Kumbh Mela: Religion, the Ganges and Robbery

Kumbh Mela, Haridwar: In the Ganges for Kumbh Mela. Photo by Rafaela Schneider
In the Ganges for Kumbh Mela. Photo by Rafaela Schneider

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.

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 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.

Hadiwar at night. Photo by Rafaela Schneider
Haridwar at night. Photo by Rafaela Schneider

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.

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.

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