I know I haven’t written anything in a long time. Somehow, I had a hard time getting myself into happy thoughts (like photography and adventures). But now, I finally have hopes that things will get better (well, maybe not before next January). In any case, I thought I’d share some images from last January though it certainly feels like they are from a lifetime ago.
Back then, I attended the Ganga Sagar Mela, apparently the most popular Hindu pilgrimage after the Kumbh Mela (Devotion Beyond Imagination, A Must for Saddhus, Worship with 30 Million Pilgrims), with a reported 2 million pilgrims attending in 2018. On the day of Makar Sankranti (a festival celebrating harvest), devotees show up to dip themselves at the confluence of the river Ganges and the Bay of Bengal to purify their souls. I had heard that this Mela was incredibly popular with Naga Sadhus, a highly respected sect of “holy men” followers of Shiva, known for their asceticism and renunciation of societal norms.
The Ganga Sagar Mela takes place on Sagar Island, a small island in West Bengal, about 100 km south of Kolkata as the crow flies. Alas, I am not a crow, so to get there from Kolkata was quite a journey. Like every other pilgrim, my trip began with a drive of about 4 hours to catch a ferry.
The ferry crossing takes about one hour, but the wait to get on is, not surprisingly, interminable. Furthermore, there is a short window when you can get on, as the ferry cannot cross the river at low tide. When you finally reach the other side, there is another one-hour drive to get to the southern part of the island.
So, this journey is not for the faint of heart. Of course, I had it much easier than the pilgrims, some of whom travel for weeks from far away by bus. I met some groups from Nepal and others from Chhatisgarh, indicating their devotion.
When pilgrims finally arrive at the Mela, they make their way to the Kapi Munil temple to make offerings and be blessed by one of the numerous priests.
By the time I arrived at the temple, I had not yet seen any Naga Sadhus, so I wasn’t sure whether they were there in significant number. From seeing them at the Kumbh Mela, I knew I would recognize the Nagas quickly as they smear their naked bodies with ashes, which gives them a ghostly appearance. However, next to the temple, I noticed a long array of little cubicles with people inside. A closer look revealed that each one of these cubicles was “inhabited” by a sadhu, holding court, performing rituals (beware, some of the rituals involve showing their followers that they have control over their bodies and that their bodies mean nothing), and ready to give blessings to the pilgrims. And yes, there were many of them!!!
After pilgrims visit the temple, they make their way to the water to take a dip, light lamps, and pray, most staying there until sunset.
In addition to the difficulty of getting to the Mela, another challenge for visitors is the fact that there are no real accommodations on the island, aside from large camps for the pilgrims, so I had to retrace my steps late at night after having arrived at the ferry before dawn in the morning.
Next time, maybe I’ll hop on a crow!
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