Kumbh Mela

The millions at a Kumbh Mela reveal India's diversity

By Mark Stratton
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:15 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 16:00 BST

STRIPPED down to my swimming shorts, I held my nose and ducked beneath the icy Himalayan flow. "Wow," I gasped, rising to the surface and conscious that as the token foreigner several hundred pairs of eyes were looking my way, "that took my breath away." "But it has given you the energy of Mother Ganga," said a sopping pilgrim in the river beside me. "Can you feel it?"

There was no doubting I sensed something palpable. Not just from the immediate hit of a freezing dip in the sacred Ganges. But from the aura being generated by millions of pilgrims who had descended upon Haridwar, bringing this small Ganges city to a standstill.

As a frequent traveller to India, I was fulfilling a burning ambition to attend a Kumbh Mela. Over the years, I've loved India for the extraordinarily colourful and overt spirituality that makes travelling to the country unique and so unpredictable. At Kumbh Mela, I was expecting all of India's most exotic qualities to be bundled together amid a spectacular outpouring of religious fervour. I hoped also to get a better insight into a faith that for most outsiders can seem absolutely baffling.

Occurring four times during a 12-year cycle, Kumbh Melas don't come around too often. The Mela (or 'gathering') rotates between four venerated locations across India. I'd come to Haridwar 2010, its timing predetermined by auspicious astrological configurations.

The other Mela locations include Nashik and Ujjain, while Allahabad (Prayag) hosts the next one early in 2013. Such is the demand for transportation and accommodation during Kumbh Mela that travellers need to start planning their attendance a year in advance.

The festival dates back at least 1,300 years and its origins celebrate a lyrical tale of good versus evil. The Sanskrit word Kumbh refers to a 'pot' that held a sacred nectar of immortality called amrit, which emanated from a heavenly ocean of milk located somewhere above the Himalayas.

During a struggle between the heavenly gods and unruly demons, this pot was upset and drops of amrit fell to earth upon the four locations where Kumbh Mela takes place today.

Haridwar, among the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand, is perhaps the holiest of the Kumbh Mela locations. Its Sanskrit name translates roughly as 'Gateway to the Gods'.

The River Ganges flows down from the Himalayas and through Haridwar and all year round Indians make pilgrimages to the city to bathe in this sacred river. They believe its waters will wash away their mortal sins and hasten their escape from a cycle of reincarnation to obtain nirvana.

From the moment I arrived in Haridwar from nearby Rishikesh on a train that was so crowded it made the 07.10 commuter train from Sevenoaks seem luxuriously empty, I was sucked into a spiritual vortex.

I'd arrived two days before Kumbh Mela's most important bathing day, Baisakhi, and Haridwar was straining at its seams. An army of 24,000 policemen had cordoned off the streets, creating a one-way system that funnelled pilgrims along cheek-by-jowl. I didn't so much find my hotel but fortuitously spot it while being swept along.

The Hotel Alpana was situated on a narrow alleyway that became a human travelator to the Ganges 500 metres away. I'd sit on the hotel's steps and watch the ebb and flow of excited pilgrims. Orange-robed sadhus (ascetics), singing and chanting their way to bathe, collided with those returning from their snan (bath) bearing liquid keepsakes of the Ganges in brass puja pots.

Surrounding the hotel, Moti Bazaar lent a medieval air. The streets were so narrow that free-roaming holy cows with painted horns caused traffic jams. The bazaar's glittering and gaudy religious paraphernalia illuminated the alleyway's dinginess and like a bedazzled magpie I was seduced by the Hindi kitsch – the vermilion pyramids of kumkum powder, cartoon portraits of gods, gaudy tridents that are the mark of Shiva, chunky rudrakasha berry rosaries, and glass bracelets. Besides these baubles, my sense of smell was assailed by sweet-smelling vats of syrupy curd and chickpea masala, alongside strident burning incense and stinking rubbish piles.

My first glimpse of the Ganges was behind the hotel at one of the many bathing ghats lining the river's northern bank. At Ram Ghat, whole families took icy plunges, the women fully clothed in saris for modesty's sake and men less inhibited in underpants. Children, meanwhile, hurled themselves into the water as if frolicking at a lido.

