In the past 36 hours,
- I have met more people than in my entire life
- I have experienced life more than the rest of my life accumulated.
- I have walked more than what I did in the past two months (app.70 Km)
And yet, Here I am, sitting on the floor of Allahabad Railway Station, feeling exuberant and happy.
I should feel tired, but somehow, I am not.
This platform is teeming with people. Old people, Village people, Rural people, foreign tourists…..People of all hue and color are here.
Most of them are poor, old people who had come to Prayagraj (Allahabad) to take a dip in the holy Ganges during Kumbh. They have a train to catch to go back to their villages. But, being illiterate, many have no idea of even what the train’s name is or where it is coming from or going.
Whenever a train comes, they start asking everybody around them where the train is going to. Unfortunately, people from whom they are enquiring, also have the same questions.
Even among these poor, rural people, there is a predominance of women. You look around them, and you will observe a pattern. You will see all-women groups of 20-25 who have tied their saree to one another.
Saree corner tying is their way to remain together amidst this hectic crowd. Also, There is a big Jhola (carrying bag) atop everyone’s head. This bag carries their necessary provisions.
Thousands of old and handicapped people have also come. They are walking with the help of lathis (sticks). But what’s amazing is that even after walking such long distance, they have a smile on their face. Moreover, many have walked these kilometers barefooted as a mark of respect for the holy area.
Besides them, jostling for space are hundreds of foreigners and many local tourists. With expensive cameras in their hands, they are creating memories. This place is a colour feast for photographers.
The past 36 hours were spent at Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, which is world famous for these reasons:
I. It is by a long margin the World’s largest peaceful congregation of Humans - An estimated 120 million people visited Maha Kumbh mela in 2013 in Allahabad over a two month period. This included over 30 million on a single day (the day of Mauni Amavasya).
II. It is the world’s oldest festival- Puranas ( Hindu ancient test) mentioned it first. About 1450 years ago, Chinese traveller Xuanzang also wrote about it.
III. In this congregation of millions, there are some enlightened beings called Sadhus - Sadhus are those who have devoted themselves to god These sadhus are of many types. Some are wholly naked (Naga), others give their body extreme pain, some even sleep upright (Shirshasinse) and many more. Some of them have come from Himalayas, and are only seen here during Kumbh. Most knowledgeable mystics come to this place from all over India.
IV. Entire spectrum of Hinduism is there in full glory at Kumbh. If you want to understand India, Kumbh is a great place to begin.
WHAT IS KUMBH?
It is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bath in a sacred or holy river. They believe that this bath will wash away their sins and bring them one step closer to salvation.
Priests calculate the exact dates for these baths using astronomical calculations. They take note of the Zodiac positions of Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon. Mela takes place when the planet Jupiter enters Aquarius and Sun enters Aries.
The Kumbh Mela is held every three years. It switches between four different locations on banks of different rivers. These are : Haridwar (river Ganga), Prayag (Triveni sangam of Yamuna, Ganga and Saraswati), Ujjain (river Kshipra), and Nasik (river Godavari). The mela returns to each location after a span of 12 years
The smell of burning Josh Sticks, echoes of Sadhus and baba chanting prayers, millions of people waiting to take a dip in the holy Ganges touches the most distant hearts, devotee or not.
It is for this reason that UNESCO has adorned 'Kumbh Mela' on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
STORY OF SAMUDRA MANTHAN (OCEAN CHURNING)
To understand Kumbh, You ought to know about the “Story of Samudra Manthan”. It is an interesting story with deep philosophical connotations. I will share the philosophy part at the end.
Kumbh derives its name from the immortal Pot of Nectar (Amrit), which the Demigods (Devtas) and Demons (Asuras) fought over. This is a very old story and was first mentioned in Puranas (Vedic scriptures).
Once Durvasa Muni cursed the Demigods. Due to his curse, they lost their strength. Demigods approached Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva to seek help and regain their strength. They advised demigods to go see Lord Vishnu.
Lord Vishnu asked them to churn the ocean of milk which was then known as Ksheera Sagar to get Amrit(nectar). It was the only solution to regain their strength back. But, Since the demigods had not enough power and strength to do this task alone, they made a agreement with Demons.
The Demons put one condition, which seemed reasonable. The condition was that Demigods had to share half of the nectar of immortality (Amrit) with them. Thus, the agreement was finalised.
The Meru Mountain played the role of churning rod to churn Ksheera Sagar. The king of serpents “Vasuki” played the part of rope around the mountain.
With the demigods at Vasukis tail and the demons at his head, the churning began. At first, the churning of the milk-ocean produced a deadly poison. No one wanted it. Lord Shiva drank it without being affected. As Lord Shiva drank the poison, a few drops fell from his hands which were licked by scorpions, snakes, and similar other deadly creatures.
