India is a spiritually diverse country with 6 separate religions vying for the high percentages: by far though Hinduism has the majority share with 80% of the population being practicing Hindus.
Hinduism is an incredibly complex religion of which I’m not about to try and explain. One aspect that we found fascinating during our time in India was the extent of the religious devotion through acts of offerings, commitment and pilgrimage by Indians and Westerners!
Pilgrimages and festivals are common in India and we were lucky enough to witness several.
Unexpectedly in Kerala, we bumped into a procession of men in a trance like state hanging from meat hooks on moving vehicles! OH! That’ll be the Thaipusam Festival!
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in January/February. Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting for approximately 48 days before Thaipusam. On the day of the festival, devotees undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers. It was pretty horrific. The procession starts with the village youngsters who have up to 40 little bells hanging from their chests and backs from fishing hooks. As the boys approach puberty they have skewers pierced through their cheeks and arms. When they reach manhood they are themselves hanging like Christmas decorations from trucks!
As we headed south through Goa, Karnataka and Kerala we witnessed hundreds of elaborately, kitschy decorated jeeps packed with sweaty pilgrims. After a little investigation we discovered they were all heading for Sabarimala. The Hindu Pilgrimage site is located on a hilltop in a dense forest. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world, with an estimated 100 million devotees attending every year. Traditionally these pilgrimages would have been made on foot now Hindu devotees spend a lot of money with tour operators to carry them across the country to attend!
Indian festivals, temples and pilgrimages are big business in India. Every temple has a huge notice board (a bit like a takeaway menu) with the price list for offerings and ‘puja’ rituals offered by priests; some larger temples even have a computerised payment system. In a country where the average daily wage is less than £2 it was staggering to see the amount of revenue generated by Shiva and Co. through fire waving and sweet offering!
The Rolling Saint
On the roads in India you can witness anything! So it came as no surprise to see a man rolling down one of the countries motorways. Mohan Das aka Lotan Baba or ‘The Rolling Saint’ is an Indian holy man who is promoting peace by rolling his body along the ground when he travels, sometimes whilst smoking.
With his unique approach to overlanding he’s covered a whooping 30,000km and even tried to cross the notorious India/Pakistan border where he was stopped and told he needed a passport and visa like everybody else!
Admittedly he is a pretty special guy, he once undertook penance for 7 years by standing in one place and eating grass.
Ardh Kumbh Mela
The Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage where Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. The Kumbh Mela and the Ardh (half) Kumbh Mela are held periodically on rotation at four sites: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. The festival is held at each site every 12 years, with a half festival every 6 years. Bathing in sacred rivers is considered to cleanse a person of all sins… The estimated attendance over the Kumbh Mela is approximately 120 million people – that’s a lot of sinners!
The main festival site is considered to be in Haridwar on the banks of the river Ganges. We caught the tail end of the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar and got to experience the full extent of how many people felt they needed their sins cleansed!
Just 20km north of Haridwar lies Rishikesh. In February 1968, the Beatles arrived here in North India, also known as “The Valley of the Saints” at the foothills of the Himalayas to study Transcendental Meditation. Rishikesh is roughly 7000km away from Bangor in North Wales, which is where the Beatles first attended a seminar by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Being a huge music fan I was excited at the prospect of visiting Rishikesh and experiencing the place where the Beatles had one of their most productive times. A huge chunk of “the White Album” was written at the Ashram and whilst there I enjoyed learning about the context in which the songs were written. With fresh ears I listened again and again and read new meanings into many of the songs I had taken for granted.
I knew that the Beatles had shared their class with Donovan, Jane Asher, Marianne Faithfull, Flautist Paul Horn, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and with Mia Farrow along with her sister Prudence. The song Dear Prudence, composed by Lennon using a guitar picking technique taught by Donovan, was intended to lure Prudence Farrow out of her three week intense meditation!
It’s no secret that the Beatles time in India ended in controversy due to allegations of unfair business negotiations, allegations of sexual impropriety and drug use; the latter causing great tension between the Maharishi and the Beatles!
Western Devotees, Spiritualists and Yoga Disciples
The Beatles had travelled 7000km to India on a pilgrimage of sorts to ‘find themselves’, possibly with drugs, possibly with Transcendental Meditation, after the death of their manager Brian Epstein. In 2016 Westerners are still heading east in search of answers, they are easy to spot in Rishikesh despite dressing like the locals!
But surely Hinduism requires a life of dedication, not just a two-week holiday and a pair of white cotton trousers, to begin to understand the complexities of the numerous gods and deities, it is an incredibly tough religion to get your head around after all? An observation proven to us when we spotted a clearly confused western couple in Rishikesh who were taking part in a Hindu ceremony and drinking water from the Ganges who were then later spotted in a shop purchasing Tibetan Buddhist Thangka’s wearing Islamic style headdress’.