On Monday, the 55-day Maha Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India came to an end. It seems like ages ago already that I was there, camping on the sand inside a thatch hut owned by a famous, dread-locked sadhu, and photographing the ritual bathing on the most auspicious day of the entire event – February 10, 2013. That experience will live with me forever, I’m sure, but before I even knew what the Kumbh Mela was, I visited another one of the four cities where the world’s largest religious gathering is held: Haridwar, in the state of Uttarakhand.
Like Allahabad, Haridwar is located on the banks of the river Ganges and is considered one of the seven holiest cities in India. And, like the rest of India, even cows are considered gods. In a hierarchy of importance, cows come second only to the birth mother, for they provide milk when the mother dries up, as well as manure, which is used for cooking. It amazes me still, however, that these highly revered animals largely live on trash.
Nobody claims them. Nobody feeds them.
Then again, some people can barely afford to feed themselves. In the morning, I wandered aimlessly with my camera, as I often do on my first day in a new place, and found myself walking past the slums built along the railway tracks where children fly paper kites tied to a single white string…
…mothers nurse their babies amidst the dirt, trash and drying laundry…
…and both men and cows laze in the middle of the tracks with nothing better to do.
I walked through the housing community on the other side, snapping photos of eager children and lounging shopkeepers – those slightly better off than the folks they looked down at on the tracks below.
I strolled past ladies washing clothes and grandmothers relaxing.
I continued up the hill toward one of the city’s largest temples, fending off wild monkeys as I went.
At the top, I joined a massive crowd waiting to enter. We lined up between guardrails meant to guide people, and instantly those behind me were pushing and hollering, while those in front were also impatiently shoving their way through. I had no choice but to go with the flow. I felt more like a cow in the chute at branding time than the holy cows wandering freely down on main street would ever know.
Later I joined the nightly, sunset aarti, a religious ceremony along the banks of the river where locals gather to pray, bathe and set burning candles placed inside banana-tree leaves to float along the fast-moving water. As I stood amidst the crowd of almost-entirely Indian tourists, I felt less like a cow than I had before for I had nothing left to give and they, despite their malnourishment and mistreatment, continue to provide.
It would be weeks before I would decide to drastically change my India travel plan to see the fantastic Kumbh Mela, which became the most religious event I’ve ever witnessed, but this brief stopover in Haridwar was a strong taste of what was yet to come.
- In pictures: India’s Kumbh Mela festival ends (bbc.co.uk)
- Record crowds head home as India holy festival ends (abc.net.au)
- Kumbh Mela India
India in Images: Life in the Holy City of Haridwar