becomes so compact at the approach of the Hanuman Temple that it is difficult to find a way among the pilgrims and sadhus. We pass the hill and we descend towards the great plain that extends beyond. There is a small market selling clothes, ritual objects, some restaurants. I take this opportunity to buy two or three spare kurtas that I need and we eat an excellent masala dosa on a terrace.
We go back on the hill and we follow the road that goes along the ridge. We enter an off-center district of Allahabad overlooking the Kumbha Mela. At a crossroads, cops cut the street with vaubans. However, we slip without anyone telling us anything. We are about to go under the railway bridge a little further when we see a human barrier at the entrance to the bridge.
We cross a small camp. The babas obviously broke down shilom and we reach the city where thousands of arriving pilgrims arrive, with their baggage still on their heads. After having crossed the Ganges, we pass near the strange pyramid sheltering an impressive amount of small altars. Poor but high-quality photos and drawings adorn the outer walls of the building.
Soldiers of all faiths, sometimes accompanied by a guru, are represented there, as well as several anonymous ones. It is a mausoleum in memory of the soldiers died during the various conflicts with China or Pakistan during the last fifty years. A few meters away, a show brings together spectators scattered under a large tent.
On stage, the actors, all male, play a piece of Mahabharata or Ramayana, the great epics. The feminine roles are played by men in disguise. I just love it! Other scenes play in other camps with sermons and religious or lectures are given here and there. Sellers of religious books crisscross the arteries. In places, food is distributed to passers-by and the poor. Everywhere, orange, saffron and yellow dominate.
Shortly before arriving at the camp, a man in his fifties approaches us at sector 8, while we are tired along an endless street. With some co-religionists, he offers each Kumbha Mela a camp for visiting pilgrims against a small donation. We start the conversation, then he offers us a chai. He also wants us to meet his sociologist daughter who is doing a study as part of the Kumbh.
We ride in his old broken car, heading to the next chai shop. He calls his daughter to join us. She arrives with some delicacies prepared specially for Makar Sankranti. Night is falling. We are obliged to withdraw and postpone the meeting to the next day, because our Rajasthani friends are waiting for us to eat.
We arrive at 6 at the camp. The concern is palpable. Not seeing us coming back, they are all stressed, convinced that we got lost in Kumbha Mela. They come one by one to ask us where we were, what we were doing, and why we arrived so late. After the explanations we go to the meal.
The evening is spent doing some portraits of our guests, to exchange our photos, to respond to the various requests of each other. While wandering in this huge spiritual area, we made some pretty incredible discoveries. In particular, we see a guru with Russian affinities who preaches the good word in front of a lot of enthusiastic Westerners.
At night, the atmosphere is totally different. It is very mystical, with a mix between end of the world and an apocalypse. Yellow lights are shining in all corners of the site and the camps are brightening up in Las Vegas style lights. Mist covers tents. Dust and pollution fall as campfires light up and puffs of marijuana (an integral part of the cult) multiply. The cocktail stings the eyes.
We go to bed. I put my earbuds to protect from the songs and religious litanies that still sound by the surrounding speakers.
Today we return to Varanasi. There are still two major baths, the Maghi Purnima Snan and Shivaratri Snan, but there is no procession on these days. So we decanille this morning. The camp is almost deserted. Only the two stewards stay there. We fold our luggage, but we decided to make a good donation with all the stuff we no longer need, including the tent and thick blankets we bought at the beginning of the week.
We leave the camp in the middle of the morning and we head for the road bridge over the Ganges and Kumbha Mela to find a means of transportation to a bus to Varanasi. After a last chai in Daraganj, we come across a sadhu in trance along the road, then we get on the bridge.
The traffic is dense, but we find a free rickshaw in which we climb, before being stuck in a monstrous traffic jam. The whole center of Allahabad seems congested. Our driver ends up finding a parade by infiltrating a side street.
When we arrive at the terminal bus of Allahabad, it is empty. We go on the train. There, I'm a little nervous, fearing a phenomenal rush at the station and trains leaving Allahabad. But is there a choice? No, unless you beat the budget with a taxi. I can't even imagine the price up to Varanasi, which is 120 km from here. So we reach the train station.
Surprisingly, the station is not rush and I find a window more or less accessible. There is a train to Varanasi that leaves in 20 minutes, but it makes a small detour through Jaunpur, a small town north of the Allahabad-Varanasi axis. I buy ticket in 2nd class sleeper, and we bomb to the dock, which requires some zigzags through the station. We go up, we go down, we go back, we go down, until we arrive on our platform.
We find our coach and our seats. The compartment is almost empty. There is just a young student on the seat opposite. I go down to buy some food on the platform, when the train starts. I speed up and have to climb on one of the last coaches. I go up the train to our compartment and, strange thing, the train is half empty.
Despite my initial fears, the journey to Varanasi remain in my memory as one of the most enjoyable trips on an Indian train. The temperature is perfect. The compartment remains almost empty during the whole trip and our student is very nice and very kind. There are advantages to being on a small country line, off the major railways. I took the opportunity to take a nap on the bench, exhausted after the week just passed.
I arrived in Varanasi in the morning of Makar Sankranti in January at 5.30 am. After the formalities I met the agency guy at the airport who accompanied me to the hotel. I went to bed around 6:30 and woke up at 9:30. I was asked to go to one of the fields but postpone the visit by a few hours and go out at noon.
The very late breakfast consisted of idlis, upma, a kind of porridge with a cereal and vegetables, cooked rice and chutney. On the steps that overlook the River Ganges on almost every terrace there is a child with a kite. It is also one of the most special and magical days to take a bath.
In fact more than 2 million devotees come to the waters of the Ganges river in Benares to celebrate this festival. In addition, this year coincides with the beginning of the Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest religious congregation in the world that is celebrated every 12 years in Allahabad.
I visit a Krishna temple. Strolling the streets of Benares is like participating in an obstacle course. One of the reasons is the threads of kites that, at every step, get tangled in the feet. The boys and girls of the city were prepared for the Makar Sankranti.
The people were very shy, but at the same time very curious. I was asked a thousand questions with big smiles. The wind was moderately strong. I flew kites for the rest of the day. For me it was the most beautiful moment, full of emotions and very intense. Being able to be in the middle of hundreds of kites and being able to participate in this party was the pinnacle. I managed to cut five kites.
I then went to eat at the hotel. I sat on the floor and ate on coffee tables as we were served on banana leaf sets. A dozen waiters in local costumes always carried us an infinity of very good and particular specialties. I like the til ladoos. After dinner I experienced the local rickshaws to go to the kite market. I had fun with the eyes and finally we went to sleep.