confluence: Making it to the Mela

I took advantage of my pricey hotel in Trichy to shower and even watch a bit of an interesting movie with Tim Robbins set in a futuristic reality where languages were mixed and different feelings and abilities could be contracted intentionally through viruses. (As a side note, I once met Tim Robbins at a “Hootenanny” in Red Hook where he performed a song on the guitar while singing. After, I complimented him on his playing, so we’re old buddies 🙂

I woke early the next morning, in part because I had met a friendly Malaysian woman the night before while using the hotel’s wireless lounge and she had been full of horror stories about how difficult it had been for her to visit temples with her son without being hounded for money by corrupt priests and would-be temple guides. I had told her I’d had no such problem and invited her to join me in visiting one of the 5 Shiva Lingam (panchabhoota) temples dedicated to the 5 elements the next day after breakfast. I went to the hotel’s dining room, but the woman never showed, which didn’t really surprise me. Timidity in India is really not rewarded.

I took a rickshaw to the temple, which was really peaceful in the morning and crossed the river Cauvery on the way: one of the sacred rivers in India, of which there are several. This is one of the things I really like about Hinduism: the tendency to see the sacred in nature. It isn’t at all uncommon for a tree to be decorated as an altar, simply because it is a beautiful tree.

This temple was dedicated the water element and the lingam is enshrined in the center, in the midst of a pool of spring water from the Cauvery. I went back to the hotel and prepared to depart towards Vaitheeshwaran Koil where the Naadi Palm Leaf reader I’d read about is located. The bus stand was close by and there are buses every hour, so I walked over and caught a bus within 20 minutes.

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The ride was beautiful and the driver played some nice Tamil music through the bus’ loudspeakers. I was sad that I couldn’t burn the cd, since my laptop is a Macbook Air with no cd drive, but then I noticed he was playing it from a USB stick. He nicely let me copy the music to my computer.

It was getting late and I called the reader, who told me I should come in the morning by 9 a.m. to have a reading. It would have to wait till I returned from the North, since I was leaving the following morning from Chennai by plane. I continued instead to Chidaburam where the second of the 5 Shiva Lingam temples is located: this one dedicated to the ether or space element. The ride was easy and I got down by the bus station to reserve my bus for Chennai. Luckily, I found a sleeper bus leaving that night around 12:30 for only 250 rupees. It would get me there in perfect time to catch my flight.

Then I walked to the temple, leaving the bulk of my bags at the station. The temple complex was enormous, massive gopurams on all sides and a huge tank in the center. The interior of the main temple was full of life, this being a time of a special pooja or religious ceremony. It was getting late and the feeling of the sacred space was heightened by the darkness, lit with ghee (clarified butter) lamps. When I exited the temple sanctum a nice priest was there, eager to talk with me about my experience. He and another priest spent several hours with me talking about spiritual matters and then invited me to dinner with them.

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senthil – one of my priestly friends

After dinner we returned to the temple for a moment and Ganesha, one of the priests, took me to his parents’ house to use the toilet there, which was an experience in itself. He is a priest by heritage and his family all lives right around the temple complex. They told me the story of why there are so many priests in Chidaburam and why they are different than other temples: once Shiva was to dance for some devotees, but he needed more of an audience to make it worth his while, so he conjured priests from the stars and after the dance was finished they stayed on at Chidaburam. My new friends escorted me to the bus station in time to catch my bus and were very kind all around.

I slept well in the bus, the sleepers being equipped with full bed berths. The jasmine in my hair, bought for me by Ganesha in front of the temple, perfumed the journey – and my hair.

The bus got to Chennai in the early morning and I took a rickshaw to the airport and caught my plane with no problem. I flew to Lucknow via Bangalore and Delhi.

I already had my ticket for Allahabad from Lucknow, purchased from the train station in Madurai before I left that city. After a taxi, I got to the train station in time to have a late lunch at a nice restaurant there before the train came. It was only 4 hours to Allahabad, but the journey was made less comfortable by the presence of a large amount of Indian soldiers riding in the car, heading also to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. In the end they were very nice, but they made the car even more crowded than usual.

