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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Of faith, belief and stories around you

* With much enthusiasm, she carried her bent body, crooked legs, thin arms, greying hair and tired wrinkles wrapped around a torn saree on a walking stick. She trailed behind her family members, but she carried on.

* His 4-year old son sat on his shoulders, eyes wide open, staring at the mammoth human conglomeration around him. At three in a chilly winter morning, the 4-year old was surprisingly wide awake.

* They were in their late twenties, walked holding hands, possibly making their livelihood doing menial labour jobs. Their wives followed them.

* They were members of an akhada (groups of religious sages), covered in ashes wielding their swords and spears, sporting their long hairs. They led the march, lost in their trance, playing their drums and had travelled from the foothills of the Himalayas to the mainland of India.

* While he had planned it for a while, the lens he carried, the cameras that hung from his neck and the backpack that sported his shoulders bore the mark of a long journey from some part of Europe.

The glow in their eyes warded off the darkness of the night, the warmth of their faith fought the winter chill. They were in Prayag, Allahabad, India, to observe Mahakumbh celebrated once in 12 years as the sun travels to the Aquarius sign. It is considered a very auspicious period in Hindu religion. On March 10, 2013, the Mahashivaratri day marking especially auspicious planetary alignments, close to 700,000 people gathered in Prayag to take a holy dip in the river Ganges. The legend has it that if someone takes a dip in the holy Ganges during this festival they are reborn as kings.

They travelled from far off, slept in tents, cooked their food on makeshift ovens, laughed with people they met at the festival, and sang through the night till the hour struck three when they started walking towards the holy river in the hope of achieving salvation for this life and the next. I was there simply to witness people’s faith, their endurance, their hope and it was an immensely humbling encounter for a keyboard-punching, pub-going, shopping mall-hopping, fast-cashing, armchair activist like me. I slept in the tents, ate delicious Indian vegetarian food meant to be cleansing for your body, heard their stories, walked for miles and at times just stopped and gaped at the outburst of colours as thousands of Indian women in their colourful sarees queued up at the ghats (shores) of the Ganges for their turns to take a dip.

Travelling to me is an opportunity to watch people and cultures, to learn from each culture, to enrich my existence by borrowing from theirs, to feel the rush and marvel at the unknown. Being an Indian, born and brought up in India, it took me over 35 years to finally make a 2000 kilometres trip to Prayag to witness the Mahakumbh festival. And it was, beyond question, one of the most enriching travel experiences that I have had so far.