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Articles from 2010 Kumbha Mela: Feeding the Masses | Press for a Photo

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Feeding the Masses

At the Kumbha Mela in Haridwar, 2010

One of the things I was curious about is how do you feed that many people. There were certainly noticeable groups at the Kumbha Mela – to name a few: Sadhus, wealthy pilgrims, poorer pilgrims, beggars, foreigners and the rest of the lot. The wealthy pilgrims and foreigners occupied the hotels in Haridwar and the surrounding area, even as far as Rishikesh (24kms north of Haridwar). The restaurant hotels were always full and fed these two groups heartily.


The Sadhus that lived in the camps could be divided into two groups. Reclusive monks that lived on their own and monks that had devotees to care for them. The ones that had devotees were well looked after. Their devotees cooked and fed their spiritual teachers well and anyone that came within the precincts of their tents. They were certainly generous with food and no one left hungry. The only problem, if you could call it that, is that after visiting a couple of tents one is pretty much stuffed and it then becomes a challenge to decline a meal at the next tent. "Another chai? I've had four already! But I'll take that samosa!"

The devotees certainly worked hard at preparing the meals. All the meals were cooked outdoors over wood fires in gigantic pots with oars, yes oars, as ladles to stir the brewing curries. It was difficult to escape the aroma that filled the air by these temporary kitchens and it wasn't long before it conjured up an appetite among those that walked by. For those of us that cook, we know what comes after cooking…cleaning! I have never seen so many dirty pots, pans and dishes in my life. Outside one large tent, a courageous old lady, draped in a sari, squatted in front of tap of running water with a coconut husk in one hand and a pot in another. Scrub, scrub, scrub. I dreaded to think how long it would take this lady to get it all cleaned and prayed she'd get some help soon. Though sadly, I knew inside of me, it would all be left to her. I watched her for a while as she quietly and determinedly cleaned one pot after another without an expression of despair on her face.

As for the Sadhus that lived by themselves I am not sure where they got their meals. Every time I passed their tents it was not during meal time so it remains a mystery to me whether they prepared their own meals or it was given by pilgrims.

sadhu eating

The poorer pilgrims slept on the ghats and on the vast, flat and empty surrounding areas. Many slept just on a tarp, with bundles of clothes as pillows. Often you'd see a family of five or six occupying a tarp, huddled together to stay warm in the cold nights covered from head to toe in a blanket. Food that they had brought can be seen being cooked over small fires, camp fire style minus the camp. Simple meals but enough to keep them going. Their journey here and their stay is not an easy one. Trains and buses packed to the edge of the door have been ferrying pilgrims to Haridwar over the last few days. Some have travelled days with children and elders in conditions even the experienced backpacker would fine tough to endure. These are the people that are almost always unnoticed at such events. These are the ones that you never read about. These are the ardent pilgrims.

Their will to be at the Kumbha Mela and be part of this amazing spiritual experience despite the conditions they endure is a true sign of their devotion. They truly have captured the spirit of pilgrimage. Each had come to take a dip in the holy Ganges river during these sacred days, making financial sacrifices among others to be here. Despite what seems to me to be a whole lot of challenges, they neither showed it on their faces or expressed it in their behaviour. Most can be seen excitedly building kavadis.

Kavadi is a structure, often constructed out of wood or bamboo, that's shaped like an arched bridge and carried over the shoulder. On either end of the kavadi, these pilgrims have secured a vessel to carry some of the sacred Ganges water back to their homes and loved ones who may not have had the same opportunity to attend the Kumbha Mela.

For the homeless beggars these are better times. With so many devout pilgrims here, offerings are plentiful and food is in abundance. It is so nice to see people being generous and often throughout the day I'd see beggars being given food, money, clothing or other offerings.

For the rest of the pilgrims the hundreds of street stalls and restaurants across towns are the safe haven for their hunger pangs. Chef and cooks can be seen spending hours in front of giant woks and pots, Chapatti (Indian bread) makers are rhythmically patting out perfectly shaped chapattis all day and chaiwallas are brewing the finest chais. These are long hard days in front of the hot stove but financially very rewarding. Food can be seen pilled high at the entrance of restaurants tempting every pilgrim passing by to venture in for a meal.

recycle plates

At such events India leads the way in keeping a greener planet. Banana and other large unidentified leaves are used as plates in which to serve the pilgrims. After which all the "plates" are thrown out in a heap by the side of the road for the meandering cows to then consume. These well fed cows now leave in return a heap of manure which is taken, dried into patties and used by the sadhus and pilgrims as fuel in their fires for cooking or keeping warm. The perfect environmentally friendly cycle of use and reuse.