"If there is one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India"
I have recently returned from a trip to India. The main reason for my journey to the subcontinent was to see the Kumbh Mela, the mass Hindu pilgrimage that occurs every third year and is the world's greatest human gathering, eclipsing even the Hajj to the Mecca.
I had visited India once before, but that was over a decade ago, and in any case India is a country that one visit can never do justice to. Huge, diverse, and home to one of the world's oldest civilizations, it could keep a traveller busy for years. My journey begun in Mumbai, where many journeys to India begin. The great metropolis seemed noticeably more prosperous and modern than it did the last time I was there, although the traffic and pollution have become as bad as anywhere in China.
After a couple of days I flew up north to Varanasi, Hinduism's holiest city. From there I planned to travel onwards to the Kumbh Mela, which was being held in nearby Allahabad. Varanasi, or Benares as it was known in the past, is perched on the banks of the Ganges. It is the holiest of Hinduism's seven centres of pilgrimage, and many believe that dying here can deliver moksha, freedom from the cycle of reincarnation, or at the very least put you on a good path towards it. Pilgrims flock to Varanasi from all over India to bathe in the Ganges and to cremate their dead on the ghats by the river. The city also attracts its fair share of foreign travellers who come to see India at its most devout and exotic.
Unusually for a city on a river, Varanasi is built entirely upon one bank of the Ganges, the western one. The eastern bank of the great river is a barren sandbank devoid of habitation, and it is apparently considered to be an inauspicious place. According to some sources, tradition has it that if you die there you will be reincarnated as a donkey.
|Varanasi seen from the Ganges|
|The Eastern bank of the Ganges, just across from Varanasi|
After arriving at Varanasi's small airport I took an uber to my guesthouse in the old town, where most travellers stay. This maze of streets overlooking the Ganges has changed little since medieval times, with ascetics, pilgrims, traders, cows and stray dogs sharing the extremely narrow alleys with tourists. Prices in India are cheap by Chinese standards: my room (admittedly quite a modest one) only cost the equivalent of 100 Yuan for a night.
My guesthouse overlooked the Ganges, and just outside the entrance a maze of steps took you down to the riverbank. This is where most of the action happens. Every evening a large puja (prayer ritual) is held next to the river, attracting crowds of onlookers. At any time of day you will find pilgrims bathing in the Ganges, which is supposed to wash away your sins. The men quite often strip down to their underwear, while the women tend to dip in wearing a long dress that covers their forms. Some just wade in ankle deep, but most people bathe their entire bodies and even wash their hair in the river.
|Puja ceremony next to the Ganges|
The Ganges is actually quite polluted, and many have pointed out that bathing in it doesn't seem like a great idea from the health perspective. The dead are sometimes not cremated but simply left in the river, either because the families are too poor to afford a cremation or because of a belief that certain categories of deceased, like unmarried women and young children, should not be cremated. I never saw any dead bodies floating down the river myself, and while I did notice plastic bottles and other rubbish in the water, I must say that I have seen rivers in China that seemed far more polluted, with foul-smelling water that looked like it might kill you if you dived in. By comparison the water of the Ganges didn't look particularly off-putting. Still, studies show that India's holy river is indeed very polluted. But this doesn't discourage the numerous pilgrims who continue to flock from all over India to bathe in its waters.
Looking at the pilgrims bathing, it struck me that I have never seen or heard of a river being accorded this level of devotion. Chinese and Egyptian cultures also have a certain reverence for the rivers that gave birth to their civilizations, but India is the only place I know of where a river has become a centre of religious worship. The Nile certainly has a central place in Egypt's collective imagination, and if Egyptians didn't follow Islam or Christianity, religions which have no place for such things, they would probably worship the Nile with equal devotion.
While in Varanasi I spent many hours wandering along the Ganges, observing the fascinating collection of humanity on display. Most unusual are the sadhus, the Hindu ascetics, who can often be found in the city. Having given up on all worldly possessions they wander the country dressed in saffron robes, or if they belong to certain sects wearing almost nothing, and subsist on donations from the faithful. They are also known to smoke a lot of hashish as an aide to gaining enlightenment. Many Hindus (and Jainists) believe that the sadhus' ascetic lifestyle helps to release not just their own karma but that of the community at large, and so they are given donations of food and drink even in impoverished villages. There are said to be 4 or 5 million Sadhus in India today. Their drug consumption and occasional nakedness are tolerated as expressions of religiosity.
