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Magazine Web Edition > July/August/September 2013 > Special Feature: Kumbh Mela

S P E C I A L   F E A T U R E

KUMBH MELA
Prayag 2013

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1,500 sadhus of Avahan Akhara gather on the banks of the Ganga for initiation
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P REPARE TO EXPERIENCE THE GREATEST GATHERING of human beings in history—100 million congregating at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna. HINDUISM TODAY will take you into the lives of both the sadhus and the pilgrims through stunning photos, revealing interviews, informed analysis and vivid descriptions from our intrepid team. Let the adventure begin!.

HINDUISM TODAY’s journalistic team, Rajiv Malik and Thomas Kelly, conducted 225 interviews and took 5,000 photos from January 28 to February 12 for this report. In the attempt to convey even a small sense of this prodigious religious event, we will let the great saints and ordinary pilgrims alike—and the photos—speak for themselves wherever possible. We’ll start with a description of the main bathing day, and then explore the Kumbh in a series of short articles, photo spreads and interviews.

THE MAIN BATHING DAY

BY RAJIV MALIK, NEW DELHI

SHAHI SNAN, IT IS CALLED: THE ROYAL BATH. There are several during any given Kumbh Mela, but one is always considered the most auspicious. This year at the 2013 Kumbh at Prayag (Allahabad)—the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and unseen Saraswati rivers—that day was February 10, when an estimated 30 million devotees, including hundreds of thousands of sadhus, participated in what was unquestionably the largest gathering of human beings for any purpose in history. The numbers were high and the intent was lofty, to reach for spiritual liberation by taking a “dip” (as they call it in colloquial Indian English) at Sangam, the place where the rivers merge. The watery immersion is made all the more holy by sharing it with the various akharas (monastic orders), who take their own dip throughout the morning hours.

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The great day: The Vaishnavite Shri Panchayati Akhara in procession on February 10 just before noon; the bare-chested man in the lower right is performing sword-bending tricks in front of the Mahant’s chariot.
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The crowds moving toward Sangam in the early morning comprise devotees who have camped on the Kumbh grounds for days or weeks in advance as well as those who have just come for the one day, traveling by plane, train, bus, truck or on foot. Most are dressed warmly to protect against the chilly night temperatures. After all, this is still winter and temperatures typically fall to 45°F. Well before four in the morning, the road to the Sangam bathing ghat is packed and bathing is already underway, even though the first dip for the sadhus is scheduled for 6:30. The pilgrims walk illuminated by the harsh bright yellow mercury lights set up across the grounds. It is a largely silent procession, and most appear to be in a state of meditation.

The majority are rural folk—men dressed in colorful kurta dhoti, women in saris—all walking with their belongings on their head. A large contingent of urban dwellers are here, too, their numbers increasing each Kumbh, dressed in their I’m-from-the-city jeans and t-shirts and carrying bags in their hands, or, for Generations X & Y, wearing backpacks.

The Royal Bathing Day: Sadhus & devotees take their sacred dip


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The ghats, still packed on the 11th, with the historic Allahabad fort in the background; (inset) this shot taken from across the river by Life Magazine during the 1954 Kumbh shows a less overgrown fort in the background.

The pace is unhurried, set by some unknown combination of crowd mechanics and physical infrastructure. One can neither speed up nor slow down. There is a soft drone of ten thousand conversations overwhelmed every few minutes by the central broadcast system blaring instructions, schedules and announcements from the lost-and-found center. It is a long march, nearly eight kilometers for the ordinary pilgrims; those with a press pass can cut the distance in half. Some groups, accompanied by police, are moving forcefully ahead, an impolite intrusion which is accommodated with grace and resignation by the crowds who let them pass.

The scene changes as we arrive at the bathing ghats, where the mood is far from solemn; it is more like an oversized family party, albeit with a strong religious component. Acres of pilgrims are sitting in small groups on the sand chanting mantras such as “Har Har Gange” and singing bhajans. Everyone is either preparing for their dip by changing into a light outfit they’ve carried for the purpose, or drying themselves off and dressing in new clothes. Priests, hired by the families, are performing the time-honored rituals. Nearby a number of small homa fires have been set up for worship. After their dip, many pilgrims give donations to beggars and poor people sitting in a long queue to receive the largess—a typical act following worship in the Hindu tradition.

