A Pilgrim's Journey

I never expected to be a pilgrim, it just kind of happened.

Growing up in Canada in a secular Sikh family, I've never known anything about Hinduism or pilgrimages. The Kumbh Mela is the biggest Hindu pilgrimage ever. It is the largest gathering of people in the world, so large it can be spotted from a satellite in space. The Kumbh has it's origins in Hindu mythology. In ancient times the Gods and Demons battled over a precious bottle of ambrosia which would guarantee their immortality. The Gods won the battle but not before four drops of the nectar fell on four different places in India: Uijain, Nasik, Allahabhad and Haridwar. Every three years there's a Kumbh in one of these towns. Every twelve years is the great Maha Kumbh. Kumbh literally means pot—the kind you cook in.

It all starts with a phone call. A friend wants some help on a project he's doing about the Kumbh Mela. He'll be traveling to India with a crew of people for the event. I ask if I can go too. His answer is no, but I don't believe it for a second. I know somehow from this moment on that I am on my way to the pilgrimage. Somehow I will be there. I start working on it immediately; I can barely think of anything else.

My only experience with large crowds has been at rock concerts and the only pilgrimage I've made was to the house in Salzburg, Austria where The Sound of Music was filmed. I danced around the Gazebo with a friend singing, "I am sixteen going on seventeen, innocent as a rose." The only other pilgrimage I can think of making is to Liverpool or London to see where the Beatles lived and worked. What do Julie Andrews, Paul McCartney and Krishna have in common? Me?

I've been studying yoga for a couple of years and know that this chance to go into the yogic heartland is no accident. I know to look at situations in my life as metaphors for what's happening in my inner world. I know that yoga is about taking a few steps forward, then a few steps backwards. I realize that what I want to learn could take decades, yet I still entertain a silly notion that I might find it all at once at the Kumbh. I think I might be able to go from being a six-year-old playing pee-wee hockey straight into the NHL. Anything could happen. Maybe I will have an epiphany at the Kumbh. A blast of Divine Light. Maybe I'll achieve cosmic consciousness. It's going to be something big—I just know it. Yahoo!... Even as I think this, I know that I'm setting myself up. It doesn't stop me from doing it. The word dufus comes to mind. I'm a yogic dufus, yogiduf, Dufusananda.

My expectations begin to create a strain on me before I even leave Vancouver. I set off for India with warnings about the Kumbh Mela whirling in my mind. I hear news reports of sadhus attacking western journalists. The Kumbh is known to be a dangerous place, where people are robbed and even killed. Some are never seen again. I hear reports of foreigners who are drugged or beaten. The Kumbh is the stuff of legend; it's all happened at the Kumbh. There are classic seventies films about the perils: twin boys are separated in the crowds and grow up apart. One becomes good, the other bad. One day they're in a fight to the death when they see each others' identical birthmarks and realize they are long lost brothers. Happy endings, they can change a pilgrim's life forever.

Haridwar is set on the banks of the (Ganges) at the point where the river flows out of the foothills of the Himalayas. The hills are bare, blue-green in the hard light of the sun and the city bakes in the forty degree temperature. With the exception of English language signs and electrical power lines, a first glance at Haridwar dates it back a hundred years. It's an old place, cradling old ideas. The Ganga flows quickly by, carrying away the prayers, thanks, tears and longings of the pilgrims. Streams of people pour their faith into this river.

Anna King is a professor of religious studies in England. She has a twenty-year history in the Haridwar area. She's here for the whole four months of the Kumbh. She describes a scene of the Kumbh for me.

"As the dark fell, these naga sadhus and sanyasins gathered around their fires. They became very still, immobile. You could hear their voices coming out and it was made even more exotic by the fact that there were three Hijras, who are hermaphrodites, wandering around dressed in women's clothes and dancing in front of the sadhus. Very graceful, very feminine. The night fell and you could smell the log fire and feel the collapse of several thousand years. You feel like you're going right back in time."

