Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kumbh ++

Here was our plan. Hari and yours truly felt that should visit the Kumbh.
Day 1: Kiss Haridwar in the morning and reach Joshimath to catch a glimpse of the mountains.
Day 2: Joshimath, Auli, Pandukeshwar
Day 3: Reach Haridwar and stay there.
Day 4: Idle at Haridwar
Day 5: Early morning bath in the Ganges and back to Delhi.

It more or less happened, but the itinerary turned out to be different.

There are a few things that I grasped on this trip.
> How traffic blocks in India get worse.
> Fortune favors the brave (really).
> Higher the stars in a cop's uniform, higher are the chances of minor issues getting resolved. (Hari's theory)
> There's someone bigger than God.

What I did not learn:
> Just how holy are them holy men?
> Does a dip in the waters of the Great Indian River at the almost most auspicious moment make any difference?
> Is global warming for real? I think so, but cannot say for sure.

11th April 2010

We reached Haridwar in the wee hours of the morning when the cock was dreaming about crowing - 3 AM. Police were there everywhere.

We checked into a room, asked Ajay (our cab driver) to get some sleep and went to the Har Ki Pauri Ghat to take bath. There were truckloads of people like us. The final Shaahi Snaan (=Royal Bath)of the Maha Kumbh Mela 2010, was still three days away, but I guess a lot of people were taking advantage of the weekend. The cops were trying to get everyone out of the water as soon as they had a couple of dips. I took a dupki (=dip in the river) and threw the river water in front of me and turned around to face police woman asking me to get out. My hands folded in acquiescence toward her and I swooped down below for another dupki. I surfaced some distance ahead. No swimming prowess, but the current was good, and she had her hands full with other people.

We got out and went to visit Mansa Devi Temple. The ropeway wasn't working and the climb was not exactly to my liking. Anyway my friend had Darshan and I was just loitering around. Haridwar looked pretty in the early morning.

We came back and enquired about room rates 3 days hence. On the day of the Maha Kumbh - the Big Daddy Day, the Rs. 500 room would cost us Rs. 3000. Blame it on increased demand and a fixed supply curve. In the short-term there is no way to increase capacity. The Hotel guy also warned that if we were going north, we will have to walk from Rishikesh (25km) to reach Haridwar for the Kumbh. Sounded a bit shady.

Onward we went. The road to Rishikesh was blocked. The cops were helpful. They told us of another exit route and we took it. Unfortunately, the road was blocked there too. The cops there were even more helpful. They told us of another route through the Kumbh Mela parking grounds. We went that way. The road was blocked there too. The cops there fortunately were helpful. They told us of a rightward route. Thank God, but alas, that was blocked too. We circled Haridwar twice and was fortunate to find a cop who was angry but determined. He said "Jaa Jaa" when we asked him if we could take the road that he was blocking. We almost made it, but the road was blocked further up. Goddamnit, we had to back off and cover 150 kms via Roorkee and Dehradoon to reach Rishikesh. And in that journey I learnt what was wrong with Indian traffic. There's that Jattanda Putthar (in South India, you will find the same species going under the ___ maga/ ___ mon nomenclature) who was to cock his way in when there's no space, like the Ahole below. Come on, this is barely a two-way street.

Once we actually saw cops using the lathi on a car driver who manged to get their 20 minutes of work to clear the road back to square one with a nonchalant drive to the forefront.

Now here's a creative spark in a bus:

Nice play on Diesel. Quick trivia: What's the name of the mineral water brand being launched by the proxies of Dawood Ibrahim?

We reached Rishikesh by around 2 in the afternoon. Hardwar-Rishikesh is approx 25 km/ 1 hr journey, but thanks to the detour it took us 7 hours. It was a tiring journey and the heat definitely played spoilsport. The AC in Tata Indica is not exactly designed for 40+ degree celsius. Had lunch at Rishikesh. Unlike Haridwar, Rishikesh is the happening place for foreigners of all hues. May be the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi connection has helped it a bit. Our plan was to reach Joshimath by the end of the day. Vehicles do not ply in the night on hilly roads, so we had to call it a day at Srinagar (not the one in Kashmir but the one in Uttarakhand) still 150 km short of our destination. By the way, Srinagar has got quite a good number of educational institutions.

12th April 2010

Woke up at 5 in the morning, checked out of the hotel and left for Joshimath. The heat was less thanks to the altitude being gained.
Forest fires were staple scenes.

Found this camp near Birahi being run by the forest department. INR 1,000 per couple. The season starts in May, and they're doing up the place for it.

