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Calculated risks, incalculable rewards in India



In 2013 I attended an event so exclusive, so unique, it wouldn't happen again for another 144 years.

Scene from Maha Kumbh Mela. Photo by Catherine MarshallIt was the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, where, over a six-week period, an estimated 120 million Hindu pilgrims converged on the banks of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Sarasweti Rivers in order to perform puja, or the cleansing of their sins.

While kumbh melas occur with relative frequency — alternating every three years between the cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain (the 2016 kumbh mela has just finished at Ujjain) — the big daddy of the melas, the Maha (or great) Kumbh Mela, occurs just once every 144 years.

This particular mela coincided with a rare planetary alignment. I was lucky enough to be there when the planets aligned.

Those who have visited India will know it as a country which, from the minute you step out of the safe confines of the airport, will slap you in the face and grip you by the shoulders and force you to take notice of the messy, joyous unfurling of humanity that is happening everywhere you look.

Why had I chosen, on my first visit to India, to attend a festival that would surely challenge my cultural sensibilities at a level no ordinary visit to India (if there's such a thing) would do, and which, given this country's reputation as an unsafe destination for women, would quite possibly threaten my security?

Well, I could hardly change the date of the Maha Kumb Mela. It wouldn't be coming around for another 144 years.

I'd always longed to explore places on the map that were remote from my own experience, and over the years images of those swarms of bathing pilgrims had infiltrated my consciousness through newspapers and television. They'd ignited in me a curiosity, a desperation to immerse myself in those people's celebration as it happened.


"It was this confluence of the alien and the familiar, the sense that I was separated from this culture yet simultaneously embraced by it, that still resonates today."


As for my security, I believe that, for the vigilant traveller, there's no greater threat to one's security in Srinagar or Pushkar than there is in Nairobi, for example, or Naples. To travel is to take risks; the best we can do is to be prepared, forearmed, and to cultivate in ourselves an attitude that is at once sceptical and sociable. Always be friendly, but keep the eyes in the back of your head wide open.

I arrived in India in late January, and found my senses assaulted in every possible way. India evoked emotions in me that ranged from adoration to familiarity to outright irritability. Why can't this country follow Australia's lead and have a Clean Up India Day, I thought rather petulantly as I passed yet another mound of rubbish?

But of course these are the very emotions travel seeks to evoke, for if we travel merely to replicate the experience we're familiar with, the experience with which we relate, then there should never be any reason to leave the safe confines of our own neighbourhood.

Travel is a tremendous gift, because, if we're open to what it seeks to teach us, we'll gain from it the most superior of educations, and the most profound lessons in humility. We'll take home with us the experience of having quite literally stepped into the lives of others, of observing them doing the most quotidian, the most complex or the most outlandish things. And in so doing we'll establish connections and identify differences and arm ourselves with knowledge so that we may better understand, and be better able to examine, the state of our world.

On the outskirts of Allahabad, my guide bought me a Hindu prayer shawl. He draped it gently around my shoulders and said, 'I am preparing you for the Kumbh Mela. This colour attracts intellect. Wear it always when you are there, so that you are one with the universe.'

And there were times when the shawl did its job, and I felt at one with the universe. When, out in the middle of the Ganges, a Brahmin dipped his finger in a pot of red puja powder, dotted it on my forehead, and blessed me. When a young man named Raj, with whom I couldn't communicate since he had no English and I had no Hindi, taught me yoga, and tried not to laugh when I got my poses horribly wrong. When a sadhu, who had come all the way from Kashmir, asked me to place a shawl across his own shoulders, and to pose for a photograph with him.

And there were times when this great, rumbling, roiling universe I was moving through felt thoroughly alien to me: when the naga sadhus — naked holy men painted in ash, draped in gifts of gold watches and strings of pearls — sucked on hashish pipes and asked for rupees in exchange for a blessing. When a eunuch wearing a bright yellow dress and painted lips brushed past me in an ashram and cast me a mournful smile. When people filed into the fairgrounds with little more than the ragged clothes on their backs and the hope that they would one day reach nirvana.

It was this confluence of the alien and the familiar, the sense that I was utterly separated from this culture and yet simultaneously embraced by it that still resonates with me today. I was a lone woman travelling in India, yet there I was, cocooned, somehow, by this torrent of humanity. As often happens with travel, I had taken a calculated risk, and so had reaped incalculable rewards.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. This is an edited version of her speech to the Australia India Travel and Tourism Council and India Tourism Sydney on Tuesday 24 May 2016.

Main photo by Catherine Marshall

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, India, travel



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Father John George | 27 May 2016  

Catherine Marshall - I admire what you have done. I too have an open mind, but the truth is I won't travel anywhere where there is not a flush toilet.

Peter Burger | 27 May 2016  

I loved your article Catherine. Thank you for sharing some of the richness of your experience.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 27 May 2016  

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