Anna has an academic perspective. "The Kumbh Mela is obviously the greatest fair in the world in terms of numbers of people. There is a feeling that Haridwar is very archaic, that many saints and Mahatmas and holy men have lived here. It is the gateway to the home of the gods, the high Himalayas. There is a sense that this part of India is the land of tapas and asceticism. It's the land of prayer; it's the land of yoga. I think people feel, however bustling, however noisy, however much the rickshaws jostle, and cinema music sounds out, they feel that they can find a kind of peace, shanti, here."

I walk along the river talking with other pilgrims wanting to hear their experiences. I find a priest who has just finished his morning bath in the Ganga:

"My name is Pundit Suraj Prasad Gautum Shastri. I've come from Bhopal with my wife to bathe in the Ganga, chant the scriptures, give to charity, purify ourselves and serve other pilgrims. Until you go on a pilgrimage, you cannot rid yourself of your sins. After pilgrimage you can start a new life. There is always hardship in pilgrimage. That is part of the cycle of Dukh and Sukh, sadness and happiness. If you've made errors in your life and you regret your mistakes, you can wash away your sins in the Ganga. You should take something away from a pilgrimage. Take away anand and shanti, happiness and peace, of heart and mind. You can use it in this life and in the next."

Carl Jung compared the pilgrim's journey with the classic hero's journey. First comes the call, or start of the journey, where a pilgrim separates from ordinary life. Then comes the journey itself, the time at the pilgrimage site, the encounter with the sacred. A sense of community develops. And finally there is the return, with a new sense of self and place in the world. As the priest said, you can take away enough happiness and peace of mind to use in this life and in the next.

Peace of mind—is that what I'm here to find? I'm not sure peace of mind will be all that practical for my life in Vancouver. I don't want to be one of those pious people who goes around smiling knowingly, looking down her nose at everyone else for being so lost. I don't want to be a pious pilgrim. I'm not really sure what a pilgrim is. What calls a pilgrim's soul to make this journey? Is a pilgrim's soul different from a stay-at-home soul? I think about a Yeats poem that goes;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with a love false or true.
One man loved the pilgrim's soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

What's in a pilgrim's soul?

Peace of mind in Haridwar can be a little tenuous. Peace, Haridwar, the two words don't always go together. Ten million people make a lot of noise. It sounds like there is a party going on, which is ironic, considering the name Haridwar translates to 'Door of God.'

Bathing in the river is similar to the Christian practice of baptism in water. In India, immersion in the Ganga means washing away sins, starting a new life. The Ganga is credited with giving hundreds of people a new beginning. The Ganga starts as a small stream high up in the Himalayas in north-eastern India, near the Tibetan border. By the time it nears Haridwar it's a swift river with a strong current. It has washed away many zealous pilgrims who wandered too far into the holy water.

I'm toying with the idea of bathing in the river, but for now I'm just soaking my feet. I'm sitting with Anna King on some stairs leading down to the river. She cuts quite a figure with her red hair, blue sari and passable Hindi. She's studying the sadhus of the Kumbh Mela. I'm curious about why pilgrims come here.

"The main quest, I think, in Haridwar is the Ganga," she says, "The Ganga is herself a living temple. Even the sight of it...you come on a bus and you know they're just waiting for that first sight of the Ganga. But they come for many other reasons. Villagers come from Rhajastan to ask for the gift of a son, they come to cure skin diseases, they come for shanti—for peace in old age—and they also come for reasons of personal voyage, personal yatra. They come for reasons of sorrows. To immerse the ashes of the dead in Pochupari or Sutti God. And of course there are very great saints here, and people come to see them. I do feel that pilgrims perpetuate an enormously old tradition. I know a lot of modern' Indians who would scoff at it and find it bizarre, archaic, even just odd. There is something very noble in the simplicity of the tradition."

I'm surprised to see so many Sikhs at a Hindu pilgrimage. My people, Northern Indians. Most Sikhs were Hindus a mere five hundred years ago before Guru Nanak founded Sikhism. Most have stopped coming to Hindu pilgrimages in favour of their own newer traditions.