There was only joy, not hypothermia, written across faces. Wreathed in smiles bathers clung to chain-railings to avoid being swept away in the powerful glacial current. After I'd taken my bath, I retreated for a hot milky street chai to defrost the icicles in my veins.

Nightly blessing

The most important location for bathing during this Kumbh Mela was the historic Har-ki-puri Ghat. That first afternoon, I set off to attend the ghat's nightly aarti (blessing) at 7pm.

After negotiating police cul-de-sacs and snacking on a tangy street food called chaat, served on little fried batter scoops, I reached Har-ki-puri's Ganges location and realised the immensity of what I'd walked into.

Lining the Ganges riverbanks, tens and tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over India, unable to afford or find accommodation, were spreadeagled alongside their meagre possessions. Yet their mood was uplifting, something inveterate traveller Mark Twain sensed on visiting a Kumbh Mela in the 1890s.

'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,' he wrote.

At Har-ki-puri, seated pilgrims covered every square inch of the historic ghat's stone steps, while crowds stretched beyond my eyesight. It's speculated this sacred bathing spot dates back to the first century reign of King Vikramaditya and its reverence in Hindu mythology is assured because of an imprinted footprint believed locally to have been left by the powerful god Vishnu stomping down from his Himalayan abode. Vast crowds ensured I never did find it.

But I found room enough to lap up the evening aarti. In pitch darkness as another power cut wracked the city's buckling infrastructure, temple priests dispensed a blessing to the Ganges at the river's edge by waving flaming lamps and chiming handbells in a tempo determined by blaring Hindi pop music.

When the gathered multitudes clapped or chanted 'Hari Ganga', the ground shook — as if Vishnu was delivering another crushing footstep. Small banana-leaf coracles cradled tea-lights that drifted down the Ganges like an armada of glow-worms.

"In modern India, more and more people are attending Kumbh Mela, believing their sins will be washed away by taking a dip in the Ganges," said Rajiv Gautam, a local filmmaker I met during aarti. "There may be no proof for this faith scientifically, but there is no proof against it either."

The next morning I attempted to explore Haridwar's ancient heritage of temples, ashrams and pilgrim dwellings known as dharamsalas. Mentioned in the epic Mahabharata, the city is a richly historic place to visit at any time of the year. Using my map, I attempted to locate its treasures, yet this was difficult in the maelstrom crowds as by now 100,000 people were reportedly flooding into Haridwar every hour.

I did, however, experience one of Haridwar's most important pilgrimages to the hilltop temple dedicated to Mansa Devi. One of Northern India's holiest shrines, Mansa Devi is a goddess embodying shakti (power) and she is believed to make her devotees' wishes come true.

I joined an unstoppable surge of pilgrims ascending the hillside like a rising biblical flood. On the way, pilgrims exhausted supplies of chapatis and fruit on shamelessly greedy monkeys lining the hike up. "Hanuman" (monkey god), many called out excitedly.

Before entering Mansa Devi's white mountaintop fortress with its cocoa-pod shaped shikhara towers, some devotees stopped to tie red ribbons on an ancient tree, but otherwise we were processed on an industrial scale through the temple's inner sanctum to receive a darshan (auspicious viewing) of the goddess's icon. My own reward was looking down on Haridwar's gridlocked streets at the combined hullabaloo of millions.

What often fascinates visitors to India are the chance encounters with its myriad holy men, swamis, yogis, healers and ascetics. For any visitor, the sight of wandering sadhus, wild-eyed and fiercely bearded with waist-length dreadlocks, is reasonably commonplace. But they had descended upon Haridwar from all over India in great numbers during this three-month festival, some enduring almost unfathomable hardships to test their faith.

I'm not sure what the collective noun is for such otherworldly individuals, but what I saw at one of the temporary tented camps hosting the holy men was extraordinary even by Indian standards.

Joining pilgrims filing into Juna Akhara camp, I became a voyeur within a travelling circus. These camps host particular akharas, which are defined orders of ascetics and holy men who bestow their devotion to certain Hindu deities. At this camp they were Shivais, who follow Lord Shiva, from whose hair Hindus believe the Ganges emanates. Other camps hosted Vaishnavas, who favour Vishnu.

