How does one describe the Kumba Mela? Burning Man times ten? A religious county fair? It goes on and on and there are no maps. Being that just about everything is written in Hindi with the only English lettering being ads for cell phone companies and Western style snack foods which are everywhere I have no markers. I get absorbed in taking and within seconds I'm spun around and am clueless how to find my way back.
Such a completely other world. A world of gentle Hindu pilgrims...many from small towns who find me a woman with light skin and cargo pants a total curiousity. Those with camera cell delighted in having their friends pose for pictures with me! And here I was believing that they were the curiosities and that I am "normal!"
Yesterday morning I left the hotel for more basic digs at a Kumba Mela tourist camp. With western style toilets and basic beds with heavy blankets it is hardly the standard pilgrim camp experience. (Theirs involve lying on the ground in huge family piles with barely a thin blanket to cover themselves...) Getting to the hotel was no easy task in that the roads were all blocked. My driver parked several km away and we caught a bicycle rickshaw into the edge of the Kumba. Then we walked about another half hour...and eventually got to the camp!
Yesterday was the most auspicicious bathing day of the entire month-long Kumba. Those who dip themselves in the Ganges are released from their sins and receive countless benefits. I photographed lots of dippers. Children splashing and having a good time...sari clad women shyly dipping in. I keep looking for moments of complete transfixation and there are none. To me it all looks like theater--fun ritual with necklaces of small golden marigolds to toss into the water and make wishes, little white sugar candies to bless and crunch on, and red paint on the third eyes of everyone including the attending cows! Many many booths selling the flowers, the red paint, and the sugar candies.
And yesterday was the prime day for prasad, food offerings. At one point I was ushered into a hall where hundreds of pilgrims were squatting in even lines receiving a meal (rice, potatoes, chapati, dahl) in a plates made from leaves. I was seated and then faced that I was only hungry for pictures so I grabbed the pics I wanted and scurried away. Later I sat in the audience of one of the many gurus who are present at the Kumba Mela. There was a live band with a most raucous loud system and he sang. I sat in a huge crowd of pilgrims, hoping for enlightenment or atleast to witness their enlightenment. I clapped when they clapped and grabbed whatever pics appeared to me. Eventually he spoke...and being that the whole thing was in Hindi, all that was available to me was the feeling. No words to clutter my mind. He seemed very composed...and his message seemed to resonate with the huge audience. Possibly something about living this life in such a way that one leaves without a karmic load so that the next life will be a good one. No need to live in such a way in which there is just one life that has to be filled to the max with insight and experience...just be kind and generous in this life.
After a full-day of taking pictures of everything I didn't understand (and everything beautiful) as well as every single family who wanted to be memorialized in my digital camera I was really beat. On top of this were the endless (and ultimately tiring) conversations where I answer where I'm from, how long I've been in India and some version of why my skin is so white. I attempted to wind my way back to the camp. I cross back over the Ganges river bed I traversed in the morning and then believed I was on the right path. At some point whatever markers I remembered were nowhere in site. I attempted to use my cell phone to call the camp and it didn't work. After putting on a really forlorn look a couple of Hindi speaking men came to my rescue. We went to one of the many phone service booths and called the camp for 8 rupees. The camp then tried to explain to them where they were. We walked in circles for probably two hours and they never could find it. Then I met some young men who spoke a little English and after more phone calls they managed to walk me back to camp. I arrived frozen and exhausted. Wolfed down some dinner and attempted to sleep. My driver arrived and explained that he had no place to stay so I offered him the second bed in the tent. He slept and I froze.
This morning I made my way to county-fair style attractions. A booth with a two headed child (looks like it was created by smoke and mirrors) -- ayurvedic potions, cheap blankets, saris and Western clothes. Exhibits on agriculture and medicine. And then a religious pilgrimage walk through where one prays to various gods, receives a painted third eye, a marigold necklace, sugar candies and then receives blessings.
Later we drove into the town of Allahabad and I released myself from the world of wandering aimlessly around a culture so distant from the ones I know. We found our way to a customer care center for my Indian cell phone company and a very poised young woman helped me along with her entourage of male assistants. After removing the chip, replacing the chip, fiddling with the battery, and poking lots of the setting buttons I was again able to make and receive calls. Then she and I had tea and chatted about arranged marriages in India and the impact of imported shows such as Sex in the City on urban Indian women. She suggested my driver take me to the anthropology dept at Allahabad University to discuss my interests and observations further. Hope to get there later today. Then more Kumba tonight. Fantuzzi has a booth--perhaps I'll catch him.