After many hurdles and hundreds of years later, Kumbh of immortal nectar emerged. The demigods, being fearful of the demons' ill intent, forcibly seized the pot, thereby breaking the deal. It is worth mentioning here that both Demigods and Demons were both suspicious of each other’s intent since the beginning.
This infuriated the demons and a war ensued between Demigods and Demons. Wherever the demigods went with the pot of nectar, fierce fighting continued. Myth has it that during this chase, a few drops from the Kumbh fell at four places - Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. These four places are since believed to have acquired mystical powers.
Millions of devout, come together to partake in ritualistic bathing and ceremonies to cleanse themselves of all sins.
Once in every 12 years, the same astrological configuration falls into place. This configuration is similar to the placement of planets during the period of The Great Churning (Samudra Manthan).
This conjugation triggers the bubbling of all Holy Waters into which drops of Nectar (Amrit) fell.
Thus, the water becomes holy. Anyone bathing in this water benefits.
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Akharas are the Armed monasteries of mystics.
Under Muslim rule in India, when religion was being brutally suppressed by Islamic invaders, many Sadhus had to take up arms . From these Sadhus emerged several armed monasteries of mystics, the Akharas.
Several temples such as Kashi Vishwanath Temple as well as places such as Benaras were saved from gutting only due to the heroics of these Akharas.
Akharas are divided into different camps according to the concept of God they worship .
Shaiva Akharas are for followers of Lord Shiva, Vaishnava or Vairagi Akhara are for followers of Lord Vishnu and Kalpwasis are for followers of Lord Brahma
PRACTICAL TIP:- Get ready to walk long distances. These akharas are set up at a distance from the camp area. You can also get FREE FOOD here.
Peshwai denotes the grand procession carried out to mark the beginning of the Kumbh Mela.
It marks the arrival of Naga Sadhus and Akhara or sect sadhus in a very royal fashion with elephants and horses.
Tourists from all over the world attend this function.
PRACTICAL TIP:- Do not forget your camera. Some of the most awesome Kumbh memories are to be had from here.
3.ROYAL BATH (SHAHI SNAN)
Akhara Sadhus have the first right to dip in Ganges. The right to take first dip is reserved for Holy sadhus from different Akharas as a mark of gratitude for them saving Hindus during Muslim Rule.
It is a rare spectacular sight when all sadhus of differenet akharas take a dip at the Triveni Sangam at Prayagraj.
PRACTICAL TIP:- Know beforehand the timing of Shahi Snan and the ghat where it will take place. Come in time and get a good place to take pictures.
It means “confluence of three rivers". A bath here is supposed to wash away all sins and free a person from the cycle of rebirth.
Prayagraj is also one such sangam. It is the confluence of three rivers-the Ganges, the Yamuna and Sarswati.
At Prayagraj Sangam, you can distinctly see the different coloured waters of ganges and Yamuna mixing with each other.
Its auspiciousness is referred in Rigveda as-
”Those who bathe at the place where two rivers flow together, rises up to heaven.”
PRACTICAL TIP:- Boats will take you there. Initially, They will ask for Rs. 1200. But, If you share boats, you can go there in only Rs. 200.
Gatherings where sadhus share their wisdom with devotees.
Sadhus enlighten people about Hinduism and spirituality. They do not speak much. Have immense knowledge of Hinduism.
Many Sadhus are foreigners, Some Muslims have also become Nagas. There is a great diversity.
Satsangs keep going on at various places in tents. Here people throng in large numbers to enrich their life with the experiences of the most enlightened.
PRACTICAL TIP:- You will find some of the most holy sadhus here. wait for a one to one interaction and ask your life questions.
6.LATE NIGHT EXPERIENCE
Calm river, cool breeze, glittering ghats, everything is so pleasing that you would not want to miss it.
Also, There are thousands of migratory birds at all times in the river, which makes the scene all the more panaromic.
PRACTICAL TIP:- This is just awesome. We went to Prayag Kumbh in Feb 2019 and the air seemed like magic. Besides, it was super clean.
Life time experience for many. I stayed in a dormitory area in a camp with ten other people. Most of them have become very good friends of mine.
Though I slept there for only 5 hours, but they were amongst the best sleeps I have ever had. Apart from the openness of the area, it was also because I was exhausted after walking for 10 hours on a trot.
PRACTICAL TIP:- These camps are of several types and price ranges. I booked the cheapest type: the dormitory. And I have no regrets. You will only come here to sleep. Also, there is a facility of safekeeping of your goods, so don't worry.
Langars, community eating have a charm of their own. As soon as I had entered the Camp area, I saw a few Sardarji offering food in a langer. Not only was the food delicious, but the affection with which they were serving it was exemplary. I am filled with gratitude for these people.
There are several such langars in the Mela area, where you can get warm, tasty foods 24x7.
It is at these Langars that these lakhs and lakhs of people get to eat.
