As I said in a previous post, the Kumbh Mela is a major Hindu pilgrimage that attracts millions of worshippers from all over the world. The highpoint of the Kumbh Mela for most devotees is the observance of a sacred bath in the holy water. By doing so, the pilgrims believe that one is freed from their past sins, and thus one becomes eligible for liberation from the cycle of birth and death. One can thus transcend the world of endless reincarnation and suffering and achieve moksha (salvation). Or as DV, our fearless local guide, would remind us during our stay: during the Kumbh Mela a sacred bath in the Sangam, at the confluence of India’s holiest rivers, is a “shortcut to Nirvana”.
So all week long, I witnessed large crowds of devout pilgrims following the bathing ritual, taking three dips and submerging their heads in the water. Time and time again, I saw pilgrims in the water up to their waists, scooping up water with their hands and lifting their hands toward the sky as if offering the sacred water to the Gods. Some bathers also burned incense or made offerings of flowers or sweets. Some others used a “boat” made of leaves or newspapers as a floating device for a candle and flowers. And some did all of the above, seeming to follow an elaborate choreography, perhaps to maximize the benefits of the sacred bath. Most pilgrims also drank a few drops of the holy water, and many of them filled bottles to take home.
Although I knew of the importance of the bathing ritual before arriving at the Kumbh Mela site, I did not expect to see it performed in such a joyous atmosphere. Every day, I saw people taking parts in different manifestations of faith such as parades and processions, and most of these included joyous celebrations with dancing and singing. As for the bathing, we saw entire families rejoicing in the activity, helping their elders or their young children in the frigid water, and pouring it on one another. In some strange sense, it was almost like a day at the beach. This is not to say that I could not also see the intense devotion of these pilgrims. As they went through the rituals, most of them were remarkably focused on their acts of worship, almost oblivious to the large number of fellow pilgrims and bathers.
I saw people bathing every day I spent at the Kumbh Mela. However, some days are more auspicious bathing days than others, apparently as a function of the alignment of the planets. This year, the main bathing day (Mauni Amavasya Snan) took place on February 10 with approximately 30 million people gathered at the Sangam for a holy dip. There is a real protocol to this day. It starts at dawn, as sunrise is the most auspicious (albeit also the coldest) time to bathe. Gurus and sadhus arrive in a procession, some riding on chariots surrounded by their devotees. The Naga sadhus will take the water first and pilgrims will follow.
So on February 10, my fellow photographers and I left our camp at 2:30 am so that we could be sure to reach the Sangam before dawn. What would normally take us one hour and a half to walk took us more than twice as long as we moved slowly, completely surrounded by large crowds, even at this hour, in the middle of the night. For the first time, I felt that I could really understand the literal meaning of the expression “go with the flow”. I certainly did not feel that there was any other option. For over three hours we were part of a sea of people all heading the same way. Given the density of the crowd, needless to say, photography was very difficult (at least for me) so I was there mostly to experience the event, preferably all in one piece.
We saw the Naga sadhus, naked except for garlands of marigolds, running to the river for their holy bath. We saw other sects of sadhus follow them to the water carrying various banners and flags. But what we mostly saw was people; hordes of people, unlike anything I had ever seen before. The immensity of the crowd was staggering. At the end of the day, I found myself both impressed and grateful that the event unfolded so peacefully. I am not sure whether it is a function of the religious aspect of the gathering, or of the large security presence, but based on my own experience everything seemed to go through very smoothly. Sadly, the next morning, we learned that 36 people had died in a stampede near the train station the previous night.
In the end, what will stay with me from the Kumbh Mela is not the colorful sadhus, nor their impressive penances, but the unwavering faith of the pilgrims. Witnessing the fervor that millions of pilgrims put in their spiritual practice was humbling, overwhelming, and deeply emotional. I will leave you with Mark Twain’s 1897 description of his experience at the Kumbh Mela: “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination”
See you at the next Kumbh Mela.