A raised platform for the media has been set up at the ghats adjacent to the akharas’ bathing area. The foreign press seems better represented here than the Indian press. On either side of the platform, thousands and thousands of pilgrims await the arrival of the sadhus—especially the naga sadhus, who are only found in large numbers here at the Kumbh. Keeping order are commandos, horse-mounted police, the Central Government’s anti-riot Rapid Action Force and the lathi-wielding regular police of Uttar Pradesh.

Around 5:30, still before sunrise, there is a flurry of activity. One naga baba who took an early dip starts dancing with joy just opposite the media stand, a scene which scores of photographers turn to capture. More babas return from the ghats. Aroused, the pilgrims shout “Har Har Gange” and “Har Har Mahadev” with increasing exuberance. Some rush to touch the feet of the naga babas. The police have a difficult time controlling both the photographers and the pilgrims, but they accomplish this task skillfully. They are clearly aware that this is a religious event, not a riot—even if it may seem like one at times.

The crescendo is reached when hundreds of naga babas, all bellowing “Har Har Mahadev,” have conscripted the road on their return to their camps. As soon as one group is gone, the ghats are cleaned—something the babas are quite particular about—before the arrival of the next. The akharas come to the water’s edge two at a time, and take about 40 minutes each at the ghats. Traditionally, the Saivites come first: Mahanirvani, Niranjani, Juna, Atal, Avahan, Anand and Agni. Next come the Vaishnavites—Nirvani, Nirmohi and Digambar. Last the Udasin akharas arrive—Udasin, Naya Udasin and Nirmal.

Babas’ Day: Tens of thousands of sadhus

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At 7 a.m. on the 10th, naga babas of the Niranjani and Ananda akharas charge the bathing ghats with the energy of an advancing army.

One moment after the first departs, the next procession comes into sight, saints in the lead, with beautifully decorated chariots of all types. Several of the sadhus are carrying saffron flags printed with their akhara’s sacred symbol. Devotees carry large, ornate umbrellas, holding them above each of their swamis as a sign of respect and nobility. The devotees in procession thunder “Har Har Mahadev,” and the tens of thousands of watching pilgrims echo back the divine tribute. The energy continues to rise.

Come daybreak, the glaring lights are switched off, replaced all of a sudden by the sublime light of sunrise. It is a breathtaking scene. The photographers are fully engrossed in the attempt to capture the scene in this most perfect lighting. The saints shower their blessings on the crowd, who are welcoming the Sun, Surya Devata, with folded hands. As if by some unseen command, the whole mood turns again to meditation.

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Pilgrims shout “Har Har Mahadev” as the babas go by.
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The magical sunrise moments pass all too quickly. The whole area is flooded with natural daylight as the next akhara comes into view. Sadhus in saffron robes, their huge silver maces reflecting the brilliance of the sun, are accompanied by hundreds of naga babas. Nearing the ghats, the naga babas break into a trot. The hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who can now see this scene in daylight stand spellbound, with folded hands. After their holy dip, the saints look supercharged with divine power, fully capable, one sees, of bestowing the blessed boons sought by the pilgrims .

The enthralled pilgrims take their own dip after the saints, then move away from the water in a contemplative mood. They have achieved their spiritual objective and know they are that much closer to moksha.

By official estimate, hundreds of thousands of sadhus and 30 million pilgrims—yes, that’s the population of Tokyo—completed the sacred bath at the Sangam ghats on this auspicious day of February 10, 2013.

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(left) A couple pause as they take repeated dips in the Ganga. (right) Mounted police clear the way for the next procession of saints.
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SAINTS AND AKHARAS

THE KUMBH IS A 30-DAY SPECTACLE with the globe’s largest audience and two superstars: Ganga Herself, the river with the world’s second greatest water discharge, and the myriad saints and sadhus who camp here for the duration, leaving their maths, ashrams, temples and—for thousands of them—their mountain caves. Most Hindus will tell you that the sight of either the Ganga or the saints can liberate one from the cycle of birth and death. What to say of seeing both at once!

