Kumbhamela (Kumbh Mela) is the greatest religious festival in the world. It takes place every 12 years at the banks of the sacred Triveni Sangam, near Allahabad for at least fifteen hundred years (perhaps much longer). Year 2013 celebration was attended by more than one hundred million people. That is, every seventieth inhabitant of the planet. The festival has become the largest documented gathering of homo religiosa in one place in the history of humanity.
The myth of Kumbh Mela
Once the gods have decided to churn the Primordial ocean to extract the elixir of immortality from it. But the gods had become weak and unable to complete this feat themselves and they asked help from Asuras (demons). For a thousand years they churned the Ocean, using the serpent king Vasuki as a rope wrapped around the axis of the world, a gigantic mountain Mandara. The first to appear from the foam was a terrible poison that threatened to destroy all the worlds. Then Lord Shiva drank the poison to save the universe.
After that there appeared various miraculous creatures and treasures, and finally the bowl (Kumbh) with the nectar of immortality, Amrita. For possession of Amrita a terrible war crashed out between gods and demons and the Asuras were near to win, but Vishnu taking form of a beautiful woman, enchanted demons and captured Amrita. Demons rushed in pursuit, which lasted for twelve years, and in the process several drops of nectar spilled out at four places, and most — at Triveni Sangam. Since then every twelve years there takes place an incredible gathering that embraces almost all branches of Hinduism and religions kin to it. The ablution during this celebration, Hindus say, brings a person in touch with the nectar of immortality, dissolves karma and releases from life’s endless rebirths in the material world… A wish, made during this sacred time on the banks of Sangam is sure to be fulfilled …
Triveni Sangam, its symbolism and meaning
Triveni Sangam is a place of extraordinary religious and philosophical significance. These are not only the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, but the goddesses with same names who gracefully bless all who come to honor them.
The meaning of this place is deeply symbolic and yogic: at the “deep” level Ganga symbolises wisdom, Yamuna – yoga, and Saraswati – knowledge. The river Saraswati is considered “invisible” in the modern era of Kali-yuga — the true knowledge is hidden and must be sought. There is also a very specific psychopraktic level: three holy rivers, the nadis, represent three major “energy channels” of the body. The purpose of yoga is to empower and direct the energy of three nadis to the Sangam, the place where they converge, at the body level — Ajna Chakra, the “third eye”. On achieving this, a man reaches the highest state of enlightenment, salvation, or liberation.
The magnitude of Kumbh Mela
When we think about the extent of religious festivals, Pentecostals and charismatics usually are the first, who come to mind: they can collect a hundred or even two hundred thousand people on rented stadium.
Dimensions of Kumbh Mela go beyond the numbers we are used to. The average mind is just not able to comprehend a figure of 100 million people, united by one goal. It is impossible to imagine that all of a sudden 35 million adult Ukrainian gather in one place for one purpose. And that this goal is not political but purely spiritual and religious. Kumbh Mela-2013 has become something much bigger — it is the triumph of religion in the third millenium that occurred in a country that is rapidly developing industrially…
The only even that a Ukrainian can compare Mela with — is not any of our religious celebrations, but the “Orange Revolution” that had brought together million people at the main square of Kyiv. Those, who had been in Kyiv in 2004 and remember the beginning, purity, joy, and the spirit of brotherhood – can have a glimpse of idea about what was happening on the banks of Sangam. Kumbhamela was hundreds times brighter.
Kumbh Mela: Religion vs. atheism
Here one could see what the real faith, real religious knowledge and power were, and what gifts they give – many people, sometimes quite poor and infirm, travel long weeks to get here to join the sacrament.
Against this background “atheistic perception of reality” seems at least funny. Nothing else can bring so many people together and give such a strength as the sincere practice of religion. — Atheists arrogantly close themselves to the knowledge of “uncivilized” people — but on closer acquaintance this knowledge opens up it’s depths and provokes the desire to join this completeness, this unity in a common and yet different, through the many religious paths of Hinduism, prayer on a path to Enlightenment.