That's me:

Some more scenes on the way:

Don't you think these guys are defining their target market in an extremely narrow manner :-)?

We saw this fellow on the way. Some Sadhus are media shy so we quickly caught a snap while moving. He was carrying a heavy load. We would discover what it was on our way back. More about that later.

Define Irony: National Thermal Power Corporation making a Hydro Power Project.

We reached Joshimath by afternoon and checked into Nagendra Lodge. Left for Auli by 2 PM using the ropeway. Fact: Auli is the cheapest ski resort anywhere. It's open during Jan-March every year when there's plenty of snow. They have installed snowblowers to make artificial stuff to ski on. Unfortunately, 2009 was bad with very little snow. 2010 was alright, but the snow conditions are changing rapidly. The GMVN official at Joshimath told me that earlier on they had to use bulldozers to clear ice till Badrinath when the pilgrim season started in May. Nowadays that isn't needed and the road to Badrinath is almost ice free. Send shivers down my spine. Are we really losing it to global warming?

There was little snow at the top point in Auli, so we rode on mules for 2 kilomteters to find some patches of it. Kishen, the mule rider, is studying in Plus 2 (Science). He had a shy smile when I asked him if he would clear his papers this year.

Kishen, Hari, and Somnath from Haldeah(met his family at Auli)

Went to Pandukeswar. The Yogadhyan Badri Temple here serves as a proxy for Badri in winter. Kuber and Udhav (Udhav is Badri's elder brother according to legend) stay here for the months that Badri closes during winter. These are carried back to Badri once it opens on the date of Akshaya Tritheeya. The current pujari of the temple at Pandukeswar is from a caste called Dimri who live close to Karnaprayag. They also handle pujas at Badri. The chief priest of Badri (Title: Rawal) is from Kerala, as appointed by Shri. Shankaracharya. Possibly in an attempt to strike a balance, only the Dimri pujaris can make the offerings and give it to the chief priest.

Just before Pandukeswar is the trek to Hemkund Sahib (holy place for the Sikhs) and the FAMED Valley of Flowers. All of this should open in mid-May this year.

13th April 2010
Woke up early in the morning and went to visit the Narasimh Murti Temple. They say that when the idol here breaks, Badri would become inaccessible and future generations would have to worship at Bhavishya Badri.

I did not like this washing the linen inside the temple complex:

Sunrise at Joshimath:

Caught a glimpse of some snow clad mountains:

On the way back was the revelation. Remember the Sadhu we saw on our way here? We saw him again and was shocked at what he was carrying. We went a kilometer further, literally speechless and then decided that we had to speak to him, and came back. This is Kailas Giri Brahmachari.

He has been carrying his mother around for 14 years across the length and breadth of India to all the holy shrines. He is on his way to Badrinath – close to 4000m alt. He takes a few steps, keeps the load on the ground, circles it a few times and goes further. I asked him if his guru told him to do this. He said his mom asked him. Walking along with him are two guys. One of them is a Tamilian who runs his business in Sri Lanka – Balasubramiam. He met Kailas Giri in Tamil Nadu and became close. Kailas Giri called him up and asked him if he could escort him for safety for a month. And this guy actually came. And that reminds me of a question that Ajay, our cab driver, asked while coming from Delhi. Who is bigger than God? I did not know any answer so I passed the question. His answer was: “The believer, because if the believer calls, God has to appear.”

Reached Rishikesh by 5.30 in the evening and checked for accommodation. There were a few available, and now the question was should we go further.
Option A: Stay in Rishikesh. Walk 25 km tomorrow morning, Reach Haridwar, take the dip in the Ganges, walk balk, where our cabbie, Ajay would wait, and then go all the way via Dehradoon to Delhi.

Option B: Push it as far as possible today to Haridwar and leave the rest to providence. We could stay en route.

There’s a crore people out there tomorrow so the decision would be crucial. We might get stuck and miss our return flight on 15th from Delhi.

We took Option B and soon enough found that the highway was blocked. We took a detour via Chilla. The road was good. On the side we had the barrage where Ganges was flowing. It would have been a romantic drive on any other day with a different company.

