molly russell

The Kumbh Mella Festival – A Memorial

When planning my trip to the Indian Kumbh Mela, the largest human gathering on the planet, I was warned by concerned friends, “Don’t go… you’ll get crushed in a stampede……. it will be 50 degrees…… you’ll get lost..” However, I was not deterred, the idea of witnessing this mass religious spectacle was too enticing and that fact a little dangerous all the more appealing.


I arrived in Ujjain, central India at midnight after getting very lost at the mercy of a confused taxi driver, but thankfully rescued by a search party sent out by my friends. There was an eerie silence and damp in the air, quite the opposite to what I’d expected. I gingerly stepped around the mud relieved to be escaping the taxi. Mud was something I’d never experienced in India, a surreal sight, reminiscent of a wet weekend at Glastonbury. I was told that there had been a huge storm earlier in the day. Torrential rains had created mud slides and catastrophically took with it a tent of devotees killing twenty people, one hundred and twenty hospitalised. It put my bad journey into perspective.

In the morning the sun beat down on our camp site, with the mud now dry, I headed straight to the river.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle on the banks. People of all ages splashing, praying and bathing in the holy water. There was joy and excitement in the air as the crowds embarked on the rituals of washing away their sins and escaping the cycle of death and re birth. I watched men in their underpants and women in their saris chanting, taking selfies, repeatedly dunking their heads in the water and going about their morning ablutions. On the banks, bright coloured saris were held up acting as changing rooms for bathers to dress.

I wandered further along the ghats and saw a tall straw building on the horizon, it looked like a cross between a Thai gazebo and something from The Three Little Pigs. Intrigued, I moved with the crowd through the gates. Images of war ships, soldiers in action circled the structure. This was not what I expected. I saw rows of people wearing white and orange sitting cross legged behind small fires. They were praying, meditating, and keeping the fires stoked. The photos of the soldiers were of those who had lost their life in action. Here the friends, families and gurus were remembering the dead and paying tribute in a very powerful ritual. Incense and smoke filled the air, the mystical atmosphere intense.

Later I met friends for a wonder, we passed tent after tent each housing a guru usually naked and covered in ash surrounded by his disciples. Some gurus were friendly inviting us in for chai and chillums, smiling and making us feel welcome. One young baba with beautiful bone structure tenderly wiped his fauns musk ducts with a cucumber. Another whacked us with a stick as we passed. One had covered his pet cow in garlands and made a dance whilst whistling into a shell. We quickly learnt to expect the unexpected. We danced as a band of men wearing peacock feather hats played and sang. Crowds of people moved alongside each other and we found ourselves at a Sikh temple which had fed over one hundred thousand people for free that day. They sat us on the floor of the car park and plied us with tasty curries served from metal buckets. We looked down at the throngs of visitors walking along the river bank against a back drop of twinkling temples lit up by fairy lights. It feels like I’m in Disney Land, I thought, a spiritual theme park.

True to form I caught a nasty virus, most likely from a gurus’ chai that hadn’t been properly boiled, but survived, running to the plane clutching my stomach high on the madness and wonder of what I’d witnessed. Incredible India.

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