I saw quite a few of these ascetic figures sitting on the steps near the river, with long, matted hair and unkempt beards, wearing only a cloth to cover their groin. The rest of their bodies were often smeared in white ashes that come from the cremation fires. The chilly night air clearly didn't bother them. Some of them would just sit for hours in yoga position on the banks of the Ganges, meditating and apparently indifferent to those around them. On one occasion I saw a young lady donate some money to one of them, at which point he touched her head and blessed her. A couple of young men started filming with their phones and got really close, at which point the sadhu reached for his staff in anger, and the young men fled.
|Sadhus on the banks of the Ganges|
Another interesting experience was watching the cremation ceremonies. The corpses are carried through the streets by relatives chanting "Ram Naam Satya Hai", an ancient chant meaning "the name of the Lord Rama is truth". When they arrive at the riverbank, the cremation ceremony is handled by members of the dom, a low-caste community who have carried out the cremations since time immemorial. Finally, the ashes are sprinkled into the Ganges.
While I found Varanasi fascinating, being there was also an intense and exhausting experience. Come to think of it, this might actually be a good description of most travel in India. My memory of India was of a place that was hugely varied and interesting, but also constituted a constant assault on the senses that took some getting used to. My time in Varanasi only confirmed that perception. Touts kept hassling me throughout the city, especially along the Ganges. The streets remained noisy throughout the night, and getting a good night's sleep turned out to be tough. A couple of times bouts of rain led to blackouts lasting a few hours.
And if the alleys of the old city were cramped and hard to walk through, the streets of the "modern" city beyond them were far worse. I tried to walk northwards for a while to see what was out there, but I found the brief walk far more tiring than it should have been. There were no pavements, and I had to negotiate my way through constant throngs of people, while being mindful of rickshaws, animals and traffic. The streets were objectively filthy, and many of the people looked seriously impoverished. I saw pilgrims sleeping on mats on the roadside in impossibly small patches of space.
|Street scene, Varanasi|
Varanasi is in Uttar Pradesh, a state in Northern India that has the distinction of having the biggest population of any sub-national division in the world, with 200 million people squeezed into an area slightly bigger than Great Britain. Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Bihar are the areas where the Buddha lived and preached, and where many of Hinduism's founding myths are set. They are packed full of places that are holy to both Hindus and Buddhists. But this area is also known within India as a place of rampant poverty, conservatism and caste prejudice. Far away from the glittering IT hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad and cosmopolitan Mumbai, this is India's underbelly. On my last trip to India I had travelled through Bihar on my way to Nepal, and had been shocked by the poverty on display. This time around the conditions shocked me again.
In spite of all the economic development of the last few decades, the poverty of part of India's population remains eye-catching to the outsider, especially in this part of the country. You can argue about the historical responsibilities of British colonialism in creating India's widespread poverty, but you cannot deny this fact. Even in my guesthouse the staff had nowhere to go back to after their shifts ended, or even a bed to call their own. At 10 pm they would simply lay down their mats in the lobby, next to the front desk, and sleep on the floor (on the other hand, the younger one did have a smartphone and added me on Facebook). This sort of arrangement is considered completely normal.
Another thing that struck me was the polluted air much of India seems to be smothered in. As a good Beijinger I brought along my "laser egg", a device which allows me to test the air quality wherever I am. The air in Mumbai was appalling when I was there, with AQI readings of over 300, which even in Beijing would make it really polluted. But Varanasi was little better, with readings consistently around 250. From my balcony I could see the Ganges, but I could never see the horizon due to the haze. Even when I got to Goa, India's "tropical paradise", where the air seemed nice and clear, the actual figure on the AQI index was around 150, way above international safe standards and comparable to the Beijing average. For a variety of reasons, but mainly due to the large-scale burning of firewood and biomass in an overcrowded country, the subcontinent is chocking on air pollution. The use of masks and air purifiers is also still more limited than it is in China.
