by Janet Amalia Weinberg
People think differently in India, or so it seemed as I stood on the banks of the Ganges, surrounded by sixty million Hindu pilgrims who had come to the river to bathe. I thought the water was polluted and could make me sick-I’d seen garbage, excrement, and three dead bodies in it. They thought it was holy and could cleanse them of sin.
Such pilgrimages, called Kumbha Melas, occur periodically at various sacred bathing sites in India, but this was a Maha Kumbha Mela, a particularly auspicious event that happens once every hundred and forty four years. According to legend, the universal forces for good are so concentrated at this time that simply attending the Mela can purify many lifetimes. I was at a change point in life and had come, not to dip in the Ganges, but to immerse myself in this positive consensus reality.
It was the largest gathering of people anywhere on the planet and a temporary city of perhaps a million army tents had been erected for the month-long happening. I was camped just outside the Mela grounds in an enclave of 400 other Westerners from the States.
One day, a group of us from my camp got a ride to hear the Dalai Llama speak. A crowd of tens of thousands was expected so we left early. As our car entered the Mela, we were swept into a sensory tsunami. People were everywhere–riding rickshaws and Land Rovers, camels and donkeys, walking, standing, cooking, praying, waiting, sleeping. Groups from distant villages sat along the dusty roads. Vendors sold cabbages, peanuts, onions, potatoes, and eggplants. Women, drying freshly washed saris in the wind, unfurled eighteen-foot banners of color. Sadhus-holy men with flowing beards and penetrating eyes–hiked to and from the Ganges. Cows roamed. Competing public address systems blasted chants and prayers. Smoke from a million dung cooking fires clogged the air and the smell of incense, sandalwood and curry sweetened it.
The sixty square mile tent-city was divided into sectors. There were no street signs, but temples and religious groups had their own encampments with identifying gateways. We were in such sensory overload that we probably had passed the same gateways over and over before we noticed our driver was taking us in circles.
Ordinarily, I would have thought: “We’re lost, we might miss the Dalai Llama, it’s all the driver’s fault….” But I didn’t think what was happening was bad or wrong. In fact, I didn’t think about it at all; it was just happening.
As the driver wandered, I marveled at the sights. I had only explored the Mela on foot; seeing it by car was an unexpected bonus. Along the way, we met another lost car, packed with Westerners from our camp. While the drivers conferred, we exchanged stares with a sadhu – he with his orange dhoti, glazed red eyes and Vishnu trident, we with our sun hats, dark glasses and sneakers. Eventually, with reassuring nods, the drivers resumed their quest.
When we finally reached our destination, we found a crowd, churning with rumors that the Dalai Llama would not appear. Again, I could have gotten disappointed, but my new and strange state of accepting and moving with the flow was still with me.
Suddenly, a vehicle shot out of the compound. Someone yelled, “There goes the Dalai Llama!” and our vehicles took off in hot pursuit. Now, it seemed we were lucky to have gotten lost. Otherwise, our drivers would have dropped us off earlier and we, like all those people we left behind, would have had no transportation.
The chase ended at a small tent. There were eleven of us now, five from my car and six, including a two-man camera crew, from the other. We removed our shoes and entered the tent. Menacing guards armed with Uzis scrutinized us but let us pass. Inside, the Dalai Llama was kneeling in prayer before an altar. Behind him, about fifty Indians, mostly sadhu’ in traditional orange and ochre robes, sat cross-legged on mats. Our two carloads clustered at the rear of the tent.
After a few moments, His Holiness, speaking Tibetan, began addressing the gathering through a Hindi translator. People asked questions he must have heard countless times, but he gave each person his full attention and responded with genuine caring. When he finished talking with the Indians, he smiled and called to us in English, “Come on up.”
We closed in around him, astounded by our good fortune. Instead of being part of a crowd of thousands, we had been practically granted a private audience. He signed autographs, laughed, spoke of world peace, and expressed his pleasure at seeing Westerners at the Mela. His radiant delight captivated us all.
When the Dalai Llama rose to leave, a dozen Tibetans immediately formed a human fence along both sides of his path to the exit. He passed through, like a whoosh of joy, stopping to give one sadhu’s beard a playful tug and pat another’s cheek before he left.
My companions were waiting outside. Our car was not. The second carload, including the camera crew, was gone as well. We were all hot and tired and ready to return to our camp. There was just one hitch: we didn’t know where it was.
We gathered at the side of the road to look for a taxi, a rickshaw, a pony cart – anything that could take us back. For as far as we could see, the dusty road was flanked by tents and teeming with people, but there were no vehicles. None. We tried to get directions, but those we asked either didn’t understand English or had never heard of our camp. Even if we had known which way to go, two members of our group were somewhat handicapped and couldn’t walk very far.
Normally, I would have been alarmed and anxious. But as before, I didn’t judge what was happening or think anything about it; it was just happening. I don’t know if being at the Mela purified lifetimes, but it sure was purifying my habit of evaluating and interpreting every experience.
We sat on some boxes, conveniently piled by the side of the road, watched the crowd, and waited. Five minutes passed . . . ten . . . fifteen. . . . Suddenly, a black sedan appeared! Before any of us could wave to it, the car screeched to a halt in front of us.
The door flung open and out stepped the leader of the group I was staying with. The leader!! He had come to meet the Dalai Llama and found us instead. When we informed him that His Holiness had left, he got back into his car and sped away-but not before he’d whipped out a cell phone and called for a car to pick us up.
We were giddy. How amazing! How perfect! We could never have hoped for or imagined such a rescue. As we waited for the car to arrive, someone joked, “Now all we need is a parade.” As if by magic, a procession complete with music, painted elephants, camels, and row after row of marchers appeared.
That’s how it was at the Mela. Ordinary thinking, full of expectations and judgments, seemed to fall away and every disrupted plan became an adventure.
Now, back in my regular life, I have plenty of opportunity to get upset when things don’t go “right.” Car batteries die, keys get lost, people disappoint me, I disappoint myself-the possibilities are endless. But that also means I have plenty of opportunity to remember the Mela and to see what’s happening as just what’s happening.
About the author:
Janet Amalia Weinberg is a former psychologist who has traveled in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines as well as in an anthology she edited, designed to change negative stereotypes of aging (STILL GOING STRONG; Memoirs, Poems and Stories about Great Older Women, Routledge, 2006).