Kumbh Mela: the Greatest Festival on Earth

The Kumbh Mela happens on a scale that is vast. The last Mahakumbh Mela at Allahabad in 2001 was the largest gathering of humans that there has ever been on the planet.

The Kumbh Mela happens in four different places over a twelve year cycle. The largest is in Allahabad every twelve years, and every twelve Allahabad Kumbhs is designated a Mahakumbh - the most auspicious time in Hinduism in 144 years. Steve photogrpahed the Mahakumbh for Geographical Magazine, and has also visited the Haridwar and Ujjain Kumbh Melas.

As well as countless pilgrims, the Kumbh attracts legions of naga sadhus who walk around naked, sporting great drealocks and covered in the ash from fires.

You can see a gallery of images from the Mahakumbh here.

 

 

 

Kumbh Mela - the Greatest Festival on Earth

From the top of the road leading down into the mela ground the crowd looked like a solid, multicoloured mass, milling under a pall of dust and smoke from cooking fires that muted the colours of the saris and the dhotis, turbans and shawls. But as I dropped down amongst them they began to develop faces and personalities. Aspirations and allegiances. Endless pilgrims, seemingly alone, plodded wordlessly onwards. Groups of women holding each others’ saris like a train of circus elephants formed long lines that scythed through the crowds. Solid knots of people, men linking arms round the outside with their womenfolk inside the circle, pushed their way inexorably onwards. Thirty million people all with the same intent: to get to the Sangam... and not get lost.

Many of the pilgrims carried everything they owned on their heads. Bundles of clothes and bedding and the cheap metal trunks that seem to pass as hand baggage on all transport in the country. Some were sleeping rough and had nowhere to leave their belongings - camping out under the towering road-bridge that cuts across the vast Ganges valley. Others had just spilled off mammoth three-day train journeys. They would walk ten kilometres from the railway station under the direction of police laathis - long bamboo sticks - and whistles, weaving through the extensive wooden pens set up to marshal the faithful. They would struggle to the sacred confluence of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical, unseen Saraswati. Then, after a few hours, struggle back to the train to return home, such was their faith in the soul-cleansing waters of the Sangam. Their faces showed no recognition as they looked at me. I was just one more bewildering thing in this mass of bewildering things, anonymous in this gathering of the bizarre.

With small shuffling steps this collection of humanity made its way onwards. Shawls, sticks and tridents were held aloft. Most were quiet. Some whispered prayers quietly to themselves, mumbling hypnotically, eyes bowed. Other groups chanted loudly and exuberantly, with the fervour of ecstasy and of belonging, pressing en masse against the unyielding walls of people that surrounded them in their hurry to reach salvation. No one argued and no voices were raised in protest. I was struck with a shiver of belonging, of being part of this, the largest gathering of humans the planet has ever seen. Even now I still get goose pimples and feel that chill of expectation when I remember it.

 

This event was so big it was watched from space. A few days after I got home from India a friend e-mailed me a satellite image that was taken of the Sangam on the main Mauni Amavasaya bathing day on January 24. It showed the crowds stretching for miles on the sandy banks and thronging the waters. The picture could only show the scale, it could not convey all those individual faces.

There were a lot of faces around me now. I’d managed, against all expectations, to get to the very edge of the Sangam and was standing immobile in the slightly swaying crowd, lined up against lashed wooden barriers and mindful of the Indian policemen waving laathis at the heads of random pilgrims. This was pre-emptive crowd control, Indian-style.

The atmosphere was tense and the police were nervous. During the six-week Kumbh Mela there were six main bathing days or snans, when the planets combined in an auspicious way. Three of these days were denoted as Shahi snans - royal bathing days when the legions of ascetic orders of sadhus or holymen process and bathe. These sadhus are regarded as virtual living saints and the most respected, the naga sadhus, walk around naked as the ultimate renunciation of the material world. The first two orders, or akharas, of these sadhus had already processed in the cold half-light of dawn, and now it was the turn of the largest, most feared and most respected, the Juna akhara.