In any case, while travel in India can be exhausting for an outsider, it certainly has its charms. The religious and linguistic variety on offer are endlessly fascinating, the food is wonderful, and the locals tend to be friendly and polite with foreign travellers. The director of my guesthouse was a delightful chap who spoke impeccable Indian English and did his utmost to fulfil all of my outlandish requests. People also display an admirable live-and-let-live attitude which is part of the reason India actually remains remarkably peaceful in spite of the huge pressure of population and resources. Even with all the inequality and the large number of indigent the cities feel pretty safe at night, at least if you are a man. And coming from China, it is remarkable to see another country of over a billion people holding things together and making economic progress without a state enforcing uniformity of thought and language.
I spent about a week in Varanasi. I ended up abstaining entirely from meat and alcohol during my time there. Both things can be found in the city, but only with some difficulty, and especially drinking alcohol anywhere too close to the Ganges is frowned upon. Not eating meat seemed like a good way to get into the spirit of the place, and I figured it wouldn't hurt me (or my karma) either. I ended up eating only vegetarian throughout my stay in India.
The city's wildlife was almost as exotic as the sites. As well as the inevitable cows and the stray dogs, there were plenty of macaque monkeys jumping freely from roof to roof, and one day I even saw a man riding a working elephant through the streets. On one occasion I left the door to my balcony open, and before I knew it a monkey had hopped in and stolen the oranges I had bought from the market. It sat peeling the oranges and eating them on my balcony with a mischievous look, and I decided not to challenge it, mindful that these animals can bite and scratch and may carry diseases.
I later read that the legions of wild monkeys in Indian cities have become a real problem, as they enter houses to steal food or even attack people. I had just witnessed the problem first hand. On the other hand the bulls on the streets are not considered a threat, and are treated with the same indulgence as the cows. This shows that the European view of bulls as highly dangerous animals is not entirely warranted (although every now and again a bull in India will go on a rampage and kill someone). The streets were however filled with cow dung, which you really had to be careful not to step into.
|Elephant on the streets of Varanasi|
|Cows whiling away the hours, Varanasi|
My main purpose in coming to the region was to see the Kumbh Mela, but I had to figure out what the best way to go about this would be. The Kumbh is held for a two-month period every three years, and it alternates between four different cities spread across Northern India. No one knows when the tradition started, but legend has it that Lord Vishnu spilled four drops of amrita, the nectar of immortality, in the four different spots where the festival is now held. According to another version, it was spilt by demigods fleeing from demons who wanted to steal the nectar. Kumbh Mela actually means "the pot fair", referring to the gourd from which the nectar was spilled.
This greatest of Hindu festivals tends to be a truly crowded affair. 75 million people went to the last one in 2016. An amazing 120 million people visited the 2013 Kumbh, also held in Allahabad (tragically, 42 were killed in a stampede at the train station). That would be one Indian in ten, more or less. But that was the Maha or Great Kumbh Mela, which only occurs once every 144 years. Every 12 years there is a Purna Kumbh Mela, when 12 planets believed to affect the human race are alligned. The one I was going to was a more modest Ardha ("Half") Kumb Mela, which takes place halfway between two Purna Kumbh Melas. The city of Allahabad has actually been holding an annual fair along the Ganges during the holy month of Magh (corresponding to January/February) since ancient times. It was only in the 19th century, however, that locals brahmins decided to make it coincide with the Kumbh Mela once every 12 years.
I had been warned by many to expect unfathomably huge crowds, and that it would be best to proceed with caution. In my hostel in Mumbai I had met a Dutchman who visited the festival six years ago, and told me stories of having to wait for 17 hours for a bus back to Varanasi, and of being surrounded by crowds the likes of which he had never seen. Various Indians also warned me to expect a lot of people. In Mumbai I shared a taxi with an Indian Jew who had lived in the US for decades but was back for the holidays. When I mentioned that I was going to the Kumbh Mela he gave me a look of horror: "there will be far too many people. Don't go!"
