The Greatest Show On Earth – Kumbh Mela, India
Something for the soul
Mooching around the camps (visitors are free to come and go), I bumped into Ravinder Singh, a Californian Sikh. He’d come to meet his spiritual guru, Baba Jagtarmuni-Ji, who – he alleged – performs miracles. “I’ve come back after 25 years to refresh my eternal spirit. Jagtarmuni’s wisdom will guide me,” Ravinder said. I was about to leave him to it when he added, “There’s no point coming here to walk around taking pictures. You must get something from Kumbh Mela for your soul.” Feeling shallow, I agreed to meet his Baba.
Jagtarmuni meditated beneath a spacious awning. We drank chai and ate sugary ghee sweets. His intensely watchful eyes, shaded under the precipice of a huge red turban, bore into me as we exchanged pleasantries. He wanted to know what I was seeking (dare I say great photographs?) before launching into a CV of his psychic abilities. “I was dying in a Mumbai hospital once, but left my body and existed in another for three years until my original healed.”
“He has the ability to levitate, he flew across the Ganges once,” interjected Ravinder. It was all getting a bit weird. Then the grinning Baba pulled out a pot of black paste. “This will help you see clearer,” explained Ravinder. I bade farewell and left.
Sunset. The camps had gone all Las Vegas. Ashram facades flickered into psychedelic lightshows of spinning hypnotic disks and rotating swastikas. I began my hour-long walk back to camp alongside the moonlit Ganges, glad to sink into darkening anonymity after the day’s sensory overdose. Trails of pilgrims trudged equally wearily, making their ways back to their camps. Some simply bedded down alongside the river.
For travellers to India, Kumbh Mela is the ultimate expression of an absorbing religion that makes this country such a vibrantly mystical experience. Mark Twain coined this appeal beautifully in Following the Equator: “In religion, all other countries are paupers. India is the only millionaire.”
Halfway back to camp an armada of tealights in folded leaf-boats drifted with the torpid Ganges flow. An arati, or invocation to the sacred river, was being performed. I sidled up alongside pink-robed devotees swaddled against the cold to watch their guru rotating a lit lantern; his single voice chanted a wistful refrain: “Hari Ganga”. It was a rare moment of low-key reflection since my early morning’s rude awakening. I vowed to return to the next mela in Nasik in 2015. To return to the greatest show on earth.