Experience the chaotic, beautiful Kumbh Mela 2010 with this video by journalist Joel Gershon.

When I told friends and family I was going to the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar, India, the universal response was: “Have fun, just don’t you go into the Ganges!”

As a sometimes yoga practitioner and monotheistic Jew, I approached the journey less as spiritual necessity, and more as bucket list adventure—it’s not too often you get to be part of a pilgrimage involving millions of people, some of whom are holy men who rarely come out of their caves. And bathing in the river—this time it was the incredibly sacred and notoriously polluted Ganges—on auspicious dates like February 12 supposedly helps clear sins—always a plus.

The massive event takes place in India every three years, rotating between four holy cities—the last one in 2007 drew an estimated 17 million people. More than 100 million people were said to have attended the 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela, a six-week event that occurs every 144 years, making it the largest gathering in world history. The current one goes from January 14 to April 28, with several especially holy days interspersed.

The festival commemorates the story of Lord Vishnu taking amrita kalasha (immortality nectar) from the kumbh (pot) and giving it to the mythical eagle god garuda, who was escaping from demons also after the nectar. The garuda then sprinkled four drops of the nectar on the four cities that now hold the Kumbh Mela: Haridwar, Prayag (Allahabad), Ujjain and Nasik. Exact time and locale depends on the placements of the sun, moon and Jupiter in the sky—complicated astrological configurations, but with the sun in Aries this time around, it’s in Haridwar.

As an attendee, you have to be prepared for the intense poverty and pollution of India—times a thousand. The makeshift tents and shelters devotees set up by the river (and everywhere else around India, really), are unfathomable to a typical Westerner, even when you’re looking right at them. As a journalist in Bangkok for the past five years, I’ve traveled around India and Asia enough to see all of that as part of the paradoxical beauty of the region—and was very excited when a yoga friend and fellow native New Yorker asked me to come along on a trip that coincided with the Kumbh Mela.

But about six weeks before the event, my friend’s plans fell through. I was ready to let it go, but the universe’s Plan B kicked in when a different friend, Rob, told me he was coming to Delhi for a trade show the week before the First Royal Bath (or Maha Shivratri) of the Kumbh Mela. When I told Rob how excited I was to check it out, he wrote: “I'd kind of like to be behind glass and see it for about an hour” and “Any given day in New Delhi feels like the largest human gathering in the world.”

But he agreed come along—non-hermetically sealed—for some quick holy pilgrimage vibes on the last day of his trip.

Our driver took us to the outskirts of Haridwar, which was as far as he could go since traffic was diverted off of the main road. We were told we had to walk three-kilometers to the holy sites on the river, and we couldn’t complain about it really, since many pilgrims walk barefoot for months to get there. On the way, we passed some devotees wearing all orange, some wearing all pink, as well as some naga sadhus (Nag means “naked”; sadhu literally means “good man” in Sanskrit--essentially they are wandering holy men who have renounced society to follow a spiritual path) who wore nothing besides long dreadlocks. These devoted sadhus, who are fast-tracking to the end of their reincarnation cycles walk in trance-like states covered in sacred ash, blessing the many who kneel to touch their feet, which are considered holy.

Drumming and chanting were everywhere, as were soldiers. Though obviously necessary, since there have been awful stampedes at previous Kumbh Melas, it was a bit of a buzzkill when soldiers dispersed a crowd of musicians in an area they were trying to crowd-control—a classic India moment of extreme simultaneous paradox. After walking for three hours (the initial three-kilometer estimate was laughably wrong—also par for the course) we arrived at a sufficiently holy place to bathe in the Ganges. The moment of truth arrived: Would I actually go in?

On the plus side, the water in the river, which in some places contains floating bodies of cows and humans, was surprisingly clear and blue; we were near its source from the Himalayas. The milky blue water actually did look very inviting after our three-hour trek in the strong sun. On the minus side, there are numerous obvious health-related reasons as to why this wouldn’t be a great idea; potentially contracting hepatitis, typhoid, cholera, amoebic dysentery, and skin rashes among them.

In the end, my pragmatic side eked a win over my mystical half, as I took off my shirt, shoes, and socks, rolled up my pants and thoroughly doused the top half of my body, including my head with Ganges water—which is also said to impart many spiritual blessings. But I didn’t fully submerge as I did have a two-hour walk, a seven-hour drive and a four and a half hour plane ride ahead of me. Rob, who constantly doused his hands with Purell the whole trip even got into the spirit, splashing a few drops of river water on his head.

Thus blessed, we rushed back, collapsed into the car, jarred by the crazy traffic, mix of oxen-drawn carriages, tractors, cows, and many cars driving on the wrong side of the road. When I wasn’t being tossed around from the swerving car, I dozed off, and didn’t really process the whole Kumbh Mela experience until I returned to Bangkok, when I finally took that long-awaited shower, and the Ganges water finally came off.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why I feel different now, but I do feel like I’ve been through a rite of passage. Walking with millions of seriously spiritually devoted people for six hours straight on such a holy day can do that to you. The ubiquitous music… the intense sun… the mystic stoicism of the pilgrims... the rough, dusty air… the cool feeling of the Ganges water… all are staying with me.

Still, holy pilgrimages shouldn’t be rushed and I wish that I had more time at the Kumbh Mela. Hopefully I’ll get another chance in this life. If not, there’s always the next one.

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