The Juna are a law unto themselves. Originally formed to defend Hinduism from Muslim invaders, they are trained in martial arts and carry wickedly snaking swords and tridents. If anyone gets in their way - pilgrim, policeman, photographer - then they can attack at whim. At the last mela in Haridwar a number of police and sadhus from other akharas were killed in a battle over the precedence of marchers. One sadhu, whose name translates vaguely to Mischievous Baba (Holy Man), had kicked it all off by taunting another akhara and the authorities were desperate that nothing would set off the Juna this time. With so much interest from the world’s media, the reputation of India - let alone the careers of the mela officers - hung in the balance.

The crowds hushed reverentially, and I could hear a low rumble from the top of the bank. A couple of naked, ash-covered bodies appeared, paused momentarily at the brink and were then swept onwards in a sea of people. I could see the glinting of tridents and swords being brandished ferociously above dreadlocked heads. This human wave stopped at the edge of the waters and fell silent. A few seconds went by and then as one, they charged. A long, primeval roar rang out, swelled by countless voices, as they stormed the Sangam. Dreadlocks, weapons and genitals bounced to the rhythm of their charge.

The nagas kept coming over the top of the bank until the entire fenced off area was packed, and still they came. By now, some had passed the fence and had reached the sand bank formed by the actual confluence of the rivers. The tension had broken and smiles replaced fierce grimaces. Some of the nagas even started yoga and standing on their heads in the sand, others splashed and laughed like holidaymakers.

They were the undisputed stars of the Kumbh Mela, and as they began to slowly regroup, applying ash to their wet bodies ready for the procession back to the akhara camp there was a feeling of completion. For most of the media, and many of the sadhus this was what the Kumbh Mela was all about, but I was looking for a deeper meaning. My biggest mistake was expecting to understand - trying to fit this event to my perceptions. It was my second Kumbh Mela, and yet I still didn’t have a clue what it all meant. I just spent too much time looking and not enough time seeing.

I had joined the crowds at the Juna akhara camp and seen Bhola Giri - the naga sadhu who had kept his hand in the air for more than 12 years as penance until it withered and the nails had grown long and twisted - and the little, deformed baba who we nicknamed Rugby-ball Baba. I joined the crowds at guru ‘Maruthi’ Baba’s ashram to eat a free vegetarian meal, sitting with the pilgrims in rows on the floor, eating off thali dishes made from sown-together, dried leaves.

I was rowed out to the actual Sangam and saw the green waters of the Yamuna mingle with the brown Ganges. I followed a naked sadhu who was riding an elephant round the mela ground as he held aloft a trident and collected money from the pilgrims. I watched a woman in a sari and a cardigan sitting in a cage of snakes at the fairground. I saw Avadhoot Baba, who sat on a chair of knives over an open fire and Badrinath, an Aghori sadhu who practised black magic and wanted to eat my flesh. I walked to the middle of the everlasting road bridge that takes the Great North Road across the Ganges valley and looked down at the sea of tents on one side and the throngs of pilgrims crowding to the Sangam on the other.

I marvelled at the achievements of the mela authorities. The multitude of tents, pitched ready for the pilgrims’ arrival. The miles of roads made on a sandy riverbed with large slabs of metal pinned together. The fact that the roads were repaired whenever they needed it and the whole mela ground seemed to be swept every night. The street lamps and the electrical supply. The phone lines that meant there were STD telephone kiosks on almost every corner and even a few internet cafés dotted around in small tin shacks. The hospital, with a diagnostic internet link to hospitals in Lucknow. The 13 pontoon bridges that had been thrown over the river Ganges to facilitate pedestrians and vehicles. The fact that the whole thing had been done in five months with a budget of US$3million.

I even found time to laugh at the old chaotic India I have grown to know and love over the years. The Indian journalists who were in dispute with the mela authorities and were having a rotating hunger strike. The anti-terrorist police who swept the campsite of the Juna akhara for mines after SSP Sharma, the head of police, had been there and attended a function with thousands of people. The trucks that drove round the mela ground spraying insecticide at head level over the pilgrims. The police who mounted laathi charges at pilgrims stuck in huge crowds on the main bathing days, thinking that a mounted assault at the Sangam was an appropriate way to keep the peace at a religious festival. The wall of death ride at the fairground where two motorcyclists rode round the steep walls and then stopped to bump-start a small car before driving that round as well. The random naked sadhu who came running up to me at the Sangam accusing me of taking his picture and then when I showed him the lens cap still in place demanded to know why I didn’t take his picture:

“Do you know who is Ram Baba?”