I remember hearing about my grandmother's family coming to Haridwar. This is unusual for a present day Sikh family, but a hundred years ago it would have been common practice. It makes me wonder if there is any record of my family here. For more than four hundred years priests have recorded each visit to Haridwar by each family in each village, from most of India. I set out to find a family priest.

Haridwar is amazing! I ask a stranger where to find the priest for my grandparents village in Punjab. He directs me to Sita Ram Gita Ram, who apparently specializes in the Grewal family records. Within a few minutes I find the house. It is jammed with people visiting for the same reason. It seems important for people to record their names and reasons for visiting Haridwar. I'm not sure why. I soon find the right priest. He has made a career of recording the names and visits of pilgrims and of reading the information back to people years later. He opens a steel armoire filled with long sheets of paper, folded and tied in place. He asks me questions in Hindi. I don't know many of the answers but respond in my rudimentary Punjabi, much to the delight of the audience gathered around raptly listening to find out who I am. They comment on my odd speech pattern. They're a chatty group and I find myself so annoyed with them meddling in my search that I ask them to be quiet. Hmm...I'm getting a little snarly. I'm surprised by how tense I feel.

Finally the priest finds something. There is a record of Arjan Singh, son of Mustan Singh from village Punj Sao Thi Chuk, visiting Haridwar in 1921 with the ashes of his infant son. There is no record, of my family before or after that date, without more detailed information to help with the search. I'm elated to find this unforeseen connection with Haridwar. I'm also filled with sadness at the thought of my grandfather, whom I never met, traveling all the way from what's now Pakistan with the ashes of his son. I've already begun to feel quite at home in Haridwar, but this discovery deepens my sense of belonging. I feel a part of this place and part of a long line. Now I know why people come to the priest to record their names. I write my name in the book to continue the line.

Back outside in the narrow lanes of Haridwar, I watch people more closely, as if looking for some of these ancestors who visited years before. I see a few Sikh pilgrims and I'm touched by their faces. I begin to put their faces to my family's story. There is my great-grandfather, a retired policeman from Hong Kong, who went to a Mela after foot surgery and died the same night. There's my great-uncle who had his pocket slit and all his money stolen at a pilgrimage. And there's my other great-uncle who ran off with his brother's wife and lived a long and happy life. And there's my great-great grandmother who went blind. O.K., so these aren't the happiest of family stories but they're mine. I see my history in the faces of these pilgrims. I recognize them.

There's tension building up to the main bathing day of the pilgrimage. I can feel the anticipation, I can see it in the faces of people walking into Haridwar. They're intent, focused, they know why they are here. Do I know why I'm here? No, but I'm starting to feel more relaxed, more immersed. I can't quite explain it.

Fatigue is setting in. The heat, crowds, noise are exhausting. Many of the pilgrims are elderly. I'm surprised at the degree of compassion I feel for them. I'm becoming protective of them, wanting each to find what he or she is looking for and return safely home. A blur of crowds has become face after face after face. The faces are beaten by the sun but their eyes are full of life.

The forty-degree temperature is brutal. The quest for the higher self brings with it the search for the practical things in life. I'm staying in the mid-town hotel, eating at Chotiwalas where the food is cheap and tasty while most of the other pilgrims bring their own food and camp. At first I was afraid of not finding enough washrooms during the long days spent exploring. But, it turns out that's not a problem. I have to keep drinking water every ten minutes or pass out, there's no choice. The water seems to evaporate as fast as I can drink. There is little need to seek out the washrooms. Good thing, because I didn't see any.

In the evening thousands of people head towards the river to the stairs to God Har Ki Pauri' for the daily ceremony of lights or Aarti. The Aarti symbolizes purification through Divine Light. The sky is pink in the last moments of sunset. Concrete stairs lead right down to the river. They're semi-circular, running the length of two city blocks. Large tiered pans are set alight as everyone sings the Ganga Ma Aarti. The flames shoot up ten feet in the air, bells ring; this is a jubilant gathering. I go into a time tunnel and see myself at the Kumbh Mela, a thousand years ago. It's an eerie feeling which creates a space somewhere inside me. My eyes begin to tear. Is this emotion or the mosquito-repelling powder permeating the air and stinging my eyes?