Apart from them, there are also hotels where you can get other vegetarian dishes, but most of them are a bit costly.
PRACTICAL TIP:- Food items such as Khichdi, Rice-daal,Rice-sabji are on offer. They are warm, simple and delicious.
There are two ways to go to Triveni Sangam to take a dip. One is by walking and the other is to go there on boats.
I went their twice, once either way. Both these visits had a charm of their own. But going there on boat with lots of very beautiful migratory birds on either sides of it was a sight to behold.
Also, You can find various style boats to take you anywhere you like.
PRACTICAL TIP:- You can combine the Triveni Sangam visit with Boat Ride. Precious time will be saved. Also, there are boat shops. Take some Bird-food packets from them and throw it to birds. They will love you for this.
10.SADHUS OF VARIOUS SECTS
Like everything else in India, there is a great diversity in the Sadhus too.
There are the Nagas (who do not wear any cloth), Kalpwasis (who bathe thrice a day) and Urdhawavahurs (who believe in putting the body through severe austerities). They come to the mela to perform sacred rituals of their respective groups.
Nagas: These saints have long matted hairs,wear no clothes and have ash smeared all over their body. Due to living in Himalayas for very long periods, their body has become resistant towards weather change. They usually keep to themselves and remain quiet.
Urdhwavahurs: Make their body undergo severe austerities. Have bone thin body structure.Practice spiritual activities.
Shirshasinse: Differentiating feature is their way of meditating and sleeping. They meditate while standing on their heads and sleep in an upright position taking support of pole/wall.
Parivajakash: These never speak and have taken an oath to keep quiet. They carry a bell and ring it all along to tell the people about their presence.
PRACTICAL TIP:- Don't ever throw money at Naga Babas, like alms to beggars. You will get a smacking. Actually saw this happening to someone.
These are sadhus who do “kalpwas” which is an exercise of mental, verbal and physical cleansing. Kalpwas includes 21 strict laws which must be followed bya Kalpwasi. These include not telling lies, non- violence, morning bath at sangam(river confluence) and others.
Even ordinary people can do kalpwas by following these 21 rules of Kalpwas at Kumbh.
PRACTICAL TIP:- Just watch them, if you want. They will not like your attempts to converse.
10B.NAGA SADHUS-THE WARRIOR MONKS
One of the key characteristic of Kumbha Mela is the Naga Sadhus. The warrior monks. They were first mentioned in Rig Veda.
These Sadhus follow the oldest monk tradition in the world. They often fought battles as mercenaries. It is believed that Kumbha Mela is as old as the Naga tradition which means that the history probablygoes back to Rigvedic times.
Adi Shankaracharya had first organised the Nagas into militant groups in the 8th century A D.
He set up the Dashnami Sanyasi order which comprised of seven akharas. These are- Niranjani, Juna, Mahanirvani, Atal, Agni, Anand and Awahan.
They were called akharas as their members bore arms and were ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their country and religion.
Thousands of people become Naga every year. This year, for instance, about 10000 highly qualified Students and professionals became Naga.
11. EXPERIENCE VAGABOND LIFE
Kumbh experience is so intense and overwhelming that you will feel lost in the sea of humanity and hue of emotions.
You will have to push your comfort level,and be flexible here.
Also, embrace the ordinary to experience the surreal . It is the surest path to a successful Kumbh trip.
All this when done in true spirit, will make you a happy vagabond.
PRACTICAL TIP:- Talk with strangers. Get to know them. Do not just keep moving without getting to know the people and place.
13. LEARN YOGA
Several Yoga classes go on simultaneously in the camp areas. At these classes, the most prominent Yoga teachers themselves teach the visitors.
SIGNIFICANCE OF KUMBH IN REAL LIFE
I talked to many Sadhus, trying hard to strike a conversation whenever I could. I would like to end this post with something insightful a Mystic said to me at Kumbh.
He said that-
"Visiting kumbh is like looking deep into your mind. As you know, when samudra Manthan began, one got the poison in the beginning, nectar came much later.
Likewise, when you start looking inside your mind, at the outset, you will get accumulated poison. This poison is in the form of bad thoughts, suppressed desires, haunting memories of past etc. It is a result of attachment. But, Most people stop only here. They don’t dare to go beyond.
Only those who dare to go further deep are able to find the nectar (experience pure consciousness).
This experience makes us immortal. Here, immortability means to live deep not necessarily long."
Kumbh is a different kind of experience. At another league to normal tourist destinations. It is something which will change your life.
This place makes a pilgrim out of a tourist. No matter, who comes, everybody goes out as a seeker. It was for this reason that Mark Twain wrote after attending Kumbh in 1895 had termed it something beyond imagination. He said it was a marvellous experience for the white people.
For an experience like this, travelling 70 Kms in 36 hours is certainly a small price to pay.