“No.”

“I am Ram Baba,” he yelled, jumping into a martial arts pose and brandishing a trident. Even Suraj Giri, the naga sadhu from Pushkar who promised us that he could siphon a litre of milk with his penis, but when we turned up to see this feat, he held his hand up in salutation and then keeled over, hand still held erect, too stoned to perform.

I had seen all of this, and yet I still had no more comprehension of this event than when I arrived. I just walked round, day after day, amidst the crowds, looking, yet feeling more and more confused the more I saw.

The one thing you can never be prepared for is the people. The sheer overwhelming waves of humanity - often trudging along with huge bundles of their possessions balanced on their heads. This could be a scene from the refugee dramas of the Second World War, except that the only Germans to be seen were pointing film cameras not strafing from aeroplanes, and that everyone was so damn happy.

Hinduism is a joyful religion. There is enough solemn ritual and chanting for those that want it, but essentially it is joyful. No matter what I did, my path always lead back to the Sangam, where just sitting and watching, or sometimes paddling like a granny at the seaside would bring an overwhelming sense of peace. Some people bathed in the shallows by the bank, but most waded out to the sand bar nearest the actual confluence. Boys and young men ran splashing until they fell over. Old couples held hands and smiled beatifically, the emotion of the moment prompting an uncharacteristically public display of affection. Long lines or gaggled knots of pilgrims would climb through the police control fence and wade through the deep water to get to their goal. As I walked around people would come and talk to me, asking what I was doing there and often given a small lecture: “This is Kumbh Mela, a special religious event,” as if I had just stumbled upon it by chance.

The biggest question on everybody’s lips? “Had I bathed?” It wasn’t a case of what I believed, just a case of whether I’d bathed. It was their special day, yet they wanted me to be part of it. This was the holiest site in Hinduism, at the most auspicious time in 144 years and I was only paddling. I’ve always had a great respect for Hinduism - not the ultra-fascist BJP-style Hinduism, but pure grass roots, all-inclusive Hinduism. I had visions of what would happen if an Indian in a turban wandered up into St Paul’s Cathedral in the middle of a service on Easter day, in order to try out the Holy Communion.

One evening down by the Sangam, I was approached by a cheeky-looking sadhu from the Juna akhara. He had just finished his evening bath and was walking back to a rather auspicious-looking Land Cruiser that had been left, flouting all mela traffic laws, at the top of the sandy bank. He grinned and thumped his bare chest, motioning for me to take his picture. He must have been in his 30s and had a mop of loose dreadlocks blending into a long black beard. He was completely naked, save for a thin covering of ash.

Another much older sadhu walked up carrying a long, curved sword. His hair and beard were white, but his body was in good shape. He started laughing at his friend posing and motioned for me to follow him. It soon turned into a photocall and I had to photograph four naga sadhus sitting on the bonnet whilst they smoked a chillum of evil-smelling charras.

 

As befits their status as living saints, naga sadhus are not used to asking. They command. As they arranged their dreadlocked hair and passed around the chillum a large crowd pressed around us. Indians are as fascinated by the naga sadhus as most Westerners are, and we soon had more than 100 of them jostling and pushing. The old man, who later introduced himself as Nahar Giri, waved them away with a sweep of his sword.

Nahar Giri soon tired of the crowds and said he was going back to the akhara camp. A large retinue of followers and hangers-on jumped into the Land Cruiser. He asked if I was coming.

“There’s not much room,” I ventured looking at the mass of bodies, some worryingly naked, crammed into the back of the vehicle.

“Sit on the roof,” he commanded.

We were about to leave when someone must have pointed out to Nahar Giri that having a Westerner’s size 12s hovering above your holy dreads was probably bad karma. He jumped out and swung his sword at me, wordlessly commanding me to get down. Suitable chastened, I clung to the back of the car as we bounced through the crowds and across one of the pontoon bridges (against the flow of traffic; we were with the Juna after all) to the camp.

