Starting My Journey
From the car window, I could see the sea of white tents as we slowly approached Haridwar in Northern India.
The sheer amount of people was proof that Kumbh Mela was indeed one of the largest gatherings in the world – 100 million souls.
Amazingly, I still had some personal space, a big difference from when I was in Brazil during Carnival.
Where for several moments I felt like I had a conjoined twin attached to me. I wondered if Haridwar would be so full of life if it hadn’t been hosting such a big event.
Kumbh Mela in Haridwar
Kumbh Mela is one of the largest religious festivals in the world, where Hindu pilgrims flock to the Ganges to have their sins cleansed.
In Haridwar, it happens every 12 years. When I found out that it coincided with my trip, I felt it was something I needed to experience with my own eyes.
The narrow streets abounded with shops and colors. Big smiles eagerly beckoned, inviting people to check their wares.
The sticky heat was more bearable under the shades having a chai, which of course, is appreciated in any weather conditions.
Feeling Like Celebrities
Waiting in the queue for the cable car, all eyes were on my brother, Greg, and me. “Juṛavāṁ bhā’ī?” an inquisitive little boy asked. By then we already knew that meant “twin brothers” and confirmed it, to the boy’s joy.
We were already feeling like celebrities just by being foreigners, but being twins took it to a whole new level.
With our tickets in hand, we boarded the cars and gradually ascended towards Mansa Devi Temple.
The Spectacular View
The view became more spectacular the higher we got and we finally understood the geography of the town. The powerful Ganges gushed beneath the steps of majestic green mountains.
At the top it wasn’t any different. We saw hordes of people worshiping their gods, whereas we were there as visitors. Flowers, ornaments, sweat, children, cries — all happening at the same time. We’d go into the temple and then in no time have to come out.
The clear view from up high was mesmerizing and I realized the white tents I saw were just a fraction of the whole camp. The population of Haridwar probably increases at least 10-fold during the gathering.
An Unexpected Conversation
Suddenly we heard a familiar language: “Que vista linda não é?” (What a beautiful view, isn’t it?) I turned to see an old lady talking with another in Portuguese.
As we engaged in an unexpected conversation, both the ladies and their driver were somewhat relieved.
“We’ve been travelling around India with a driver and it has been wonderful! We don’t even speak English,” she continued.
We quickly found out the driver heartily disagreed with that statement and asked us to update him with their travel plans, as he was having a hard time understanding what was going on.
“We’re attending a course in Rishikesh,” she carried on, “learning about the year 2012 and the end of the era.” It was profound — I would never have thought I’d meet two ladies in their sixties in India being that courageous.
The sun kept pounding on our heads and we chose a different route down, following a group of Indians through a narrow grassy path.
We purchased some fruits whilst I pondered about how religion took a great part in people’s lives — it wasn’t every day I saw such devotion.
Suddenly This Happened
Strolling further down, we spotted three curious figures, just around the corner. They stared at us menacingly as we slowly approached.
The atmosphere became tense and we looked at each other, slightly unsure about what we should do.
There was no going back, and so we decided to meet our fate.
As I stepped along, leading our group, the tallest of them stood up and walked towards me, never averting his eyes from mine.
I stood my ground and considered attacking first, but given the situation — many Indians apprehensively paying attention — I withdrew.
He stopped in front of me and grabbed the bag of bananas from my hands abruptly as Greg yelled “Hide the tangerines! Hide the tangerines!”
I had just been mugged by a monkey, and no one around us could hold their laughter.
It took me a while to digest those feelings — something similar had happened to me in the past, but they were homeless kids, not monkeys.
Had I just been robbed by a massive simian? How was that even possible?
He shared the stolen goods with his peers and, strangely, was still staring at me.
With contempt, he bit his banana in that peculiar way monkeys do — without peeling the skin — as if he was making a point, saying without muttering words:
“I’m here, eating your banana, human, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
I was amused and embarrassed — it’s not every day a monkey steals your bananas.
For a split second, I felt like going back and strangling that furry beast, but of course I knew better. He was a marauder; just another day in the office.
I decided I’d see that incident as a tax collection — some days you win, some days you lose your bananas.
We carried on down the slope laughing about the episode and actually happy it had happened — it had been rather funny after all.
We were faced with crowds again and walked towards the ghat, where the river split and current wasn’t so strong.
We shared the steps with several families, watching many more bathing in the calm waters.
Each person was performing a gracious rhythmic dive, immersing themselves under water whilst praying.
This ritual was part of the Kumbh Mela, where the Ganges would purify their bodies.
Bathing in the Ganges
We felt compelled to bathe after witnessing such a beautiful spectacle — and because our clothes were sticking to our bodies as it was getting hotter and hotter.
We were welcomed with open arms and big smiles and joined the mass of people.
Had we been cleaned? Had we been purified? I don’t know, but the energy around us was so electrifying we could almost feel it.
Not too far away, we saw a quiet area and strolled in its direction, only to be instantly stopped by a police guard.
The crime: Greg and Rafa, his wife, were holding hands. After the mild telling off they immediately complied, but we were left wondering how such an innocent act could be disrespectful.
We sat down by the steps as the night was drawing in, listening to chanting and absorbing our surroundings.
Candles were slowly being lit and placed over carefully adorned leaves — these offerings would gently float and be carried away by Mother Ganges.
Adhering to the tradition, each of us did the same. I, however, folded a lotus origami and sent it down the river thankful for being part of such a wonderful congregation.
Walking back to the car park, we talked about our somewhat unusual day. It had had its ups and downs.
The spirituality was always around, manifesting in several ways. The wild fauna was definitely present making sure the banana tax was being collected.
We were left with the tangerines, which at that time, couldn’t be any sweeter.
Author Bio: Guilherme is a Brazilian freelance travel writer. He is the Co-Founder of the Slow Spirit Blog, where he writes about a minimalist, sustainable travel lifestyle. https://www.slowspirit.com/