The mind raised in atheistic-agnostic and skeptical traditions gets powerless and silent from shock here: religion, religion, religion wins, sweeps away all obstacles – no human gathering ever has been as great as this festival. Observing it, one understand: there’s something that we have lost in the process of westernisation. No war, no politics, no protests, no business, no giving away bundles of money (by the way, this also did happen at Kumbh Mela — some religions of Hinduism still adhere to bandara — an ancient tradition of ritual giving away money) – nothing can cause an even similar to the Kumbhamela.
One more thing that impresses is the tolerance of Hindus — in Ukraine we have three feuding Orthodox Churches, here fifteen hundreds of very different (often – contradictory doctrinally) denominations assembled. The miracle is that they co-exist quite well in the monstrous, from our point of view, conditions and during all the festival there were no sharp conflicts based on religion.
Ukrainian expedition to Kumbh Mela
Ukrainian expedition as part of practical religious studies project A.H.A.M.O.T. lasted for one month.
During this time we have faced phenomena one can call “miracles” of Indian religions: some yogi buried themselves into the ground for a few days to show the power of mind over body, there were those who ate hot coal from the fire. One yogi, the Agni-baba, used to swing for six hours every day above the big fire, sitting on a swing nested with sharp nails. He said he did this to draw people’s attention to religion. Some sadhus never lowered his hand, holding them permanently raised to the sky as an every-moment remember of God. There were sadhus, parivadzhaka who had vowed never to speak and walk ringing their little bells occasionally. There were kaleshvari, the “Standing babas”, men who never sit or lie down. They say, this kind of asceticism gives special spiritual fruit and mystic abilities.
Some selflessly tried to clean Ganga – sacred river for Hindus, which now is in a catastrophic state – cities and plants along its current thoughtlessly dump there their wastes.
But the efforts of these rare people get lost in the tremendous mass pollution and indifference to the environment, which paradoxically combines with the power of religion in the life of Hindus. Despite the fact that water pollution fifty times exceeds the Indian bacteriological standards (nobody even thinks about the European or American ones), hindu still bath in Ganga and drink her waters, because, especially at the time of Mela these waters are sacred.
Foreigners at Kumbh Mela
Foreigners came to Kumbhamela in dozens at first days and by hundreds of thousands at peak, but they were rarely noticeable among millions of Hindu. Some people came just for a day or two, and that led to complete disorientation — for an unprepared person Kumbh Mela will be a stress. However, very few stay here even for one week – Indian ascetic life doesn’t fit all.
Ukrainians were found here in huge numbers: hundreds of compatriots visited the camp of Pilot Baba, a guru with dubious reputation, which actively engages followers from the former USSR states.
Status of Sadhus in Indian society
Status of sadhus, wandering monks, is very high in the Indian society. Status of guru brings to the heaven of society: honoring the guru is the duty of everyone – from the last shudras to parliament members and prime ministers (all public persons in India — actors, politicians and the like must, no matter they want it or not, to “show up” at Mela).
According to etiquette rules pilgrims can not even enter the tent or come close to the fire of a sadhu, especially women. Indians usually stay and humbly wait till the sadhu waves them to approach. Baba, in his mercy, may feed them, give a little bit of ash from dhooni (sacred fire) or a puff from a chillum (clay pipe for smoking cannabis) or bless in any other way. — Anything that sadhu does, especially during Kumbhmela, is God’s mercy.
Baba can rudely drive pilgrims out, the latter perceive it very humbly – without even trying to understand the motivation of the holy people. Sometimes the pilgrims have a chance to approach, worship, put their donations near sadhu’s feet and trembling from mysterium tremedum disappear in the darkness. They donate a lot – even the poorest – in the West big money spin in politics and in business, and in India – in the sphere of religion. A humble monk treadding with a bag-full of rupees, which is so stacked with banknotes that it hardly closes — is not a strange thing at Mela and such a monk isn’t a target for robbers.
Another interesting touch to the status of sadhus – holy men have the privilege of free travel in general-class cars of Indian Railways.
