I am writing this as we speed along the road from Varanasi to the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj. Because this is a highpoint in the 55-day festival, they close off the roads to traffic leading into the camp in early evening to make it more pedestrian friendly, so we have no time to waste in getting there. (I know everyone always talks about the drivers in India, but this trip was white knuckle, vomit inducing! Perhaps my driver had been told to make sure and get me there before the roads closed: every time we were out in the open away from towns, my driver would press the pedal all the way down and fly like a bat out of hell. I am not exaggerating when I say that most times I would look forward we were literally within inches of a car speeding directly at us, my driver forcing his way back into the left lane in the nick of time.) I was not able to capture any photos of what I was witnessing along the route, but I will try and describe it as best I can.
I was totally unprepared for what I saw along the way. On my previous trips through India I have travelled North to South, East to West, and through the middle area of Rajasthan. Never have I seen the degree of poverty or primitive living as I am seeing along this drive.
It looks as if a bomb went off in each of these little villages/towns: or a wrecking ball was let loose on the streets to swing around wildly. There are miles and miles of small villages all stung together along this dirty and very dusty road. We have not come to a “big” town yet. There is a wide variety of structures and houses, but none of them look “complete” Some are missing one or two exterior walls, or a complete roof, or all three. Some are made of mud, some of cow dung, some are just strung together or taped or roped or somehow patched together to stand up. Many are missing the front entirely. Both sides of the structures are framed with jagged bricks. It looked like most of them were in the process of being demolished, but I don’t think that was the case. They were all definitely being lived in, as was evidenced by the laundry hanging over the roof or hung on a rope strung from side to side. Some people were living inside 4 stakes that had been erected to form a square, with paper of cloth wrapped around all 4 stakes. And then there were people just laying out in the open on cardboard, or blankets, or inside of what most definitely looked to be abandoned buildings.
This area looks like what I imagine Nairobi to look like. Many of the children were bare footed, scampering along, climbing walls or playing in the dirt or peering over the rooftops. But it appeared to me that everyone had something that they were doing, no one was just standing around doing nothing.
The air was thick with a brown dust, and most everything was covered with thick grime. The air smelled of something being burned: I imagined it was cow patties being burned.
It appeared that large buses were the mode of transport to get the villagers from one place to another. We would encounter buses pulled along the sides of the roads, either loading or disembarking people of all shapes and sizes, and all ages. When I was in northern India the train served as the connector for the remote villages. This was also obviously a truck route. There were lines and lines of enormous trucks backed up in a truck lane waiting patiently to move forward, inch by inch. What stuck me as I peered up into these trucks as we sped by was the drivers appeared to be extremely young boys. I wondered if the was a minimum age to be employed by one of these truck companies.
At one point we went through a toll lane, and as we waited out turn, there were many young men running along between the cars selling peanuts and bottled water. I flagged one of them down and got a bottle of water and some nuts, and I reached into my wallet and pulled out the only rupee note I had, and handed it to the young man. His eyes grew as large as saucers, and he tentatively started reaching into his pocket (for change I assume.) I gave him the thumbs up and smiled back. A huge smile broke out on his face and he returned my thumbs up, and we zipped through the gate.
That was a very powerful moment. To be able to give someone such immediate happiness. It wasn’t as if I was pretending to be the foreign guy with the thick wallet, giving money out of pity. It was something that I wanted to give, a gift: because I could. I thought about the continuing conversation that happens back home, in Iowa City, about the gap between the “haves and have not’s, but this was on a whole different level. Perhaps it is all relative, but I couldn’t shake the facts of what I was witnessing along these roads. I wondered how many of these young persons would ever leave this area, or if they would continue living as their parents live, and perhaps their grandparents had. As we continued along I thought a lot about that young man, and many of the people I saw in these villages. I thought about Buddhism, and the belief that we all come back in the next life according to how we lived in this life. I wondered what some of these people had done in their past lives, and why this entire road was strewn with villages that all looked the same, as if they were just the remnants of what had been there before. How had they all ended up here, and I in Iowa City, Iowa?
It was a very sobering ride. But I don’t want to sound to morbid about everything. It had been my experience in the past that even though some of the people I had met didn’t have a lot of material possessions, many of them were very happy. They didn’t miss what they didn’t know they should miss. The families here are extremely close, especially the sons with their mothers. They feel a very strong sense of responsibility in taking care of their mothers. Everyone always has a smile on the ready, and are so very curious of where I come from and what my story is. Whenever I have the chance I speak what little Hindi I know, and this never fails to amaze and delight them.
This is definitely one part of India that I will never forget.
As we approached Prayagraj and the Sangam (holy spot where rivers meet) the traffic got very heavy. This was a half Kumbh (happening every 6 years) and was expected to draw up to 10 million devotees and pilgrims over the 55-day event. (as it turns out, there were over 150 million pilgrims attending this year, far more than was expected.)* The traffic began to resemble what I was used to in Delhi, many lanes weaving right and left, each vehicle fighting for their right to pass. But somehow it all seemed to work out just fine. Buses full of people, groups of motorcycles, rickshaws packed full, single cars and even wagons full of people all were making their way to the campground. Along the roadsides people walked in single file from their villages. There were even special trains put into service to bring people to the event, the largest religious festival on the planet. Millions of people would take a holy dip in the Ganges “ganga” over the 55-day event. And I vowed to be one of them!
I came to learn that what I had thought was the gate to the Kumbh camp was really a 15 kilometer line of cars standing still. We would be inching along in traffic for quite some time. Outside the car, as we got closer, I began seeing hundreds of people walking along the roadside. Some were carrying bed rolls, some had sleeping bags, some carried things on their heads, some were rolling suitcases. This parade of people continued all the way until we reached the real gates of the camp. Down on the train tracks, I glimpsed train after train after train, lite up in the dark of night, packed to the gills with passengers.
Soon we reached the bridge over the water, and my heart dropped out of my chest. I thought I was prepared for the sheer size of the festival, but I couldn’t believe how vast it was. As far as the eyes could see, on both sides of the bridge were lights twinkling in the night sky. It went on and on and on. I started getting goosebumps and actually was a little nervous: was I nuts to try this on my own? Now I knew why I had heard stories of people getting lost here!
And then, after a short drive after the bridge, we hit another larger bridge. It resembled the Golden Gate bridge in size. It was lite up in the darkness with colored lights projected up the entire bridge. And then, off in the distance I saw the actual camp. What I had thought was the camp before was actually just the area across the water from the camp, a sort of “sub camp” The real camp had three giant Ferris wheels lite up in the night sky, and hundreds of colored tents in every direction. It looked like an enormous state fair. There was festive music playing and streets upon streets packed with people mingling around.
After I was shown to my tent, I had a delicious vegetarian meal and chatted with some of the other people staying here. All the tents in my “complex” are around a central inner area, with a dining area off to one side. My tent was a single, and had its own bathroom with sink and shower. But, no hot water. And a bucket and cup for showering: a proper Indian bathroom!
After my meal and getting signed on to the internet, I was ready to retire and call it a day. Tomorrow I am getting guided tour of the camp to get my bearings.
* i added this note after returning home and the festival ended.