Meeting religious devotees… at the Kumbh Mela

| March 4, 2019

“I’ve been standing for nine years.” The weary sadhu spoke softly as he shifted his weight from one distressingly swollen foot to another. I watched him readjust the weight of his forearms and torso onto a swing suspended from the marquee to ease the strain from his legs. This angular, dreadlocked man had voluntarily sentenced himself to stand for 12 years, not sitting or lying down even to sleep. As I stood listening, I could only form one question in my bewildered western mind: “Why?”

Boats on the Ganga at the Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela is the largest congregation of humanity and collective act of faith on the planet. It attracts many ascetics – religious devotees who abstain and withdraw from worldly pleasures to pursue their faith – with unparalleled devotion to developing their spirituality. The festival celebrates the legend of Samudra manthan, where Hindu gods and demons churned the milky ocean together to retrieve the nectar of immortality called amrita. The gods and demons had originally agreed to share the nectar, but Lord Vishnu removed it to the heavens for safekeeping. Demons pursued him as he fled, and he spilled four drops of the precious liquid into the Ganges. Each drop fell in a location where the Kumbh now takes place: Prayagraj (formerly known as Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik.

The Kumbh Mela is planned in each of these four locations at times of astrological significance when the water of the Ganges is thought to turn to amrita. Hindus believe that bathing in the nectar-infused waters of the Ganges at these times cleanses their sins and releases them from the cycle of rebirth. I travelled to Allahabad to take part in one of the Kumbh’s legendary bathing rituals, as well as to experience the religious ceremonies and colourful performances.

Birds and Boats at the Sangam Confluence

The Sangam Confluence, Kumbh Mela

Ascetics of the Hindu religion often self-inflict corporal punishments as part of religious practices called Tapas, which means “heat” in Sanskrit. The aim of carrying out these punishments is to create physical heat in the body, which leads to spiritual strength and enlightenment. Tapas performances can vary from maintaining difficult bodily postures to fasting, or withstanding extreme temperatures.

The sadhu we met belonged to a group of devotees known as Standing Baba or Khareshwari, who show their spiritual prowess by standing for what seems like impossible amounts of time. We also met Naga Sadhu – meaning naked yogi – who spent three years meditating in the Himalayas with only a thin layer of ash protecting him from the elements.

My friends and I arrived as night fell. Climbing to an Ashram at the top of a hill, we overlooked the festival site. We looked on in amazement at the temporary hyper-city lighting up the valley below. A chorus echoed through the night of overlapping chants and the haunting call of the conch, one of the few instruments in the world that is thought to make a sacred sound. Lights appeared to float out of the darkness on waves of incense, and smoke from fire rituals taking place below created a mystical opaqueness. The festival’s scale was astounding, stretching out into the distance as though leaking into the night sky. It was strange to think that it would all disappear after the festival was over, revealing the sandy banks of the Ganga river.

Man selling coloured powder for bindhis at the Kumbh Mela

Man selling coloured powder for bindhis at the Kumbh Mela

The next morning, we made our way to the riverbank amid a parade of pilgrims and sadhus cloaked in orange. Orange is the sacred colour of Hinduism and connotes purity and knowledge. It is worn to symbolise a quest for light and the burning of impurities in fire. We rowed across the water on a little wooden boat to the Sangam, a shallow confluence where the Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati meet.

Alongside hundreds of others, we stepped from the boat onto a wooden pontoon. Despite the chaos of the crowd, the ritual flowed in an organised manner. We waded out into the chilly waters until we were waist-high. After submerging ourselves fully three times – three being a sacred number for many religions, including Hinduism – I took a moment to look around at the spectacle.

Bathing at the confluence

Bathing at the confluence

A curious dance of dunking pilgrims and chanting sadhus throwing water over their bodies surrounded us. The general effect was somewhat kaleidoscopic. Fragments of limbs, bobbing heads and rippling water created a hypnotic spectacle that was difficult to draw your eyes from. Clambering our way through the crowds, slowed by the weight of our sodden clothes, felt like surfacing from a surreal dream.

Despite being tourists in a religious gathering, we had been welcomed, blessed, educated and accepted amongst this congregation of devoted strangers. I had an overwhelming sense of inclusion and belonging. We travelled back across the Ganga inhaling the smell of incense and frying spices, while watching the bathers dipping into the water. As we floated along, I thought back to the Standing Baba and his imparted wisdom: “We all navigate our own spiritual paths in life, but we remain reflections of the same universe in miniature. We are all one.”

Sunset over the Ganga river

Sunset over the Ganga river at the Kumbh Mela

While I lacked the sudden urge to pledge my body to the divine and sleep standing for 12 years, I felt I understood his words more profoundly after taking part in the bathing ritual. The Kumbh had served as a colourful reminder to me that no matter how different our lives are, we are all bathing in the same proverbial waters. We are all connected by our simple ability to exist, whether we choose to roam naked in search of enlightenment or travel across continents to broaden our horizons.

Smaller Mela festivals are held every three years, while the Kumbh Mela is held every six years and the Maha Kumbh every 12 years. Cox & Kings will be organising holidays to the next Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 2022. Alternatively, our India experts can organise a tailor-made holiday to India.

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