Based around a large orange flag, the camp of the Juna akhara is a collection of many large tents, each with a well-swept area of compacted earth in front. In the centre of this is a sunken hearth for cooking, warmth and an endless supply of ash for the nagas to cover their bodies in. Each of the tents housed at least one naga sadhu, and a retinue of ‘lesser nagas’, novices and followers who looked after them to gain merit. During the day the akhara is visited by crowds of pilgrims and the odd tourist. Offerings are made to the nagas and blessings are bestowed, while the more auspicious guests are invited into the ashram to partake in a chillum and sit or lie down.

 

When we arrived, the first order of the day was another chillum of charras, followed by endless cups of sweet, smoky tea, made over a log fire. Then we all sat round the fire and got introduced.

 

I had read about the origins of the Kumbh Mela. I had even downloaded a couple of research papers from the Internet about it, but everything I had seen always seemed garbled and contradictory. OK, so when you are talking about Gods and Demons and the nectar of immortality you don’t expect eyewitness statements, but my head was already garbled and I wanted to try to get a definitive account. Maybe I just wanted someone to tell me a story.

Nahar Giri gave us the potted version, quite literally. In a rambling, slightly monotone voice, kept alive with mischievously twinkling eyes, he spoke of the roots of the Kumbh. He told us there are many melas or religious fairs in India, but this is the greatest of all. It dates back to 3464bc, when a naked proto-astronomer - the forerunner of the modern naked saints - first observed the Winter Solstice in Prayag (the old name for Allahabad).

The roots of the Kumbh Mela lie deep in Hindu mythology and Vedic texts, and have the same eclectic mix of characters and tenuous plots that are still seen in some of the Bollywood epics. The legends say Lord Indra once gave offence to a sage called Durvasa, who put a curse on him that took all of his riches and power. The opportunistic demon god Bali attacked Lord Indra and took all his riches and virtuous possessions. This weakened the gods so much that Lord Vishnu (preserver of the Universe) advised Lord Indra that he needed the ambrosia Amrita (divine nectar) to redress the balance. This was to be found at the bottom of the ocean. The demons were fooled into churning up the ocean and the 14 virtuous jewels (Ratnas) emerged, including the pitcher (Kumbh) of Amrita. All of the gods and demons made a grab for the Kumbh, but Lord Vishnu got there first and gave it to Garuda (his divine winged mount) to take to heaven for safekeeping. The demons and the gods fought over the pitcher for 12 days and during that time four drops of Amrita fell to the ground at the four places where the mela is held.

His explanation was no less confusing than others I had heard, but they all had the same basic premise. A God-day is equivalent to a human year, and so the 12-day chase gave rise to the 12-year cycle of the Kumbh Mela. This is why it is held every three years at Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, returning to Allahabad every 12 years for the big one. He was about to launch into another rambling discourse about the unique stellar constellation that made this the most auspicious mela for the past 144 years, but luckily his flow was broken by the arrival of the akhara musicians. They move round the camp singing to venerate the sadhus. Partly for merit, and partly to stop his stoned wibbling, I paid them to sing him a song.

The naga orders held an uneasy peace with the British Empire, and post-independence were gaining in popularity and influence. Many individual nagas spend most of their life meditating in caves and retreats in the Himalayas and only come to the melas every three, six, or some, only every 12 years. The Kumbh Mela represents a chance for them to escape the harsh world of meditation and fasting and meet colleagues and friends. A few days before I had spoken to Mahant Hari Har Giri, a naga baba from the Juna Akhara - nicknamed Motorcycle Baba because he rides around on an old Enfield Bullet. He put the smoking of charras into some perspective. “Kumbh is a chance for us to see people, to relax and to sort problems and talk about religion. Tourists only see us at the Kumbh so they think our whole life is like this, sitting around and smoking charras, but usually we are fasting and meditating. For us Kumbh is like a holiday. We come here and enjoy ourselves.”

