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Maha Khumba Mela - The Largest Festival in the World

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Contributor:
Rebekah Joy
Rebekah Joy
Maha Khumba Mela

If your looking for something spectacular, why not head to the largest gathering of people on the planet? Every three years the Maha Khumba Mela or Khumba as its known locally is so popular that tree towns hold it in rotation. Hardwar north of Delhi, Allahabad near Benares, then Ujjain in Rajastan all host tis magnificent event. Thanks to the rotation it means it returns to where it started every twelve years. Through into the equation the Maha (big) Khumb, the Half Khumb (Ardha Khumb) celebrated every 6 years and you have a lot of Khumbs and venues....not to mention confusion!

Now a word to the wise, Ujjain in the middle of May (when all good festivals are held) has daily temperatures of 45 celsius plus. You could visit the nasik one which is more 'vaishnavite' (apparently the less exciting side of hinduism, centered on accepting the caste system and the inequalities of life) but THE biggest gathering of people on the planet by a mile happens in Allahabad at the confluence of the holy rivers Yamuna and Ganga with the subterranean river Saraswati.

Those heading to this mighty event should note that the Allahabad Khumb is early in the year; the big days are in Jan and early Feb. Don’t worry about the heat, being by the river in north India at this time of the year sees cooler temperatures.

If your afraid of crowds (seeing as we live in New Zealand you mightn’t be used to them) the Hardwar Khumb might be just the ticket.  Hardwar is on the river Ganga, about 200 kilometers northeast of Delhi.  it has been a destination of religious tourism possibly for millenia,  and there was no other form of tourism until the 20th century. Accessible by train, road and plans from Delhi, the town is old and not too big, and the sacred pond, the harki puri, is right in the center of town .  it is sort of a mini Banares.

Oh yes, you’ll want to know how to get there. 'Planes' fly to Dehra Dun Airport which is sort of in between Dehra Dun, Hrishikesh and Hardwar. It is also nice to drive to Hardwar, especially if north Hardwar is your destination.  Individual and shared taxis are available in Delhi at the u.p. taxi stand in Ajmeri gate. They run back and forth and charge only one way, and the rates are fixed.

BUT the best way to travel is to take the a/c chair car in the Shatabdi train to Dehra Dun. Taking roughly four hours (and providing you have no suicidal indian drivers to deal with) I suggest (if you do take the cab from Ajmeri gate), booking it the night before. Get them to pick you up from your hotel no later than four a.m. Another word to the wise, taxis arranged by your hotel are likely to cost more than double, and be driven by drivers who don’t know the road very well. There are busses, too, for masochists and those determined to 'travel like the Indians'.  No Indian alive would travel by bus if they could travel more comfortably.....and Mahatma Ghandi is dead (he may have done it for political reasons). In theory, you can book the train from the foreigner’s booking office on the first floor of the New Delhi railway station, but this is only for those who are determined to experience Indian bureaucracy.  Much more convenient and sensible is to spend about 100 rupees ($2USD) in fees to a travel agent and let them deal with it.  Most budget foreigners stay in Paharganj near New Delhi station anyway, and the place is littered with travel agents.  Best pick the one closest to your hotel, or get the reception to recommend one, just as a bit of insurance... anyone over the age of sixty is entitled to a concession, which most travel agents try to keep secret and pocket the difference...

The big days at a Khumb are the bathing days, immersing yourself in the water where the drop of nectar fell is meant to be sorting out the karma from all previous lifetimes. Expect to see sadhus staying in the ashram, all of different orders, some naked, some in chains, some with their arms held aloft for decades, some standing for decades. Being in a place and time where everyone's attention is fixed on the divine is an unbelievable experience.  Taking a holy dip at the exact determined moment is like entering living gold.  About three million people were in Hardwar for the main day in 1998, and about 7 million over the entire 3 months.

If your going to the spring 2010 festival for a short time, there are people who will take the stress out of your trip. Expect to pay about 250 euro per person with contrbutions to food (strictly vegetarian) added on top. Discounts may be available for those who intend to do a short term stay during the less busy periods. The 2010 festival starts on the 1st of March and closes around the 18th of April, with the main bathing day being the 14th of April. If your unable to make those dates, the second most important day is considered to be the 15th of March and then the 24th and the 30th of March.

Need more convincing? Take a peek at the doco: http://www.projectilearts.org/takemetotheriver/ 

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