While sages are thought of as aloof and unworldly, anyone who spends time at the Kumbh is touched by the way they receive the common pilgrim. Rich and poor alike are showered with blessings, love and affection. Tea, snacks or even full meals are offered to everyone. It is almost as if the sadhus are worshiping the pilgrim, putting into practice that it is God Himself who has come as the guest. A saying often heard at the Kumbh is “Nar Narayan,” which means “man has become as God.”

The naga saints, mostly belonging to the Saiva Akharas, are the biggest attraction. Covered in holy ash and clad in a mere loincloth or altogether naked, they are only accessible to the common devotee during the Kumbh. The nagas combine a charm and attraction with mystery, mysticism and a wild autonomy that makes pilgrims blessed to have their darshan, even from a distance. Traffic stops on the roads when hundreds of nagas move to or from their bath. Initiation of new sadhus is among the exceptional events of the Kumbh.

HINDUISM TODAY has covered the last four Maha Kumbha Melas and in that process has interviewed hundreds of the saints. This time, however, the reporting team has been asked to meet saints previously unknown, often making “cold calls” without introduction. This is challenging, given the understandable suspicion of many—especially the nagas—toward the media, but ultimately it proves rewarding. In any case, making an formal appointment during this controlled chaos is simply impossible.

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A Vaishnava sadhu applies the tilak on a pilgrim
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We begin our visitations with Swami Digambar Ishargiri of Shambu Panch Atal Akhara, a naga baba. He receives our reporter and photographer with quiet grace and answers questions on spiritual matters as well as issues confronting Hindu society today, including crimes against women and female infanticide (see interview). Pilgrims come and go during the interview, touching Swami’s feet, receiving holy ash on their forehead as a blessing and often leaving a donation. Swami explains that the donations are used to buy firewood for the dhuni (sacred fire), always kept burning in the center of their tent, and to pass on to the poor who come for help. The tent is simple yet elegant, with Indian carpets and blankets on the ground. Nearly a dozen sadhus are present for the interview, and a similar number sleep here at night.

Seven Saiva and six Vaishnava akharas are represented at the Kumbh. The Saiva greeting is “Om Namo Narayana” (“Hail to Lord Narayan”). Though Narayan usually indicates just Vishnu, the Saivites take it to mean all forms of God. The Vaishnava greeting is “Radhe Radhe, Jai Sita Ram” (“Hail to Goddess Radha, Hail to Lord Rama and His wife Sita”).

Bountiful Blessings: Sadhus & pilgrims intersect at the Kumbh

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Unworldly life: Sri Mahant Meera Puri (left) shares a moment with Sadhvi Gurmit Giri, a gifted bhajan singer; a new initiate at Juna Akhara; Ash-covered sadhus with matted hair; an akhara tent in the evening

All the akharas are beautifully lit at night with huge decorative arches at their entrances that give the sense of a vast and festive fair. Most are located on Treveni Marg and Kali Marg, two of the wide central streets, with one entrance on each marg, connected by a lane lined with tents for the important saints and, in the middle, a temple. Here the akhara flag and Deity are kept and worshiped morning and evening by a throng of sadhus and pilgrims in a majestic manner.

The Saiva akharas are most popular among Kumbh pilgrims, due to their legion of naga babas. The chillum-smoking babas (see here on this practice), nearly naked even in the 45°f night temperatures, attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Many just enter from the gate on one marg, take darshan of the babas and exit through the other gate; others approach the babas at their fires to seek personal blessings and hope for a few words.

The atmosphere is festive, and at any given time tens of thousands of pilgrims are in the area visiting sadhus in their camps. Walking through the area, one sees sadhus sitting at their dhunis surrounded by disciples and pilgrims, including a surprising number of women and foreigners.

