‘A sadhu, wearing fake-Rayban sunglasses chased me’ – is a sentence I never thought I’d write. But here it is. I was merrily walking along the Godavari, being my trigger-happy self. Among the hundreds of sadhus who have congregated at Ramkund in Nasik for the year long Kumbh Mela, this one caught my attention not just because his sunglasses game was on point. Or, that he was puffing on a bong. He was cleaning one of the many gutters before the main ghaat. As he pulled out bits of weed, discarded puja flowers and a skin-coloured Rupa underwear (Eww), the journalist in me wondered ‘why was he cleaning that gutter?’
In that instant, before my brain could fully process the outcome, I decided to ask him, “Aap kya kar rahein hain?” What happened next probably lasted all of 10 seconds but boy it felt long! The saffron-clad sadhu stood up in slow-mo, taking off his sunglasses. I thought he hadn’t heard me, so I repeated my question. The next thing I knew, the man had picked up all the garbage he had fished out (yes, including the Rupa underwear) and he was throwing it at me. And, when he ran out of things to throw, he folded his lungi Rajnikanth style, picked up his chappal and started chasing me. I would like to believe that I out-ran him but if I am being honest, he must have gotten distracted with the bong he continued to hold on to.
This, ladies and gentlemen, was the high point of my first kumbh mela.
It all started a day earlier with V asking if I wanted to get away to Nasik for the weekend. “Meh! There’s nothing in Nasik to do,” was my immediate reply. How wrong I was. Apart from all the excitement at Ramkund, we also chanced upon a beautiful reservoir near Igatpuri (on the way to Nasik) and climbed half a hill to see 2000-year-old Buddhist caves.
At about 7 am on Saturday morning, we left from home. As the ipod shuffled between Gym Class Heroes, Lana Del Ray, Lenka and Jason Mraz, we breakfasted on chocolate-orange scones I had baked for the trip.
The first pit stop of the trip was at Oye Punjabi outside Kalyan. The dhaba came highly recommended by many. The joy of having hot aloo and gobi parathas with spicy anda bhurji instead of the more easily available kanda poha, vada pau or idlis is something else. In keeping with the Punjabi theme, statues of men, women and children line the pathway to the restaurant. There’s even a fake well with gaon ki goris filling their matkas. But just in case there was any doubt of which state we were, they had up-tempo Marathi bhajans playing. Service is not the quickest here but they do have clean loos. Other food options on this stretch include a Shiv Sagar, Shree Dutta (which has yum kothambir vadis and vada pau) and a crowded food hub after the toll plaza.
With toothpicks holding up our eyelids (yes, parathas aren’t a good idea when you have a long drive ahead) and Evanescence and Limp Bizkit on a loop we started once again. Kasara ghat is one of my favourite stretches on this route and especially in the monsoons when it’s all green and pretty with li’l waterfalls on every hairpin bend.
Earlier in the week, I had read about Bhavali Dam, just ahead of Igatpuri and both V and I were keen on checking it out. About 2 kms after Igatpuri we took a right (much before Goti that goes to Bhandardhara) and drove about 4-5 kms until we reached a little village. A kuccha road took us all the way up to the one of the most picturesque lakes we’ve seen around Mumbai. V even insisted on calling it Loch Bhavali. As we walked around the lake, we had the whole place to ourselves except for occasional goatherds and butterflies. We wished we could sit by the mirrored lake and watch dark clouds gather and birds skim the lake but, we had no lunch and it was past 1pm.
We decided to head to Soleil by La Plage at Sula Wines for lunch only because La Plage in Goa is one of our favourite restaurants ever. Big mistake. V sent back the pasta he had ordered because it was absolutely tasteless. I had ordered a vegetable Moroccan stew with couscous that was just about passable. The day was saved by the chocolate thali – assorted nuts covered with cocoa, chocolate fondant, chocolate icecream, chocolate balls and chocolate-walnut cake. Nom nom.
We headed back towards the NH3 to check into our hotel. V got a great deal so we stayed at the gorgeous Gateway. What was meant to be a quick check-in turned into siesta (I blame you, V), so we got to Ramkund to see the Kumbh Mela at only around 5:30 in the evening. Ramkund is apparently where Lord Ram used to bathe everyday while he stayed in Nashik so every 12 years during the Kumbh, lakhs follow in his footsteps.
Ramkund wasn’t as crowded as I expected it to be.Not only did we get ample parking there, it was also quite clean! I had expected the ghaats to be teeming with humanity. After all, the last Kumbh at Prayag (Allahabad) saw a crowd of over 3 crore making it the largest human gathering on earth. And, if there were no crowds then how would V and I get separated and then find each other like in the movies.
If I weren’t so hopped up about finally being at my first Kumbh, I would have been disappointed. But there was no time to think. There was so much going on – an old man, fresh from a dip, struggled to tame his white dhoti; a young man sat ramrod straight, deep in meditation, obvious to the chaos around him; cops sitting on a ledge overlooking the ghaat ate jalebis with their evening chai; and little urchins walked a tightrope as a 2-in-1 played Sari Duniya Ka Bojh Hum Uthate Hai.
There was a mini-bazaar on the ghaat with everything from pretty beads to cast-iron utensils and herbs and potions on sale. Though the in-famous Naga sadhus were nowhere in sight (damn!) there were enough chillum-puffers all around.
There’s a beautiful but dilapidated ancient temple made of black stone between the parking and the main kund that’s worth a visit. V and I spend about two hours walking around and taking in the sights of ‘exotic India’ before calling it a day.
The plan for the next day involved waking up again at 6 am (that sound you hear is V complaining; very, very loudly) to climb halfway up the Trirashmi Hill to see the Pandavleni caves. Don’t let the name fool you; these caves have nothing to do with the Pandavs or even the Mahabharat. They are Hinayana Buddhist caves that date between 3rd century BC and 2nd century AD.
Early mornings are the best time to visit the caves because it’s a popular tourist destination. A 15-20 minute climb (complete with lots of huffing and puffing) and Rs. 5 entry tickets brought us up to 24 beautiful rock-cut caves.
Some of the caves are large viharas and contained many chambers on either ride for monks while others have elaborate façades and there’s also a Chaitya or worship hall. Intricate stone steps connect many caves to each other.
The interiors of the caves are cool, quiet (that is until a bunch of kids come wohooing in) and litter free. There are carvings of Buddha and Bodhisattva, Jain tirthankaras, animals and mythical half-bird-half-animal creatures and even some inscriptions in Brahmi. While the caves are all numbered there is no information of any kind on site, which is a shame.
After spending over an hour at the caves, we decided to head back to the hotel for a leisurely breakfast. We left for Mumbai around at noon and by 3 we were stuffing our faces at Bijoli Grill in Powai.
Just like that a fun weekend was over.