Life in the camp may seem very tough for a Westerner — the sand and DDT in the air, cold nights, especially during the first two weeks, but the most difficult challenge was not very cold, but the moisture which descended every night to the ground, crept under blankets and into sleeping bags, filled bronchi with mucus and cough… Every morning, before sunrise, – everyone must take asnan — cold bathing required by Indian traditional hygiene; food is eaten with bare hands sitting on a sand — Indian tradition doesn’t accept spoons or forks; hand-washed clothes do not dry because of excessive moisture, drinking water comes with a pungent smell of chlorine and after first half of Mela becomes hardly drinkable at all…
A characteristic difference of this megafestival compared to any “Western” one is the complete absence of alcohol, and, respectively, of problems related to its consumption.
One more paradox, which runs counter to our notions of what religion is and what religion is not — many sadhus do smoke cannabis. Motivation is purely religious. This is a thousand-year tradition of wandering monks, which no one thinks to abolish – no Indian policemen would even attempt to stop a violation of cannabis-prohibition law in the form of sadhu who lightens his chillum, moreover, if the sadhu offers an officer to join the latter would accept the invitation as great honor and blessing. Babas smoke tough: they do thirty, forty, or even fifty puffs a day; wandering hippie-smokers who are also attracted to Mela are simply unable to endure such a tempo and in competition with sadhus they quickly lose — despite austere and unhealthy lifestyle these creatures (calling them just “men” seems not always appropriate — many sadhus every now and then exhibit almost superhuman abilities) are extremely tough, have incredible health and are capable of things beyond mere mortals’ capabilities.
Sanitary “Facilities” and safety at Kumbhmela
Sanitary facilities of fifty-five-day festival deserve some special attention. Gathering of millions of people at a tiny place in this climate always creates high risk of epidemics, one can easily imagine that thinking of specific personal hygiene Hindus have and of the fact that in all camps people consume food sitting on the ground and taking all food with bare hands.
Organizers tried to “ensure sanitary safety” with old methods — chlorine and DDT dispersed everywhere, right under the feet of pilgrims, near the local food selling points and kitchens.
Toilet “conveniences” looked like latrines surrounded by rough fabric on bamboo staffs, in some places even without fabric. Garbage, as is customary in India, was not carried out but put in huge piles right behind the fences of pilgrims’ camps. As soon as grew hotter, the garbage started “smelling”.
Infrastructure and these “sanitary facilities” had somehow managed to hold out for four weeks, but at the peak of the festival of February 10th and 15th, they were not able to stand and, in fact, were not expected to by their creators — if someone goes to Mela, he must be ready for anything and he (and his God) completely take responsible for his body and health. Among millions of Hindus nobody complained or expressed dissatisfaction from the crowded and overfilled toilets or any household nuisance, or even from the fact that on the eve of “Royal bathing” of February 10, the water supply system, from which we had been safely drinking for few weeks, started giving suspicious flavor whitish liquid which had turned out to be completely undrinkable.
Pilgrims’ austerity shocks: zounds of people come, some with their children, some with animals – goats or cows, they sleep in tents on hey, those who come in the bathing days, don’t get neither tents, nor fire and spend nights sleeping on wet sand at the side of roads of the giant camp. But, oddly enough, everything was peaceful: the pilgrims did not complain because temporary discomfort is nothing compared with the spiritual benefits of participating in a unique event.
Mauni Amavasya – the experience of “royal bathing”
Kumbhamela’s finale was the “royal bathing” on the New Moon (Mauni Amavasya, February 10th). On that day more than thirty million people took their holy dip in the waters of Triveni Sangam.
In the morning of Mauni Amavasya the broad margs of tent metropolis were filled with incredible crowds (only at that day we finally understood why the organizers had created such huge aisles). It required a lot of pushing to get through the places where masses got stuck. In some crossroads overcoming dozen meters could take almost a half an hour.
