Kumbh Mela is Full of Character and Characters

Article by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley

Thu February 14, 2013 | 00:00 AM

KM-2314-web_0Didn’t I see this cat on Soul Train? In India, he’s atop a guru mobile with a bevy of followers who loved to dance

Seven Deadly Sins by Mahatma Gandhi

Wealth without work

Pleasure without conscience

Science without humanity

Knowledge without character

Politics without principle

Commerce without morality

Worship without sacrifice

I’ve always loved this piece of wisdom from Gandhi. I would add “Kumbh Mela without characters”

IMG_0409Some people have hair that’s longer than their body….

IMG_0412Which is remarkable when they’re over 6 feet tall; turns out he’s much, more older than he looks

One lasting impression I have from Kumbh Mela is that the world is full of people who, upon first look, may be troubled or different, but upon further investigation, have so much to teach us. As I walked around the Mela, I had a loose checklist in my mind: is this person just a bizarre character or do they have character and/or something to teach me? I would hope I can learn something from everyone, but, alas, I haven’t always found that to be the case.

DSC01782This comedic character told me he’s the recently-reincarnated Ravi Shankar (who happened to be born nearby in Varanasi)

More than anything, I just enjoyed engaging in conversation with all these folks as English is still quite prevalent (maybe 25% of those at the Mela had some understanding of the English language and I started to pick up a little Hindi although I was lost when Punjabi or some other dialect arose).

KM-2048-web_0Based upon his look, he’s certainly a character but he’s got character for dealing well with his infirmities (see his legs)

DSC02037Another man with character (completely disabled in his legs and feet) who drew a crowd and a lot of donations

These two fellows above represent thousands of pilgrims who are seemingly “disabled” but have shown true sacrifice in their means of worship (to steal the last line of Gandhi’s “Seven Deadly Sins” listed above). As I talked with a few of these folks, I went from a mindset of “Thank God I don’t have their physical curse” to “Wow, this person’s perspective on life is so refreshing.” That wasn’t my universal experience, as some characters don’t show much character.

DSC01723This guy scared me. I explain below.

The guy in the yellow turban above befriended me…so I thought…when he pulled me out of a crowd of folks all looking for money from me. I had given some money to a sadhu as a small donation and others had seen this and they wanted their fair share. This guy pulled me out of the crowd and marched me to his tent ten minutes away from our Barfani camp. Since we’d just arrived at Kumbh Mela, I was a little disoriented, but appreciative that this warrior-like man was going to show me his camp. But, when we arrived there, this character started acting pretty looney and he introduced me to a series of boys (like the one in the photo) and the relationship between him and the boys felt odd. So, I tried to leave and he restrained me, grabbing my arm, and pointing his sharp trident at my face. After 15 minutes of feeling like a hostage, I snuck out when he wasn’t looking. Maybe I should check the box for “he’s a character with no character.” Thankfully, this was a very unusual experience during my four days at Kumbh Mela as, beside the crushing crowds at times, I always felt very safe.

IMG_0774Just like at Burning Man, there are occasionally people who look like they’re from another planet; this Naga made me feel like I’d traveled far, far from home

DSC01902I met this jolly, sweet sadhu who was on his way to Kumbh Mela from Varanasi. This was his seventh Maha Mela (every 12 years) so I was amazed he was walking 120 kilometers from Varanasi to Allahabad. I gave him some bus fare.

KM-1801-webThis diva was a cross between Diana Ross and Madonna. Remember the film “Paris is Burning”? Well, this hilarious dude, who had pronounced facial impressions and had perfected eye-rolling, should have been the star of that documentary

DSC02101These three guys were very westernized and spoke great English. I didn’t initially recognize them as Nagas and the guy in sunglasses was so disappointed in that fact that he just opened his gown up to show his “family heirlooms” to me (the Naga sect are well-known for disrobing in public). 

KM-2291-webThis baba’s picture was on posters throughout the Mela so when I saw him in one of the guru parades on the most auspicious bathing day, I had to get up close to see him. From now on, I am going to call him Baba Divine because he looks a little like that John Waters femme fatale character and he kept messing with his headdress and makeup to assure that, in real life, he looked as good as his poster. Wish I’d had the chance to hang out with him as I bet he’s got character as well as being a character.