When I arrived in Allahabad, the station was full of people, camped out on the platform. I haggled with the rickshaw drivers to take me to the mela where someone from the camp I had reserved space with would meet me. The city was buzzing with the energy of the festival.

It was night when I arrived and the Kumbh could be heard all around us, though the only way to guess how large it was was the bright lights illuminating the Kumbh Camp where all those devotees would have been staying for the last month or so since the festivities began.

I was greeted by Ambuj, Anuj, and Ashtosh – cousins all in their early 20’s, here with their families and running some camps as guest houses for visitors to the Kumbh. Though I had reserved a bed in a dormitory tent, Ambuj offered to let me stay in my own tent within his family’s camp, where my things might be safer and I could be more comfortable. I happily accepted this offer and it certainly benefited me in terms of setting me up with experienced bathers, should I decide to brave the Sangam, or confluence of the rivers: the sacred place that draws people to the mela by the millions.

on the way to the sangam

on the way to the sangam

my little tent

my little tent

the family camp

the family camp

I went to a nearby stand of restaurants catering to those staying at the Kumbh and had a nice Indian meal punctuated by the looks of curiosity and inquiry from the Indians at tables around me. Exhausted by my journey, I slept like a baby in my little tent, with nice thick blankets keeping me warm, since the night got decidedly colder there than it did in the south.

In the morning I walked over to the Sangam to evaluate the craziness quotient and decided perhaps bathing wouldn’t be so difficult after all. In the early hours, the traffic isn’t bad and though I drew many looks from people, everyone was very friendly. I went back to the camp and got lunch, engaging a nice Chinese man – also traveling alone – in conversation in English and then in French. It turns out he studied for three years in France and his French was better than his English!

As we parted ways, the grey skies started to release fat drops on us and I scampered back to my cozy tent and took a nice long nap, missing most of the storm, though I was disturbed from my slumber when a sudden gust of wind blew open my tent flaps, scattering glittering sand over the blankets.

I was playing guitar when Ambuj paid me a visit. He likes to sing and wanted to see a video of me performing, after which he and his cousins became my number 1 fans and stayed in my tent all afternoon, listening to me play and calling their friends so as to impress them with their foreign guest and her talents. Though I couldn’t oblige any of their requests for pop songs, they enjoyed my playing and I had fun performing for them. They invited me to join for dinner, which I did gladly. From then on, I was part of the family. Anuj’s parents invited me to come bathing with them in the morning around 5 a.m., and I happily accepted. There was a pooja for Hanuman, the monkey god, that evening and I joined in, clapping time with the chanting. After, I was asked to play some music and had the pleasure of performing for the whole camp!

The moon was nearly full, though it wouldn’t be completely so until the 25th, the following day. I set my alarm and woke up to wash and brush my teeth and to try to dress appropriately to bathe in a river on a rather chilly morning. I wore a long silk caftan I’d bought the last time I was in India and brought along a lunghee which I’d purchased in Kanyakumari to change into. Though the rain had continued into the night, it stopped by the morning and the air was surprisingly mild as I walked to the Sangam with my hosts, who spoke no English, and I unfortunately, speak no Hindi.

They helped my buy a paper boat full of flowers, offerings for the river. Then we made our way to the banks. First the husband, and then his wife and I removed any extra clothing and entered the water. We dunked ourselves completely three times before scrambling out to complete the ritual by offering our flowers and camphor. I lit my incense and set my boat a-sail on the river.

We walked back to the camp, stopping to have our foreheads marked with sandal by a brahmin on the way. They invited me back to their tent for chai, which I took them up on. Then I went and climbed into bed in my little tent.

I was awakened by that morning’s hostess coming to my tent around 11:30, taking my guitar and beckoning me to come and play. This time I played for just the women, who sat around me, clapping and smiling as I sleepily rose to the task.

That night a large number of people joined the camp in honor of the full moon: an auspicious day for bathing in the Sangam. They were cooking special food, including a kind of bread which might not appeal to the squeamish: it is made by heating up the dried dung of the omni-present water buffaloes and then placing the balls of dough directly into the resulting coals.

the three cousins

the three cousins

guru by the dung fire

guru by the dung fire

Around the fire, I struck up a conversation with a man from Bangalore who had joined our camp. His brother lives in Dallas and he had worked in Syracuse for some time, so we chatted about New York and south India and myriad other topics.

