After three days, we leave Varanasi and drive North to Allahabad. It’s where the confluence of three rivers meet; Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati. The latter has since dried up and can’t be seen. Not many Westerners come here but it’s a place of mass pilgrimage for Hindus. It is considered auspicious to bathe in the confluence of the three rivers.
Every 12 years Allahabad hosts the Kumbh Mela and in 2013 when the last one was held, over 80 million people visited and unfortunately 36 people were crushed to death in a stampede.
We drive about two hours and arrive at Allahabad and we visit the Sangam (where the three rivers meet.) As far as my eye can see, there are tents everywhere – it is literally a city of tents. I’ve never seen anything like it; there must be thousands of tents. I find out that they are permanently here although the majority are unoccupied for most of the year. This tent city is a legitimate district of Allahabad.
As we walk on the dirt road passed the colourful tents, people stop and stare at us. As I mentioned, it’s rare to see Westerners here and a lot of the people here are tourists themselves. It’s all very harmless and innocent. With the exception of one man, we are a group of 20 Western women, two of whom are Swamis dressed in head to toe orange. No wonder they are curious!
Many old Sadus stop and soon a crowd gathers and we are surrounded. We take out our phones and cameras and start taking photos of the Sadus and other people staring at us. This amuses them greatly! Some of our group stand in the middle of the Sadus and take selfies. Eventually our tour guide realises we won’t get very far with a crowd of people following us down to the river, so she rings for our driver to come and pick us up in the mini bus.
The driver arrives grinning; he too thinks we are funny! We get on the bus with the Sadus still standing staring and we smile and wave at them through the window. They break into gap toothed smiles and wave back, some bringing their hands together into prayer and nodding.
The next day, we leave our hotel early and drive down to the Yamuna river. Driving through a small shanty town, children appear and start waving and run after our bus to the river bank. When we step out, the children surround us smiling and waving. We take photos of them and they love it, posing and asking to take more and then demanding we show them the result.
On the river bank is another tourist group, this time a large group of Indian women dressed in beautiful bright coloured saris. They smile and stare at us as we smile and stare back at them.
We pile into two rowing boats and we row down the still river. It’s grey, foggy and cold. I’m really cold and pull my hoodie around my face as I don’t have a shawl like all the others. We row for about 45 minutes; listening to the gentle lap of the oars hitting the water. Other than that it’s silent. As the fog begins to lift, we pass rugged cliffs, an ancient Fort and the mansion of a famous Bollywood actor.
We finally arrive at the confluence and can see where the Yamuna meets the Ganges. The Yamuna is green and glassy whereas the Ganges is brown and fast moving. Despite the cold, people are bathing here as the water is considered holy.
Mataji and Swamiji (our two Swamis) step onto another boat which is moored to a long line of boats in the middle of the river. A supposed holy man has asked to give them a special blessing. Then in the middle of his ‘special blessing’ he asks for 3000 rupees. This is more than one month’s salary! We realise we’ve been conned (common in India!) to which Mataji and Swamiji refuse and come back onto our boat.
Eventually we start rowing back but it’s hard work for our rowers as we are going against the tide. Our rower is probably in his 60’s and the other rower looks like a teenager and both begin to tire. We have a local man on our boat but it’s not his job to help row. He owns the boats and his job is to be our guide.
We begin chanting ‘Om Namah Shiviya’ to take our minds off the cold. To help the rowers, we moor at a different location along the river bank and ask our drivers to meet us there. Our local guide explains that our chanting helped our rower to row and for that he is grateful.
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