If one sits and listens, it becomes evident that discussions can range freely from spirituality to politics, crimes against women, corruption, unfair treatment of Hinduism by the secular politicians, conversion to other religions and the pollution of the Ganga. Tea and snacks are liberally served by volunteers—mostly young sadhus, but sometimes householders. The young sadhus are also responsible for keeping the dhunis burning around the clock. The fire should never go out. All the akharas function in this manner, from morning to night.

One of the most prominent camps is that of Acharya Mahamandaleshwar Swami Avdheshanand Ji Maharaj, chief of Juna Akhara and Hinduism Today’s Hindu of the Year for 2008. Spread over several acres, his camp includes a huge dining hall, a full-fledged office, a reception center, a bookstore and a shop selling tea and other essentials at cost. Every room and hall is tastefully designed; the entire place is neat, clean and impeccably maintained.

The only similar camp is across the Ganga and best reached by boat: that of Swami Chidananda Saraswati (Muniji) of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh (our Hindu of the Year for 1992). This camp, masterfully organized and decorated, hums with hectic activity. Celebrities from the worlds of spirituality, politics and even film can be found here, along with hundreds of foreign guests. This camp has hosted several important conferences focused on the environment, especially the cleaning of the Ganga (see here Muniji’s commentary). All the other akharas and pilgrim camps offer more basic facilities and a more humble ambience.

INITIATIONS

THE INITIATION OF NEW SADHUS at the Kumbh is second in importance only to the main bathing days. At this auspicious event, thousands of men and a few women, young and old, are given the rites of passage into the Hindu monastic tradition of sannyas. In past Kumbhs, these rites were open to the public and the media; but this time most akharas went to great lengths to keep the ceremonies private, apparently concluding that worldly attention does not enhance the profound sacrament. Swami Avdheshanand categorically stated he would not allow the media or even the Juna Akhara’s householder followers to attend.

By chance, our reporting team encountered one group of new Juna Akhara initiates returning from Sangam after concluding part of the initiation rituals. There was a huge commotion as thousands of pilgrims shouted “Har Har Mahadev” and sought their blessings. Our team followed the hundreds of sadhus inside, but almost immediately all media persons were summarily ejected by the kotwals, sadhus carrying large silver staffs and charged with security.

Fortunately, HINDUISM TODAY was invited to cover the initiation of 1,500 new sadhus into the Avahan Akhara, perhaps because one of their important saints hails from Nepal and took a liking to our Nepal-based, Nepalese-speaking photographer. At any rate, the akhara’s top swamis consented to interviews.

Saints Being Born: 1,500 men enter Hinduism’s ancient order of monks


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Sacred initiation: Two of the 1,500 initiates of Avahan Akhara gathered on the banks walk toward the Ganga to take 108 dips in the river

Karobari Swami Ved Vyas Puri, the Akhara’s business manager, spoke with the team in some detail about the initiation:

“The day began with the 1,500 new initiates abandoning all their clothes and donning just a loincloth. They were then taken to Sangam, where their heads were shaved, leaving just the choti tuft at the back. They then performed the pinda daan [the offering to their ancestors which completes all their worldly obligations, a rite normally performed by sons upon the death of their father]. They then take 108 dips in the Ganga and are given their danda (staff), kamandalu (water pot) and sacred thread.

This evening their guru will cut off the choti and give them the presh mantra, which is in our coded language. At this stage they are called mahapurushas (great men). On February 10, the royal bathing day, they will be given digambar diksha, (sky clad initiation), at which point they are fully naga sadhus. After this, the akhara judges their talents and assigns suitable responsibilities to each.”

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(left) Local barbers expertly shave the initiates; (right) young and old initiates alike seek the river’s blessings with offerings of flowers
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Sri Mahant Satya Giri Ji Maharaj, the akhara’s secretary, spoke further on the sadhus’ life: “Once initiated, our 1,500 sadhus will go into society and work for the promotion of dharma. It is not compulsory that they remain naked all the time; they can also wear clothes according to the circumstances. There was a time when I was like them and lived naked, but now I am an office bearer and wear clothes, even for the royal bath.”

Shri Subodh Acharya, one of the four priests conducting the akhara’s initiation rituals, added, “We have done the rituals in accord with the tradition of the Dashanami sannyasins as laid down by Adi Shankaracharya. In every Kumbh it is done this way only.”

