I had the privilege to represent Australia at a global event celebrating the Kumbh Mela in India.
The Kumbh Mela (the festival of the sacred pitcher) is anchored in Hindu mythology as the largest public gathering and collective act of faith anywhere in the world. The Mela draws tens of millions of pilgrims over the course of approximately 48 days to bathe at the sacred confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mystical Sarasvati.
I realised this was certainly going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. In total there were 188 delegates from around the world, an incredibly diverse group you would expect. The delegates included senior politicians, social reformers, yoga practitioners, academics, senior government representatives, medical professionals and artists (including musicians and one film star). I am pleased to advise there was also some other delegates like me, a little more everyday, but attending with an open mind and a motivation to learn more of Indian culture.
I have to say that my interest in India probably started with a love of Indian food. Following my graduation from University in 2000 and commencing work as a Social Worker in Brisbane, I started to make connections and friendships with colleagues from an Indian cultural background. In more recent years, my children have also developed close friendships at school with children who have Indian families. I have really enjoyed meeting these families, learning more about their country of birth and culture.
I had not travelled to India before. I was aware from colleagues there is a range of experiences to be had. True enough, I expreienced the full range of emotions during this trip. At times I felt joy – there was much fun, laughter, excitement and connection. At other times, I felt sadness in seeing how difficult life must be for so many people. With both these experiences and feelings in mind, I would certainly recommend to everyone, that a visit to India is a ‘must do’.
A brief rundown of my adventure:
February 21: This was my 15th wedding anniversary. My wife Rachel drove me to the airport at 3am to ‘celebrate’. I flew to Melbourne first where I met other delegates from Samoa, New Zealand and Niue. Meeting them made me feel much less nervous and I knew then the trip was going to be special.
February 22: We caught a chartered Air India flight and landed at Bamrauli Airforce base near Prayagraj. From the airport, we travelled in a convoy of buses for approximately 40 minutes. It was amazing and bizarre as people including school children were lining the streets with flags to welcome us. When we exited the bus, we were met by a media scrum. For me, this was such an unusual experience.
We then caught two large boats to the Kumbh Mela area. On arrival we were met with a brass band playing, we then took a short walk to the amazing Allahabad Fort. At the fort we visited a sacred fig tree where many delegates embraced the tree.
We then had another short mini bus trip to the area where delegates could get changed and take the “holy dip” where the three rivers meet. When I entered the water, I was surprised how chilly it was. Although it was still winter, the weather had been beautiful. The “holy dip” was certainly refreshing and although I only went in waist deep, I am glad that I did. It was lovely to observe the delegates and, of course, the pilgrims truly embracing the dip; you could see the meaning and special place this had for them.
This was followed by a beautiful lunch and cultural performance with dancers from four different areas of India. We then headed back for our flight to Delhi. It was a massive but unforgettable day.
February 23: I had another early 7am start with a bus trip to another very special occasion. This time we were heading to Pravasi Bhartiya Kendra (PBK) for a photo opportunity with the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi. A lunch was hosted by the Minister for External Affairs and this concluded the formalities of the tour.
With my new found friends from Georgia, Armenia and Gayana, we headed into Delhi to explore markets, temples, monkeys and much, much more. We capped off with a late-night reflection on the experience back at the hotel. It was at this point I got to know another standout delegate from Iceland who had excellent knowledge of Australia, not to mention an appreciation of single malts.
February 24: I returned to the heart of Delhi for more market fun and cultural exploration with some other new friends from Bolivia and Albania. Travelling through Old Delhi in a Tuk Tuk was a real highlight – so busy and so much to see and absorb. The next day I boarded my flight home to Australia.
As guests of the Indian Government and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations we were extremely well looked after and provided for. We stayed in a fantastic hotel, had incredible food and were well looked after by our group leader, Amit. It was an honour to attend.
I feel that I have significantly enhanced my connection and understanding of India – its culture and people. I plan to have a more global view in my life and be more aware of the world around me. Making new friendships and having such a unique experience has inspired me to learn more, read more and, wherever possible, travel more. I am grateful for this unforgettable opportunity in incredible India.
By Simon Leis
(The writer was the only selected delegate from Australia and sent to India by the High Commission of India in Canberra)