In my guesthouse in Varanasi there was a middle-aged British woman who had just returned from the Mela herself. She looked like a bit of a hippie, and was clearly a follower of some guru or other. She had much experience of India, and was even able to speak some Hindi. This lady gave me some more realistic advice, explaining that the festival grounds would be divided into camps belonging to different gurus or denominations, and I should leave a donation every time I visited one. She also warned me against spending the night sleeping at the Mela, like many pilgrims do. She told me that she had slept there for five days, but the conditions were spartan and the nights were freezing. She also said that the authorities sprayed the area with DDT every night to kill off any mosquitoes, since they don't want outbreaks of malaria or other diseases on their hands. Unsurprisingly she had fallen ill, and was still recovering from the experience.
Other bits of advice she gave me were a bit harder for my rational mind to accept. She told me that some of the sadhus may be dangerous to get too close to, because they have an "expanded consciousness" and they are filled with so much psychic energy that if I touched them my body might not be able to handle the shock. In fact I might even die, she warned me. I nodded and said I would be careful, as if I found this advice perfectly normal and sensible.
Given my uncertainty about the conditions I would encounter, and the fact that I had been struggling with my health and especially my digestion since reaching Varanasi, I decided to play it safe and pay a driver to drive me to the Kumbh Mela and back. This turned out only to cost 3000 Rupees, or around 30 euros. The drive to Allahabad took about two hours. On the day itself I woke up feeling lousy with an upset stomach, but I decided to go through with the plan. I spent the first hour of the ride feeling pretty awful, but then we stopped at a shabby rest station, and a cup of milk tea revived me. Communication with my driver turned out to be hard, since he knew virtually no English at all, and I virtually no Hindi. Contrary to popular misconception the majority of Indians do not speak English, especially in the Hindi-speaking areas of the North.
For the rest of the drive I stared out of the window. The sides of the road were filled with houses and human activity along the entire route. There were plenty of people riding bicycles, more than you would ever see in China nowadays. The were also, to be fair, plenty of signs of economic development, for instance new overpasses and blocks of flats springing up everywhere. But the general impression was still one of dust and poverty.
Once we got to Allahabad, my driver parked just under the main bridge over the Ganges, near the area where the festival takes place. There were certainly plenty of people, but I failed to see the immense crowds I had been warned about. I slowly made my way towards the Triveni Sangam, the holiest location in the whole festival. Triveni Sangam means "the confluence of three rivers". In actual fact only two rivers meet there, the Ganges and the Yamuna, but according to Hindu tradition a third, mythical river called Saraswati also joins up with the other two, at least at the metaphysical level. Many believe that this river once really existed. The Vedic texts claim that it dried up in the desert as it turned into the goddess of wisdom Saraswati, its personification.
Be it as it may, I made my way through throngs of people to the Triveni Sangam, which as you might expect was full of pilgrims bathing in the water. Many of the pilgrims seemed to be simple and humble folk, who may well have travelled days on overcrowded trains and slept out in the open to get to the fair. But there were also plenty of more prosperous looking people bathing in the holy river. The general mood seemed joyful. While I didn't dare to actually jump in and bathe, I did sprinkle some of the river's water on my forehead for good luck.
|Crowds bathing at the Triveni Sangam|
|Meditating sadhu and his assistant|
The other side of the Ganges was where the different sects had their encampments. The river was traversed by plenty of makeshift bridges built for the festival, so I crossed one of them and got to the other bank. I walked around the area where most of the Sadhus were residing. Unfortunately I did not see any of them perform the feats of impossible strength which they sometimes show off at these gatherings. These can include pulling trucks and lifting rocks with their genitals!
I was invited into one of the camps by a guru, a kind-looking man with a moustache. He bade me sit and offered me tea and sweets, while some of his followers (all elderly men and women in saris) crowded around us. I was the centre of the attention and really wanted to chat with the guru, who was clearly eager to speak to me, but the language barrier got in the way. None of them knew much English. After chitchatting politely in very limited English, I got up and bade the man farewell, thanking him for the hospitality.
Most of the encampments offer pilgrims free food, and it is entirely possibly to go for days without spending any money (as long as you don't mind eating with your hands off a banana leaf, the most common dining arrangement). The lack of commercialism in the Kumbh Mela is refreshing. You can see simple people offer money to the ascetics, even when they have little themselves. After wandering around for a while I ended up at the ISKCON camp. ISKCON stands for International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known to Westerners as the Hare Krishna movement.
