Today my friend Gaurav graciously offered to take me on his motorbike to find a boat that would take us out to the Sangam, the holiest spot in Prayagraj where the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers meet. It is considered the holiest of all places to bathe during this auspicious time of the Kumbh. Mark Twain once said “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.” I jumped on the back of his motorcycle and off we flew down the road, dodging rickshaws and tractors, tuk tuks and bicycles, cows and dogs and pedestrians. It was very exhilarating to be out in the open seeing the countryside. I had my iphone on a selfie stick, so it was very easy to click photos along the way.
We arrived at the camp and drove down a very bumpy dirt road to where all the bikes were docked. All along the dirt road, on both sides, were camps upon camps of pilgrims attending the 55 day festival. I told the boatmen I needed a boat to go out for a dip, and they quoted me 2000 rupees. Gaurav rolled his eyes and just smiled. He had an exchange with the boatman and then he said “come” and we started walking away. The boatmen quickly followed and started quoting lower and lower prices. We settled on 600 rupees! I now appreciated Gaurav even more. We climbed on the boat and started rowing out. Two very young Indian boys had large oars that they started padding in unison, back and forth, back and forth. There were many boats on the Ganga, filled with passengers of all shapes and sizes, colors, nationalities and ages. Most were Indians. We had a pleasant row and Gaurav pointed out various sites along the way. Soon we arrived at a dock of sort with many boats pulled up alongside filled with bathers either waiting to take a dip, or getting ready to return to shore after having plunged into the water.
As there were so many boats, we were not able to get directly in front of the small wooden dock, so we pulled up and double parked in back of other boats. Gaurav instructed me to take off everything except my underwear and follow the boatman as we walked off our boat and through another series of boats to reach the dock. The water was knee deep at this level, and although it wasn’t clear, it was much cleaner than along the shore and had no visible debris floating on top. Gaurav took my cell phone to record a video and photos, and I climbed down into the water. The day was hot and sunny, so although the water was cold, it felt wonderful. I did my three dips, scooped up two handfuls of water and offered them back into the Ganga, then said a small devotion and started back to the dock. As I looked around, this was a little like seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time. It was an incredibly moving site to see so many people deep in prayer or meditation, many with parents and grandparents and children, taking this dip that all Hindus revere so much. But, Gaurav wasn’t satisfied with the photos, so I ended up dipping three more times. After he was satisfied with the photos and video, we climbed back in the boat, I toweled off and got dressed.
We proceeded back to shore and then decided to tour some small villages nearby. One of them was Arail, a very small farming village. We drove slowly through the village street taking photos. We happened to run into Gaurav’s best friend from college, so we stopped for the must have selfies. It is a funny thing in India, most people that one meets requests that you take a photo of them. Not to have for themselves, just to have taken. Or, the braver souls will come up and ask to have a selfie taken with the foreigner. Americans are a much sought after photo op I came to find out. There must be hundreds of photos of me floating around India now.
After the village we drove to a giant Buddha statue and a tall tower that we climbed to take photos. We entered the Monastery site and were scolded angily by a head monk. I couldn’t understand what he said, but i made out Gaurav saying “I am so sorry, Uncle” over and over. Finally he said we could go in and see the Buddha. I bravely asked a few young monks if I could take their photos, and these ended up being some of my favorite photos that I took on this journey. We then made our way towards a very tall tower for a view of the Kumbh from above. When we got the the tower, it was locked and no one was allowed to climb the stairs or enter at all. Gaurav didn’t want to take no for an answer, so we walked around until he found someone who had a key to let us go up. The person with the key asked where I was from, then if I was traveling alone. When I said USA and yes, I was traveling solo, he agreed to let us in (I have no idea why that made any difference.) When we got to the tower, he unlocked the large steel doors and let us in. We started climbing the stairs and noticed a backpack on the stairs. I commented that someone must have left it on another visit. A few steps more and we were met by an out of breath and very flustered young man. He talked very quickly to Gaurav and, from what I could gather, asked that we wait just a minute. Gaurav turned to me and smiled. After a few moments a young woman came running down the steps, hiding her face followed by the same young man. They exited the tower quickly and we proceeded up the steps. We then continued climbing the steep, circular stairs. When we were all finished, we left the tower entrance door only to have the same young couple scamper back up the steps. I will give them an A+ for patience, perseverance and dedication.
One of the most endearing things I find about India is that one regularly sees two young men or women walking hand in hand, or with arms around each others shoulders, or one of them with their hand resting on the shoulder of the other. It is such a touching display of friendship. But, any PDA between men and women is strictly forbidden. I remember when I was in Delhi I was told that there were “kissing parks” where couples would hide out to be intimate with each other. I also was told about a specific place in in Delhi, on GB road, where men went to be intimate with other men. The area had dark stairways and alleyways and small vacant areas where men went to have sex with each other. Because of this, HIV is very rampant in India. Social agencies regularly patrol this area distribute condoms. There is also a large use of needles in this area for heroin use (and other drugs) compounding the spread of HIV. But, men who frequent this area do not consider this “gay” sex. It is just the only outlet they have, as sex outside of marriage is forbidden and would result in never securing a marriage proposal or acceptance of one.
We arrived back at camp, where I had a great rest. Below are a few large photos and a slideshow of images. Enjoy!