PILGRIMS’ SOJOURN

NOT ALL KUMBH DEVOTEES ARE ALIKE. Some camp for an extended time, most stay for a few days and others come only to take the bath, departing the same day. For all of them, the Kumbh is full of challenges and uncertainties, paradoxically more so for the affluent than for the poor.

The upper-middle-class or upper-class pilgrim typically struggles to plan the trip, book plane or railway tickets and locate decent accommodations—which are in short supply here and increasingly expensive. The poor man has but to pack his bag and leave. He requires no reservations; he takes any bus or train that can accommodate him—standing all the way if need be.

The hearty villager can carry his bag on his head and walk ten or twenty kilometers across the expansive grounds without getting fatigued. The sedentary urbanite can barely manage the walk, leave alone carrying his own suitcases. Unless he has government connections to provide transport, he looks in vain for the rare three-wheeler to get him about. The Kumbh demands more of those who demand more.

The urbanite faces daily frustration and unending haggling when his expectations are not met; the villager has no expectations and is content with what God provides. He can sit or sleep anywhere along the road, under a tree or in the marketplace, which is deserted at night. He waits happily in line for the free tea and food available at the bhandaras run by the various religious organizations and akharas of saints, or he cooks his own food beside the road over a small fire. The urbanite is constantly worried about clean food, clean water and sanitation facilities—not to mention security, lest someone steal his valuables.

Poor pilgrims enjoy every moment of their pilgrimage. They can be seen walking on the roads any hour of the day. Many will not rest or take food until they have had their bath. They may or may not visit the akharas for darshan of the sadhus; having the holy dip is the ultimate spiritual experience for them, after which they repose in bliss and peace.

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The Kumbh city, spreading out across 20 square kilometers of the river flood plains, can only be captured in part by an ordinary camera
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Affluent pilgrims certainly may have an intense spiritual experience, but they spend considerably more time and energy worrying about their mundane circumstances and comforts. Without doubt, however, all are one in their faith in Mother Ganga.

Another group, who may be poor or rich, are those associated with one of the akharas or ashrams which have a camp on the Kumbh grounds. Their accommodations are good, in some cases luxurious, but mostly they benefit from the akharas’ access and influence area.

A special group of pilgrims, on the order of a million, are the kalpavasis (see here), who stay an entire month on the grounds, bathing daily in the Ganga, eating one meal a day, visiting the saints and attending frequent bhajans.

Pilgrims’ budgets range from ten to several thousand dollars. At one extreme are the majestic tents set up by the government, private enterprises and some of the ashrams, where the nightly rates rival that of a five-star Delhi hotel, running from us$110 to $370—this for a canvas tent and a cot set up on sand. For $18.50 to $185, one can stay in the city of Allahabad (Prayag) at one of hundreds of hotels and guest houses. There are also ashrams, dharmasalas and tented accommodations, both in Allahabad and the Kumbh Mela area, where one can stay almost without cost, with access to the free community kitchens.


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Pilgrims from the rural areas stream into the Kumbh grounds, belongings on their heads.
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Polluted air is a greater hazard to pilgrims than polluted water. The entire grounds are sand. Though the area is constantly being watered down by trucks, the dust—combined with the smoke from tens of thousands of fires—causes many lung-related difficulties. Night temperatures fall to 45°F in early February. But few pilgrims complain about these problems.

For numberless wayfarers on any given day there is a place to sleep, food to eat, water to drink and toilets to use. This astounding logistical triumph attracted a multifaceted team of dozens of scholars from Harvard University, who recognize that this vast temporary city offers lessons for other circumstances, such as the creation of refugee camps. Their report, not yet released, will be covered in a future issue of HINDUISM TODAY.

Rich & Poor: The logistics of low and high budget travel

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This group pauses for a rest—the metal pots for collecting food from the free kitchens and the plastic jugs for Ganga water to take back to their homes.

 

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The Kumbh Mela grounds on each side of the Ganga are connected by temporary pontoon bridges. (inset) The same grounds in 1954.


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