In the West they may have a reputation as New Age cranks, and they may espouse some seriously counterfactual beliefs, for instance that the Earth is closer to the Sun than it is to the Moon (no worse than many Christians refusing to accept that we evolved from apes, of course), but this movement is based upon an Indian tradition of chanting the names of Hare, Krishna and Rama which goes back to the 15th century, and it has plenty of Indian adherents as well as American and European drop-outs seeking enlightenment. The ISKCON camp looked far more prosperous and impressive than those around it, with a proper reception, a large prayer hall and a canteen. A friendly Bengalese adherent took me to the canteen and offered me some food, although it wasn't even a meal time.
Behind the prayer hall were the tents where the followers were staying for the duration of the Mela. This was the only place in the Mela where I saw other Westerners. An Australian young man I spoke to said his parents had converted before he was born, and he had been raised at the movement's headquarters in West Bengal. An older American dressed in saffron robes told me he had been an enthusiastic adherent for twenty years, and also lived and worked at the movement's headquarters. After telling me all about ISKCON's beliefs, he insisted on gifting me a beautiful hardback copy of the Baghavad Gita in the hope I would see the light. He told me about the amazing powers that chanting the Hare Krishna chant for hours could have on you. When I asked him what the faith's social views were he muttered something about society being divided into castes, which obviously left me less than convinced. All the same I thanked him and left a donation at the reception as a way of expressing my gratitude for the meal (100 rupees or about 1 Euro is considered acceptable), and then I left.
There was clearly much going on at the festival which I would have appreciated better if I had known more about Hinduism and been able to speak Hindi, but wandering around was still very interesting, and it wasn't nearly as uncomfortable and crowded as everyone had warned me. I did purposefully avoid going on one of the more propitious bathing dates, when the festival grounds are swarmed by much bigger crowds than normal.
Over my time at the Kumbh and in Varanasi I came into more contact with the ancient belief system known as Hinduism than I have ever done previously. A bit like Judaism, it is a religion that cannot be divorced from its cultural context and the country it was born in. The Yoga philosophy, with its methods to better oneself physically and mentally that have found so much following around the world, is one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism. In this sense, it has clearly contributed something of value to humanity. There is also something poetic about Indian society's tolerance and support for the unclothed Sadhu who has renounced all material comforts and lives a life of spiritual discipline.
Having said that, I am not one to blindly romanticize “exotic” faiths, a human weakness almost as common as blindly fearing or despising them. There are practices associated with Hinduism which can only be seen as a burden, including India's rigid caste system and the discrimination towards the Dalit castes that continues to this day in rural areas, in spite of all attempts to ban it. It also good to keep in mind that just like most religions Hinduism can become a tool for those who want to sow ethnic division and intolerance, and under India's current right-wing government there has been a worrying revival of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, just as other forms of nationalism and extremism are gaining ground again all over the world.
Hindutva's main target is Indian Muslims, which it sees as interlopers left over from the Mughal era. Even the very city of Allahabad formally had its name changed back to Prayagraj last year, because the name Allahabad with its Muslim connotations was given to it by the Mughals in 1575 (most people still call it Allahabad, as I am doing here). Sadly, since Narendra Modi's election in 2014 there has been a worrying increase in cases of people being assaulted and even lynched by mobs of "cow vigilantes" because they are accused of slaughtering cows, which is a taboo in Hinduism and illegal in most of India. The victims of this violence are usually Muslims or from the Dalit castes.
After getting back to Varanasi from Allahabad, I realized that my health was not getting any better. In fact, in addition to the constant digestive upset I was also coming down with a cold. It struck me that now I had seen the Mela, I should perhaps look for a more amenable climate to spend the rest of my time in India, and I booked a cheap flight down to Goa. Before leaving the area I still had the chance to visit Sarnath, a place near Varanasi where Gautama Buddha is supposed to have given his first sermon after achieving enlightenment and laid out Buddhism's "four noble truths" for the first time. Emperor Ashoka had a massive Stupa built here to commemorate the Buddha's first sermon, and there is now an archeological site around it.
