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The Kumbha Mela in Ujjain 2004First arrival impressions tell you a lot. I know I am going to like this place after meeting an old sadhu, who looks remarkably like Ganesh Baba on the heaving stairway leading off the equally heaving train platform as thousands arrive and depart, all at the same time, in Ujjain, Madya Pradesh, central India.
He squeezes my hand and thumb, says, 'Hello, Mister, Nomas Te', to which I immediately reply 'Nomas te', before he is gone, swept away in the crowd.
It was a great fight to get off the train. A dangerous time for receiving the attention of pickpockets. The waiting crowd surged forward, pushing and jostling to get on board and find a seat, before I had a chance to get off the train.
My camera bag is being pulled by someone who has got his arm hooked around it, I heave it back in a real tug of war which fortunately the bag survives and the man finally lets go as I get angry and start shouting at him.
The Kumbha Mela tent city stretches away from Ram Ghat, the main bathing ghat, on the far side of the river from the town. It is reached through the meandering narrow alleyways of the ancient town, reputed to be several thousand years old. It has the same feel as Varanasi, which is recorded as having been visited by Alexander the Great who was fascinated by the naked sadhus and who engaged with them in philosophical discussions. Today, they are not much changed, still naked, still philosophers.
Ujjain was the principal city of this area until 1810 when the capital moved away to Gwalior, leaving the old town high and dry as an important Shiva religious centre for pilgrimage but no longer commercially important.
Kumbha Mela means the festival of the divine elixir of life, the khumba, and as if to make the point, there are elephants in town to add to the mood of a giant fair. I donate a couple of rupees to the inquisitive trunk of one of them in return for having been given a close up view of his moist nostrils. He passes the coins up to his mahout, his master and rider.
In the canvas city above the River Shipra, there are thousands of temporary tent buildings, a constant procession of sadhus, a few of whom are female, but the overwhelming majority are male. I walk slowly along the pathways admiring what is on offer at this spiritual bazaar with all manner of sadhus and yogis lined up either side. Indian pilgrims, dressed in white. go up to the seated sadhus and offer cash offerings to obtain their blessings.
I video the scene. The naga notices me and calls me over with a wave of his finger. He indicates I should remove my sandals. And gives me his blessing. I notice he is blind in one eye, perhaps the reason he set out on this most ardous of disciplines where the world is renounced in return for a higher consciousness. No wonder the Indian pilgrims revere the achievements of these supermen.