Celebrating procession began to form before dawn – columns of Sadhus of various orders, moving through walkways among police cordoning off the ocean of pilgrims. It was a day of babas – in joy they blessed the pilgrims from the roofs of cars, tractors, chariots, some even from elephants, despite the official ban of these animals at the festival. Armored with swords, morgensterns, spears and tridents they come naked, smeared with sacred ashes, with long dreadlocks like crazy women – religious military orders, somewhat similar to the Crusaders. In medieval India they had traditionally protected the sanatana dharma and caravans of pilgrims from Muslims, Buddhists, robbers and from time engaged in tough fightings among themselves. Nagas still look menacing, but the decaying pressure of globalization is noticable among them: despite provocative exterior – Nagas are usually naked and behave quite deviantly in their camps – the intrusion of foreigners brings them a variety of temptations. “Military orders” commercialize quickly and are glad to invite a foreign photographer for “baksheesh” — sometimes it seems that their camps are huge money-machines emptying the wallets of shocked photographers and journalists.
But Mauni Amavasya was a special day when everything “earthly and mundane” had been swept away by incredible spiritual impulse, burnt in the radiance of invisible but very tangible and bright explosion of ecstasy. Being here, among millions of people, who unite with their souls into one organizm in shared prayer, song, joy, and religious ecstasy — despite all the crush and foot-stepping – was an incredible pleasure: like joining invisible waves of bliss and happiness that flow everywhere through everything and everyone around. Despite manyhour walk to Sangam, this feeling, was growing and growing – and reached it’s climax at the time of the sacred bathing – when you run into Ganga and Jamuna waters mingled into Amrita nectar with a crowd of sadhus, who at this moment look like incarnated gods and guardians of Bharata.
India is India – in the evening it had seemed that the efforts of organizers of this superday ended up peacefully and gracefully, but it turned out differently: our friend from France, who, despite all the warnings, had decided to leave from the Allahabad station at midnight called us in great fright, asking for advice: she had told us that she saw a policeman kill a woman with bamboo stick — police could not hold back the movement of hundreds of thousands and started beating people at the station. It provoked chaos, panic, the fall of a bridge and stumped, which killed dozens of worshipers, mostly women and at least one child.
Indian religions claim that dying during Mela is very “beneficial”. I do not know whether this belief did somehow help people whose relatives died at the station stumpede, but in the monastic environment this maxim does work: lots of old sadhus with their last effort come here to “leave the body” on the banks of the Holy Sangam.
“Royal bathing” had become a test for everyone: it was amazing that so many people had managed to join the wonderful mystery peacefully and humbly. — I can not even imagine how to organize something even a little like that with such living conditions and overcrowding in any other country, and have no conflicts and quarrels. On the other hand, traditional carelessness and indifference of the Indian bureaucracy had led to a terrible stumped at the Allahabad station.
It is one of the many paradoxes of Indian religions — that incredible way in which they combine politics and dirty money, pure and selfless service for the benefit of mankind and other living creatures.
For a man “from the outside” Mela looks like complete madness from which you want to run away as soon as possible. — In one of the first days there I’ve met Tom and Joy, a couple of Americans who had heard that there was a big festival and arrived knowing anything. Autoriksha for some unknown reason had dropped them right next to me near the main entrance to Mela. Americans’ first replicas were full of shock: “What’s going on here? Is it possible for a white man to survive here? Where to wash hands and how to get out from here? — people had no idea where they had come to. Joy arrived in high leather boots – coming in shoes like that to sadhus (all of which are vegetarians and follow ahimsa — refraining from killing living beings) – is considered an insult, which becomes a megainsult in the place where there are hundreds of thousands of sadhus …
It seems that to really understand Kumbh Mela one needs to be born a Hindu in the next life and then Mela will become a nectar of bliss. But even for the outside observers and guests attending the celebration brings inspiration, spiritual uplift, creativity, strength to move forward, overcome all limitations…
Published: “Ukrainian Week” Magazine (Український тиждень) № 29 (297) – July 2013
Text and photos – V.Ageyev, S.Strilets
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