Ashoka, one of India's most formidable rulers, turned the Maurya Empire into the greatest empire to ever have existed in the Indian subcontinent, bigger even than the British Raj, spreading all the way to Afghanistan. He converted to Buddhism after feeling shame and disgust at the havoc and death reeked by his own war to conquer the kingdom of Kalinga, a kingdom which by the way is supposed to have had the world's first-ever system of parliamentary democracy before it fell to Ashoka. India's history is endlessly fascinating once you get into it. In any case, the Stupa still stands at 43 meters of height, although it was actually rebuilt in 500 CE to replace Ashoka's original structure, erected a few centuries earlier. The site had a fair share of tourists from Korea and other Buddhist nations.
|A strange kind of price discrimination at the Deer Park in Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first sermon. I guess "Asian foreigners" are considered more likely to be Buddhist pilgrims.|
That same evening I flew off to Goa. Goa could not have been any more different from Uttar Pradesh. It is India's smallest state and its prime holiday destination, and tourism has brought it the highest average income in the whole country. The vegetation is lush and tropical, and the towns feel quite prosperous and laid back. Since Goa is down in the South of India the weather was warm even at night, even though I was there in January.
Goa has a curious history. It was ruled by Portugal for over four centuries until India literally took it back by force in 1961. As a result one fourth of its people are now Catholics, and surnames like De Souza are not rare. Incidentally most of the population remains Hindu, which is astonishing when you consider that this small area underwent three centuries of brutal Catholic inquisition, in which any suggestion that you practiced Hinduism, Islam or Judaism could be met with gruesome punishments. The Konkani language was also violently suppressed in favour of Portuguese, with the failed intent to make the entire populace Portuguese-speaking. And yet Konkani is now most people's mother tongue as well as Goa's official language, and Portuguese is already all but forgotten. The resilience of India's native traditions in the face of invaders is clearly more than a myth. Or maybe the inquisition's brutality only made the natives more determined to resist it.
Some time around the sixties Goa was discovered by the hippies, who found a laid-back tropical backwater where pristine beaches lay untouched, life cost next to nothing and locals were tolerant of their hippy ways. A few decades later the package tours started arriving, and now Goa is going the way of Thailand. The place where I ended up staying, the seaside town of Arambol, is especially popular with groups of Russians escaping their dreary winter, and with young Israelis unwinding in Asia. Signs in Russian and Hebrew and restaurants offering hummus or pyrogi are everywhere. Bars with live music dot the beach. Curiously there seem to be absolutely no Chinese visitors anywhere in Goa, unlike what you would find in most of Asia's holiday destinations. There is still quite a hippy scene on the side, and while smoking hash may be illegal it is done fairly openly. Just like the Thai islands and Bali, Goa has developed a seedy side as well. The Nigerian drug dealers looking for customers at the entrance to the beach spoke volumes.
|Cows in Arambol, Goa|
|Volleyball game, Goa|
|The Terekhol River dividing Goa from Maharashtra|
|Goan village in the interior|
Although no longer unspoiled the tropical beaches remain lovely, and after the rigours of travelling in the North, Goa was a great place to unwind. I quickly recovered my full strength, and took the chance to enhance my yoga skills a bit. Arambol has numerous yoga schools offering classes which seemed ridiculously cheap coming from Beijing. Like most visitors I got around on a rented scooter. One day I drove north for an hour or so, until I got to the bridge over the Terekhol River that divides Goa from the state of Maharashtra. The landscape was green and beautiful, and I decided to drive on. Once I crossed the bridge I could immediately tell the difference. Signage in English disappeared, and houses and people became much scarcer. In the one village I did find, people stared at me and my scooter in surprise. After a while I turned around and drove back to touristy Goa.
My last night in Goa was spent in the state capital of Panaji, a quaint town with a center made up of colonial buildings and shops with names still in Portuguese, and a cathedral dominating its main square. The whole town is overshadowed by the huge new bridge that was just built across the Mandovi river. A 30 minute bus ride away lies Old Goa, the now abandoned city that used to serve as the capital for much of Portugal's Asian empire. At its heyday in the sixteenth century it must have been quite a sight, but it was eventually abandoned due to the prevalence of malaria. The area is filled with impressive Portuguese cathedrals and churches that once must have seemed like eternal repositories of power, while now they stand deserted and surrounded by the jungle.