After dinner I went straight to bed, unsure whether I would join the groups going to bathe on the full moon morning the next day.

Though exhausted, I did end up getting up and joining Guru, the man from Bangalore, and his father and friend who were going with Ambuj’s father to bathe that morning. We walked to the river, the streets swollen with pilgrims buying flowers and coconuts as offerings along the way or plastic bottles to fill with the holy water from the Sangam.

We took turns getting into the water, watching the sun rise above the throngs of people there in various states of undress, making their offerings, dunking themselves in the cleansing confluence.

That morning the five of us went on a walking tour of mandirs or temples around the kumbh camp area. Guru’s father is a small man, only one year older than my own father, though he certainly looks older. Still, he was a stout walker and has traveled in many countries.

the ganga

the ganga

me by the river as we drank a chai

me by the river as we drank a chai

prasanth - guru's friend

prasanth – guru’s friend

guru smoking

guru smoking

our leader - ambuj's dad

our leader – ambuj’s dad aka mr. sangam

the confluence - sangam

the confluence – sangam

we walked into allahabad for lunch and took a nice boat tour on the yammuna, rowing up toward the sangam where the bathing was in full swing.

the kumbh near the camp

the kumbh near the camp

the kids of our camp

the kids of our camp

the fort in allahabad

the fort in allahabad

the bathers at the sangam

the bathers at the sangam

from the boat

from the boat

one of the temples near the river

one of the temples near the river

carnival near the kumbh

carnival near the kumbh

tiny car rally - carnival kumbh

tiny car rally – carnival kumbh

the story of the churning of the sea of milk - resulting in the amrita, the source of the sacred rivers when some drops of the elixer of life was spilled

the story of the churning of the sea of milk – resulting in the amrita, the source of the sacred rivers when some drops of the elixer of life was spilled

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my companions

my companions

me n mr. sangam

me n mr. sangam

saraswati ghat

saraswati ghat

we got back to the kumbh around nightfall and i took my first and only shower of the kumbh. the moon hung full and ripe over the confluence and i went with guru and prasanth to visit a baba – a saddhu who had a small tent near our camp. he was surrounded by many followers, all indian men but myself. he was cooking food and making a chillum as a man played the drums and another man sang.

that night i went to bed early as i planned to leave with guru et al the next day for chitrakoot and then on to varanasi.

chitrakoot

chitrakoot

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we bathed in the river here

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swamiji – guru’s dad looking serene

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monkey lounging in the shade

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above the river

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guru and prasanth

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monkey looking peaceful

though the bath in the river was refreshing, the town itself was full of cheap goods and indian pilgrims and really not appealing. we went to another pilgrimage spot not far away where the godavary river begins in a cave. we got food from nearby – some of the worst food of the trip and we were all feeling very disheartened by the crowd and the general feeling of the place. we went to one other place where there was a hanuman temple up the mountain, but the crowd was so strong and the stairs so daunting that prasanth and i opted to have a chai instead and wait for guru, swami (or papa-ji, as I called him) and mr. sangam to return from the climb.

that was our last stop and we were all out of sorts after the trying day. i had hoped we might find a nice restaurant, perhaps one with a toilet, but we ended up driving around chitrakoot town and ultimately resorting to a pay toilet and having a quick chai before getting in the car and heading back to allahabad.

as we drove i played some music from my iphone which led to everyone wanting to watch the video from my last concert. then mr. sangam asked if i could play the guitar as we drove, which i thought of as an interesting challenge, since it was too dark to see the strings and the road was not the smoothest.

in the end, it worked nicely and was good practice. perhaps i’ll take up playing in the dark!

i managed to catch some sleep before we got to allahabad for dinner around midnight. mr. sangam took us to a place he knew and the food was delicious and plentiful and made up for the watery tepid dal we’d grudgingly eaten that afternoon.

then it was time to hit the road again, this time, finally, for varanasi. i curled up on the back seat and was out in a moment.

next thing i knew, we were in varanasi and it was time to say goodbye to our driver and mr. sangam.

ok – i have more to tell about varanasi etc, but i think it is too much for one blog, so more to come!

love and miss,

kira

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