Thousands of people are still pouring into the city. They're so orderly, focused. They have a job to do, a role to play, a continuum to tread. We're all waiting. At first I was overwhelmed by the size of the crowds, the chaos. Now I'm gradually beginning to lose my sense of being separate from them. I feel as if I'm part of the same continuum. Every day another layer comes off my skin until I feel immersed in this collective. Within the chaos there is order, peace, contemplation. It's been a slow process to learn this. I'm just starting to get the hang of things in Haridwar. It feels safer here than when I first arrived five days ago. It's about letting go...relaxing.

It is the morning of the most auspicious day of the Kumbh Mela, and many people have lain awake all night and have already bathed in the Ganges. Timing is everything, even for pilgrims. Apparently the most favorable time to bathe is at five in the morning to better wash away sins. I think about jumping into the river with the other pilgrims but never get up the nerve. Later in the day I walk down to the river and immerse my hands and feet in the cold water.

A highlight of the day is the procession of sadhus down to the river. I sit on top of a cement bus shelter along the parade route, watching as hundreds of thousands of people mill down below. This is the opportunity of a lifetime to see so many sadhus, sanyasins and holy women. They've come from all over India for this day. The crowds are thrilled. The most exciting part is watching the Nagas, or naked Sadhus. They cover their bodies and hair with ash to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter. They're from a fierce warrior order, dating back to the fifteenth century. A group out of time. Yet, they seem vulnerable with garlands of marigolds around their necks and loins. Some of them hold hands as they walk along in pairs. They're a rare glimpse into an old world.

The big day draws to a close. There is a change to the air and already there are streams of pilgrims leaving town, returning to their families, work and survival. This short time of peace and striving to be better is over. They must now pack up their shanti, peace of mind, trying to maintain as much as possible to use in their lives. They're striking the set of this great drama. Packing up the pilgrimage.

My last evening at the Kumbh, I visit a small temple to the God Shiva. He's the destroyer of obstacles and the Lord of the dance and very popular. Westerners may recognize statues of Shiva standing in dance pose Nataraj within a ring of fire. Aarti is beginning. The sadhus form two lines before the altar and chant sanskrit mantras invoking Shiva. Each of them holds a candle. Even though it is pitch dark outside the whole temple is filled with light. I go back in time three thousand years to the birth of these mantras. The music carries me away to a still place where time stops.

I've completed the first two parts of the pilgrim's journey and now comes the return home. But there's a tug at the pilgrim's soul. For an instant there's a temptation to stay forever and maybe even become a sanyasin, a person who takes vows of renunciation.

Anna King reflects: "I've been joking about becoming a woman sanyasin. But I think it is only half a joke. At the moment I'm on a sabbatical and I'm funded by my college. I feel so privileged to be here. I have thought that maybe towards retirement it would be very pleasant indeed to come to the Himalayas and live as a sanyasin. I worry that I will go back and live my university life unchanged. I'll go back and be as preoccupied with timetables and meetings and watching the clock as ever. I hope that some of it lingers on and makes me create a sense of space and time around myself.

"One of the greatest differences between my life in England and my life here is the fact that I actually have time to speak to people, to sit about. Even to discuss matters of spirituality, even to laugh. It's been a time of very intense happiness for me. I hope that the experience doesn't get swallowed up too quickly in the routine of academic life. I've always thought that you ought to be able to practice sadhana, you ought to be able to have a spiritual practice that can take place outside of any bank or store. I will try to hold on to my experience here."

Part of me feels the same way as Anna. I don't want the Kumbh to end. I'd like to stay and live forever in a perma-Kumbh. The other part of me is ready to go home with the many gifts of the pilgrimage. They've been small, quiet hints of gifts. I don't think I've achieved cosmic consciousness. I would know if I had. Wouldn't I?
Hardeep Dhaliwal is a freelance journalist in Vancouver, Canada. A Pilgrims Coul aired as an hour long documentary on the CBC Radio program Ideas.

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