Charras featured heavily in most of the Western and Indian reports of the mela. The naga sadhus are followers of Shiva and believe he is, amongst other things, the Lord of Hashish. As part of their meditations they smoke chillums of the drug to maintain the body whilst seeking to gain enlightenment, and as Shiva had long hair that he used to temper the power of the River Ganga (Ganges) many of the naga sadhus sport long dreadlocks.

As I lurched back to my tent on the opposite side of the mela ground, I was struck by the sheer scale and religious intensity of the Kumbh. It is easy to think of it as a spectacle, something exotic to be marvelled at, but as well as being the largest ever gathering of humans on the planet, this was also the largest spiritual gathering in the world. Teachers, gurus, priests and holy-men in unprecedented numbers had congregated at this sacred spot and the intensity and fervour were palpable. Maybe that was just the charras.

It certainly made finding the way back ‘home’ difficult. A six- or seven-kilometre walk across the whole site. What also made it difficult was the development that was going on every day in the build-up to the main bathing day on January 29. Whole façades of temples were being constructed out of painted canvas and lashed-together scaffolding. These were brightly floodlit and every day everything looked different. The bizarre became familiar, then unfamiliar again. Maybe that was also just the charras.

Enlightenment, when it happens, seldom comes as a sudden flash, but as a long and slow process of realisation. I was lucky enough to talk to a number of great gurus - including Shri Shri 1008 Swami Awdhesha Nand Ji Maharaj, the Leader of the Juna Akhara and Jagad Guru Ramananda Charyasi who cured headaches with magnetism from telephones. I had photographed the Dalai Lama and listened to his discourse whilst standing knee deep in the River Ganges, but my own personal enlightenment came from meeting and talking to simple pilgrims at the Sangam. Pilgrims such as Rajya Laxmi, a 52-year-old widow who had taken three days to travel from Nellore in Andhra Pradesh with her three friends. She was staying at the mela for three days, sleeping rough under the stars before the long ride home. The four of them sat chuckling at the attention on the sandy bank, surrounded by an untidy mess of blankets and possessions, legs sticking straight out in front as they smiled in varying degrees of toothlessness. Or Charangi Nath, a 45-year-old Rajasthani farmer from the remote, drought-swept region of Kota. A proud and tall man, he was travelling with an extended family group of 22 people who laughed and joked at his expense as he straightened his back and twirled his great moustache ready for my photograph. They too had travelled for three days, and I met them as they looked out at the great expanse of water in front of them. The Sangam was especially poignant to them. Charangi Nath told me that in his remote part of Rajasthan people could only properly bathe three times in their life - at birth, marriage and death. They had never seen so much water, and you could see the amazement in their eyes.

Whether or not you believe in Hinduism, or any religion, these people do, and that makes it work for them. Their lives would be better after bathing. Whatever troubles they had in life they would be eased. The fact that it was so important to them was enough to make it important. Important enough for almost ten per cent of the population in India to uproot themselves and travel to this spot, to put up with hardships and expense all in the name of faith and belief. For all of its spectacular size, the Kumbh Mela is about the experiences, hopes and faith of the individual. Whether this was mass religion or mass hypnosis I had no idea, but this was the true meaning for me, and it was humbling to be a part of it.

Before I left the mela, there was one more thing I wanted to do. I wanted to bathe. I had saved it until the end. I could have bathed every day of the three weeks I spent at the mela, but that was because to all intents and purposes, I was just a privileged tourist. To do that would have made it routine, to have made this moment an anti-climax. The work was over, and now this moment was for me. I had come prepared and stripped down to swimming shorts before making my way out to the deeper water. Handing someone my belongings, I crouched down and prepared to dip my head under the murky waters. I wasn’t going to chant or pretend to be a Hindu - I had been told that this wasn’t really necessary. All I had to do was duck my head under for myself and then again for each person I wanted to bathe for whilst thinking of them. Oh yes, and try my hardest to keep every orifice firmly closed.

There are two types of people at the mela. Those who have bathed and those who have not. Some people even go as far as saying there are two types of people in the world - those who have been to Kumbh Mela and those who haven’t. Walking back to the shore to catch a train back to Delhi, dripping wet and smiling, it was obvious which faction I belonged to.

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