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Published: February 20th 2010
So, here at last in Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela - actually not in Haridwar, but up the road some 30km in Rishikesh - the world capital of yoga. I thought it wise to keep a little distance from the main activities in Haridwar. The festival itself runs for about 4 months but 12th Feb has been identified as one of the most auspicious dates on which to cleanse away sins in Mother Ganga and the place is expected to be bursting at the seams with pilgrims.
Whilst bathing in the Ganges is the main focus of the event, there are also a number of famous Guru's appearing here - and these are world famous not just India famous - these guys have followers from around the world who come to hear their thoughts on life, death, enlightenment, world poverty, how to manage AIDS, all sorts of subjects. This is big business stuff, there are huge poster sites all over the city advertising them, they have merchandise for sale, some of them even have TV channels.
So whilst life goes on pretty much as normal in Rishikesh and in Haridwar for most of the time, come these special dates
(about one a month over the period of the festival), pilgrims arrive in their thousands bringing with them their blind and their lame, their dead (for cremation on the river) and their dying. There are whole families camping out in marquee style tents that have been set up for the purpose, or just sleeping on the roadside in makeshift tents using tarpaulins and sheets of plastic. The place is also heaving with Sadhu's and Naga's (naked holy men). These are guys that leave their family, friends and material possessions behind them to wander the country visiting the holy cities and spreading the word for life. Many of them cover themselves in ashes and wear little else and live entirely off donations from the public and by staying in temples and ashrams that house and feed them for free on their journey.
So I headed straight into Haridwar a couple of days before the 12th to check it out and it was already pretty busy. There were loads of posters advertising the guru sessions that would be taking place and lots of pilgrims already getting in a quick dip. The Ganges here has actually been diverted into a canal and
is pretty fast-flowing so there are designated areas for bathing with bars around as there is a real danger that people will be swept away by the strong current. Whilst in Haridwar I visited a couple of temples and when on a local bus to one that was a bit out of town a little girl of about 4, sitting directly behind me, threw up - all down my back!! Bad Karma! Her parents were mortified and I was almost instantly mobbed by other people from the bus trying to wipe me down with various manky towels and cloths which I think just made it worse!
In Rishikesh there are lots of astrologers and palm readers so I decided to get my palm read. Good news: marriage within 12 months (right!!), I have strong friendships, I'll live to the ripe old age of 83 (or 81, he was a little confused), and I'll have a career change at the age of 55 (when I'd rather be taking early retirement than career changing). Bad news: serious illness at the age of 52 and I'm currently in a job where my hard work and dedication isn't suitably rewarded (not sure I
needed a soothsayer to tell me that!), and the sun in my palm is depressed meaning I need to buy myself a ruby ring - hey ho!!. Now, I'm a little cynical about this type of thing at the best of times but thought it would be interesting for half an hour, but even I was a little upset that during his blessing of me at the end of the reading while he was busy 'Om-shanty-ing' and throwing marigold petals over my head his mobile phone and rang and he stopped the blessing to answer it!! Then as soon as he was done on the phone he just carried on as if nothing had happened.
On my way back to the village I decided that whilst there where the Ganges is much cleaner than further downstream (it's just come from the foothills of the Himilayas) I'd take the opportunity to dip my feet. Now, I'm not sure if the sin-cleansing applies only to the parts of your body that have been dipped (certainly the Hindu's make it a point of making sure they fully submerge when in the river) but if that is the case, then at least maybe
my feet have been cleansed of the sin of bad dancing!
I was actually leaving Haridwar on the 12th and this meant I had to get to the train station for about 2.30 in the afternoon. My plan was to go down into Haridwar early, dump my backpack at the station and then get out and about to see what was going on. Because of the crowds though the whole of the city centre was closed to traffic and the bus station had been temporarily relocated - about an hours walk from the train station! No worries I thought, I'll get a rickshaw - no chance, because of the crowds all rickshaws were also banned. So I had a long walk with my heavy backpack through heaving crowds. It took longer than expected so I had only about an hour to get out and see what was going on. It was worth it though, there were so many people dipping in the Ganges, and because the favourite colour of the Hindu's seems to be orange it was like being in the home crowd of a Holland football match! I also saw lots of naked Nagas walking along covered only
in ash and some of them holding onto great wads of rupees donated by pilgrims.
