We have talked about taking this trip for ten years. Therefore, it made complete sense to book and decide to finally leave about five weeks before our plane left Chicago. It is quite us. Kind of like dating for four years and then planning a wedding and getting married in three months…. But, that story is for another time. So, it isn’t surprising that we have been planning this trip on the fly. Sometimes stressful, sometimes exciting, most of the time both.
My wildman was reading through the guidebook and found that on our way to the Taj Mahal we could stop in Allahabad and witness the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu washing ceremony where devout religious people wash themselves in a river. He thought it sounded interesting… and to be honest… I was just going along with the idea… I mean… I’ve jumped in a river enough times to think it couldn’t be that cool… but, it was INCREDIBLE and one of our favorite memories of the trip …
Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. It is the world’s largest religious gathering. The way we have understood it, this gathering happens every year, with approximately 1 million people bathing in the water. However, every 12th year it is a special ceremony and over 30 million people gather to do the washing. It’s known as the largest gathering of humans on earth. Devout Hindus believe that this washing in the Sangum (where three rivers meet) can wash away their sins. We were there on an off year.
He called a guesthouse in Allahabad to find out more information on the washing and inquired about the accommodations. He asked if the man on the other end of the line spoke English. “Of course I speak English! I spent twenty years in the US!!” I think he wanted to add… you dummy!! That first conversation lead to an amazing stay at Dr. Negum’s guesthouse. Dr. Negum welcomed us with delicious chai, lots of stories and laughs. Accommodations are all across the board in India, but one thing the places we have stayed have had in common is the incredible customer service and kindness. The people we have met in our guesthouses have just made the trip, and the accommodations have been relatively inexpensive.
My WM was convinced we needed to go see the washing at sunrise. But, because our train was delayed we got in late and the guesthouse owner said it would be going on all day and he would arrange a driver for us to take us down to the river. Omgosh, I’m so glad we had it all arranged. It would have been a disaster to go ourselves. It was mass chaos getting down to the river. I don’t think I have ever seen this large of a crowd. We also didn’t see any other westerners. It was a sea of beautiful brown people, wearing every color of the rainbow… making for an incredible site. But, we stuck out like sore thumbs. There were constant stares, people asking for selfies or just sticking a camera in our faces. If we stopped a crowd would gather around us. I wasn’t scared, just extremely uncomfortable and grateful for a good guide that was making sure we were close and okay. This MUST be what being a celebrity feels like??!!
There was another family that said we could go with them from our guesthouse, which was really nice. They were from east India and after chatting with them we learned they were doing a Hindu ceremony honoring their deceased father. Them and our guide negotiated a boat and along with a Hindu priest we gathered together and set sail toward the middle of the lake. This family had all these special colored sands, fruit and food offerings (I thought this was just their snacks!!), flowers and his ashes. It is customary in the Hindu faith to cremate your loved ones body and then dump them in the Ganges river. This family didn’t do the washing but, apparently people come during this time to do special ceremonies as well.
I was really overwhelmed by the experience. The site of how devout this mass amount of people were about their faith, the kindness of this family to allow us into such a personal event and the stark contrast of what I was witnessing and my life at home was quite amazing. Never have I been around so many different religions and cultures and had the opportunity to learn more in depth about them. It has certainly challenged me to reflect on my own beliefs, which from all of the experiences we have had seem to be growing deeper roots.