Photo Tour of Kumbh Mela – Where Religion Takes a Holy Dip
It was a breezy evening in the March of 2010. Thousand cymbals clinked in unison from the temple- side of the Ganges, a million hands clapped rhythmically from my side of the river and the whole river-bank echoed as a twenty-thousand odd crowd of people unanimously chanted “Om Shri Gange Maata” in the praise of their river Goddess, the Ganges. As I sat on the banks of the river, the rhythmic chants of the evening aarti (prayer) led my tired mind and body to peace and ease. That was the evening of the ‘Kumbh Mela’, the Hindu pilgrimage of the holy bath; the day on which millions of people from all over India gather on the banks of the Ganges to take a holy dip in the river.
Haridwar had been preparing for this day for twelve years and it stood up to all the expectations. It was evening already, but the day was not over. Not for another five hours. People still kept pouring in for the holy bath.
The evening aarti however had the privilege to stop the holy bath session from the beginning of the prayer service to its end and I was glad it did. I had been on my feet for almost nineteen hours and the aarti gave me time and a clean place to sit and contemplate.
It had been an eventful day. But well, it had to be, for it had been twelve years since Haridwar had seen this day.
The Twelve-Year Cycle
The Kumbh Mela takes place every three in four places – Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. Since, the location changes every three years, it takes twelve years for the mela to take place in the same place and when it does, it’s called the Purna Kumbh Mela (Complete Kumbh Mela). This has been a strong tradition followed by the Hindus since the Vedic period. Although the first written evidence of the occurrence of this event was recorded in the sixth century, Indian mythology has many a story about it which dates to a period which is way back in time.
The Ardha Kumbh (Half Kumbh) is a six-year cycle which takes every six years.
The Maha Kumbh is the most sought after and is believed to be auspicious as it takes place after twelve twelve-year cycles. The Maha Kumbh therefore takes place every 144 years in Prayag. The most recent Maha Kumbh (Greater Kumbh) took place in 2001 and was attended by more than 60 million people, making the event have the largest number of attendees for a single event in the history of the planet.
Haridwar Plays Host
The Kumbh Mela of 2010 was the ‘Purna Kumbh’ (Complete Kumbh) for Haridwar. It basically means, the Mela had travelled its 12 year cycle and had come back to the place where it was held twelve years ago.
The Mela was hosted at Har Ki Paudi (Shiva’s Stairs) from 14 January which was the day of Makar Sankranti to 28 April, the day of Shakh Purnima.
On the auspicious day of 14 April alone, 10 million devotees bathed in the Ganges. It began when the clock struck 12 in the midnight hour signaling the end fourteenth of April and the start of the fifteenth.
Long winding barricades were put up and one could see an ocean of people walking in a single file. No vehicle was allowed within a two-kilometer radius of Har Ki Paudi. The cops on patrol were very well versed with the new change in routes and each of them carried a 300-page handbook of ‘Kumbh Mela Security.’
After a couple hours of hustling about, I managed to get to the riverbank. The sight was overwhelming. The number of people on the bank, taking a dip was huge! Walking about throughout the night, I saw what the strength of the culture that once spread from Khyber Pass to the Arakan Yoma for over a thousand years. The night gave way for the morning sun which turned the dark water from the night into an ocean of liquid gold. The daylight added more color to this event of Jurassic scale and the events took a dramatic turn when the most awaited part of the day arrived – The bathing of the ‘Naga Sadhus.’
Naga Sadhus which literally translates to Naked God- Men are Hindus who have given up their regular family life and have dedicated their life to the service of Lord Shiva. Most of them are on perpetual pilgrimage and come from various ‘Akhadas.’ Smeared in holy ash, life for them is all about following Shibayan (The path of Shiva).
Legend goes that the gods and the demons had to churn the ocean of milk to procure the nectar of immortality. Once the nectar of life appeared, the gods and demons fought for 12 days and 12 nights (accounting to 12 human years). When Lord Vishnu flew away with the pot of nectar, he dropped four drops of it in Prayag, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain.
The Naga Sadhus bathe in the waters on the set auspicious dates and hope to procure the lost drops of the nectar. For the mystics, this is the purpose of existence.
The sheer power of a culture to make you travel miles just to step into the freezing water on a cold winter morning is nothing short of humbling. For everyone who wishes to witness the faith of a thousand-year-old culture come alive, the Kumbh Mela is the place to be..
Future Kumbh Mela Dates
The Purna Kumbha Mela will be held at Prayag from January 27 to February 25 in the year 2013.
The Ardha Kumbha Mela will be held in Nashik from August 15 to September 13 in the year 2015.
The next Purna Kumbh Mela will be held from April 22 to May 21 in the year 2016.