So from Hardiwar I headed further west to Amritsar - sacred city of the Sikhs. The big attraction here is the Golden Temple - a beautiful palace in the heart of the old city. It's easily as stunning as the Taj Mahal but being a holy place rather than a tourist attraction it has a much more serene atmosphere.
The Temple complex includes a community kitchen where anyone can eat for free and dormitory accommodation where anyone can stay for free - including foreigners - which of course, included me and I found myself a a little 3 bed dorm with 2 German girls. I found the atmosphere pretty unique for India, whilst there are donation boxes around no-one is hassling you for money at any point - there is no entrance fee, there is purified water available if you want it and you can hand your shoes in and be confident that no-one is going to ask for 10 rupees to get them back just because of the colour of your skin.
There are thousands of Sikh pilgrims here and many
of them end up sleeping on the floor in big halls because all the accommodation is taken - they place a limit of 3 nights stay but there are so many people here they just can't cope with the demand.
There are bathing and toilet faciities (squats) for everyone and they keep them absolutely spotless with an army of cleaners who practically follow you around with a mop and bucket of disinfectant in hand - I reckon they're the cleanest toilets I've come across in India. One evening while I was queuing for the loo one of the cleaners grabbed me and asked if I was English, when I said yes she took me to a locked Western toilet that was apparently kept just for us! I'm unsure about the reasons for this special treatment as only a couple of hours earlier I'd been to a garden commemorating the 2000 Sikhs killed or injured when a British battalion opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in the city in 1919.
I would say the only drawback to Amritsar is their love of hot milk drinks, which means that there are loads of vendors set up in the streets heating
up huge pans of milk all day and night and the smell of heated milk reminds me of vomit - so not too pleasant on the nostrils!
The other reason I wanted to come to Amritsar was to go to Attari on the Pakistan border to see the daily closing the border ceremony that takes place there. This was featured on a Michael Palin programme a few years ago and involves a load of pomp and ceremony that seems to be a combination of Military bravado with elements of Monty Python's ministry of funny walks sketch. There are thousands of spectators on both sides of the border (a set of grand gates) and the crowds get whipped up into a fury by a compere on each side and try to out-cheer and out-dance each other before the military even get going with their stuff. Pakistan seemed to be slightly more organised on this front in that they had guys in green and white outfits doing spinning and acrobatics with big national flags whilst on the Indian sides it was left to the ladies to run up to the gates and back holding the flags aloft. The Indian side really
got going though when they played 'Jai Ho' from Slumdog Millionaire and everyone was up and dancing drowing out the Pakistan side easily.
Interestingly, being a Muslim nation, on the Pakistan side of the border the men and women were sitting in separate grandstands.
When the military finally got going it was an hilarious display of marching, near-running, stomping, goose-stepping, standing nose to nose and yelling. Each side was perfectly synchronised with the other and it ended with a very formal handshake between the soldiers and the flags being pulled down very slowly at exactly the same time so that at no time was one flag above the other.
When I left Amritsar to head to Delhi on the train there were Sikhs both at the station and on the train giving out chappattis for everyone to eat - more Sikh kindness - they're lovely, I think my favourite people so far!
I had a day and a bit in hectic Delhi to do some quick sight-seeing so headed off to the Red Fort (not much to report) and the Jama Masjid (the biggest moque in India apparantly). At the mosque there is a requirement for
women to dress modestly and cover head and shoulders and to ensure this they hand out head scarves and lovely nylon gowns that are remarkably similar to the gowns that you're given in hair-dressers - though never in such a glorious selection of colours - mine was turquoise with flowers.
From Delhi I'm doing a quick detour south to catch up with Susie again for a few days and to relax on a beach (panic about the usual British summer is looming) and then will head back north to visit the temples of Khajuraho before flying home from Delhi, so you'll all be able to breath a sigh of relief shortly, the last of the blogs is coming up and you'll be relieved of the duty of reading of my Indian adventures....
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