Not too much of trouble and we could see the festivities in Haridwar from a distance. Kumbh was about to rock. Here's a scene from a distance:

We reached somewhere near Chandi temple in Haridwar (Naziabad Gate) and parked our car there. (Our’s was one of the last few cars to get parking there.) We decided not to take a room but spend the night out. Hari's theory about stars on a cop’s uniform proved to be true as we met a helpful CI (Circle Inspector Vivek Kundru) who spoke cordially and told us about the timings of the Kumbh. We had received conflicting reports before, but here was the horse. Bath timings at the Kumbh are regulated, with the best times reserved for Sadhus. Common men could take bath form midnight till 4 am, and then much later in the day. This was the Shahi (Royal) Snan when the Naga Sadhus were also to come. Naga Sadhus are known to be reclusive, they live naked to signify renunciation of the last vestiges of bondage to earthly life, they worship Shiva and Agni, they are known to have a fierce temper, and few gain admission to their group. They had a camp at the Kumbh, but we did not encounter them.

A message at the Kumbh:

We walked here and there and then came back to the cab. The time was 9.30 PM. We decided to have dinner and then move on. Ajay wanted to take a dip, so we asked him to quickly get one and come back so that he can catch a nap before driving to Delhi. Dinner looked unappealing so I went and had Mausambi juice for 25 bucks (without ice -The shop keeper looked at me as though I was cuckoo when I asked him if he had ice.)

Onward we went for the Shaahi Snaan. This was Baisakhi and Megh Sankranti culminating, after 400 years or so. The crowd just kept pouring in. We walked through the makeshift walkways, with camps for each Akhadas and Ashrams on either side. We found Computer Baba, Pilot Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and the likes. Jargons are in, and I would hate the day when I see the board which says “Low hanging fruit Baba” or “Synergy Baba”.

It was a riot of colours. Turbans, Biharis, Japs, Germans, Gujjus, Bongs, all of them kept coming at midnight like flies drawn by some light they could not explain but had to flock to. Everything was makeshift – the loo, the ATM, the post office, the ashrams, the wooden bridge over river Ganges. I personally thought the arrangements were good – or – as good as it gets in this part of the world.

We walked till Har ki Pauri, crossed over and went shopping. The old Bollywood fixation about twins getting lost here is so true. I heard at least ten announcements like “Sushil naam k eek ladka ithar apni maa ke liye wait kar raha hai” And I saw a kid crying, because he couldn’t find his mom. His grandfather was with him and he looked flustered too. We asked him to speak to the cops, and the cops were like “mom is lost right? The kid isn’t. She would come back” True to form, I saw the kid happy after half an hour with his mom. Another classic announcement was "Attention policemen,5000 people have arrived by Hemkund Express at the railway station."

14th April 2010

The night of the Kumbh:

Hari wanted to take bath after 2 AM because he believed we would be getting closer to Sadhu time. We waited till 12.45 and then changed our minds since we saw the human traffic jam. A jam that wouldn’t move wither way. People jostling and pushing and grunting but going nowhere. We joined them.
Here's the jam that spooked us:

And after 20 minutes of jostling, the Ganges was right in front – Brahm Kund where the nectar is supposed to have fallen.

There were strict announcements to the effect of “You only have one minute to take the dip. Take three dips and move on.” They meant it and cops were pulling people out who were overstaying their welcome. Hari went first. And then I went in.

That’s it. The Snaan was done. While walking back I told him I took seven dips…ha ha. He beat me to it, coz he had taken 11. Tragedy of commons.

People kept milling in, the crowds swelling, as we were walking back. Getting out of the parking spot itself was tough. The road was packed. We started at 2.30 AM and I drifted off to sleep. Occasionally, I would wake up and mumble something to the driver. At 6 AM, we woke up and the road to Haridwar still had vehicles back to back. We had covered only 50 kms in 3.5 hours.

Reached Delhi by around 2 PM.

ZZZZZ, Rhythm Pub - Yousuf Serai, damn expensive, ZZZZ

15th April 2010
I read that Russell Crowe is going to act in a Kumbh movie (Bollywood obviously) as a firang who comes here looking for spiritual release and intake and ends up (guess what) falling in love. sins must be deep and dark.

And in the airport I read that Pilot Baba's car crushed a woman (+1?) to their death. A few more people were killed in the stampede. Rules should apply to everyone - Pilot or not, Sadhu or not.

Met a branch-mate from my college at the airport - Gireesh. He was coming back from Varanasi. What’s wrong with us kids?

Back to Bangalore.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Off to Utharakhand tomorrow - my real home. 6 days. Plan to go to Joshimath and stretch it as far as law will allow toward Badrinath. And participate in the Shahi Snan during Kumbh Mela in Haridwar before coming back. Hope to have something good on return.
Adios Amigos 4 now