Cloud covering

It wasn't difficult to notice the fug of marijuana hanging like a low cloud over the camp announcing the presence of India's most enigmatic ascetics, the naga babas. They have renounced all worldly possessions. Most noticeably clothes.

Sitting naked in the lotus position and smeared in ash with long dreadlocks, they take on a phantom-like grey pallor. The ash covering is a classical Shiva depiction symbolising regeneration and death. They bless visiting pilgrims, who looked as overwhelmed as I felt by their outlandishness.

One told me he'd come down from winter in the Himalayas. How do you survive the cold without clothes, I asked the naga who seemed away with the fairies. "I am protected by God's warmth," he responded.

Elsewhere, I found myself gaping open-mouthed at an ascetic who'd kept his arm raised for two decades so it had locked into a position above his head and now resembled a withered branch. I winced at another who had rolled his penis around a stick until it was so stretched it looped around his waist like a flaccid sash. And I met a Khareshwari, whose trial of devotion involved spending his entire life standing.

I tried chatting with the Khareshwari. But he was also profoundly stoned. He was leaning on a swing that supported him during sleep and muttered he'd been standing for over five years to show his commitment to Shiva. His legs were now skeletal. "How do you stand the pain," I asked? He grinned manically and inhaled deeply on his chillum, which sort of answered my question.

The big day

If I was seeking some deeper insight into kumbh mela's path to enlightenment, such sadomasochistic inflictions were a distraction. I was to gain a clearer understanding of its power to inspire the faithful next day from the collective energy emitted during Baisakhi.

It was the big day. Baisakhi falls upon the most astrologically important day of the mela, when Jupiter, the moon and the sun reach an auspicious configuration. The name Baisakhi and its timing is concurrent with an important festival, particularly for Sikhs, celebrating the harvest of winter crops. But to the 14 million pilgrims in Haridwar, the day represented Pramakh shahi snan (the main royal bath), a brief window in time where enlightenment is at its premium for those purifying themselves in the Ganges.

By the time I stepped out into the dark alleyway outside my hotel just before dawn, I'd been listening to crowds drifting past all night. The atmosphere joining the human torrent towards Har-ki-puri was turbocharged. Because of the crush of bodies, I had little control of my bodily direction. But at least we were all heading the same way.

Eventually reaching Har-ki-puri, I found wave upon wave of pilgrims pour down the ghat to take dawn dips. The Ganges is always beautiful at this hour. A cold mist curled across its surface like a departing soul. And sometimes lost in this mist, salvation seekers revelled in their lifetime ambition to perform puja (prayer) in its sacred waters. Discarded marigold garlands drifted among the splashing bodies, while mounds of their clothing piled up by the water's edge.

A seemingly important swami arrived, fawned over by followers who held a golden parasol above his head. The swami stripped down to his loincloth and a path opened up into the river from awestruck bathers like the parting of the Red Sea. Imagine a freezing Boxing Day swim back home, magnify this exhilaration tenfold and throw in a lottery win. The crowds' ecstatic joyousness left me tingling all over.

Thereafter, the day proceeded in a surprisingly orderly fashion given Haridwar's ensuing chaos. The police cleared away bathers and by late morning the different akharas ended their processions with a bath at Har-ki-puri.

I watched the first akhara arrive at the ghat. It was compulsive viewing, but also whimsical as hundreds of ashen naga babas came tearing down the ghat steps belligerently waving swords and tridents, before frolicking into the Ganges to reveal their own human coloured skin tone. But this was India at its fanciful best. A sight not just for one lifetime, but also for the eternity kumbh mela promises its believers.


India & Kumbh Mela

Getting there
Airlines with direct Heathrow-Delhi services include British Airways (www.ba.com), Air India
(www.airindia.in), Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com). Finnair (www.finnair.com) flies via Helsinki, taking under seven hours from the Finnish capital.

Getting around
To reach Haridwar or the next Kumbh Mela location of Allahabad (Prayag), the railway is the best bet. Train travel is reliable and the network extensive. Tickets need to be reserved well in advance for Kumbh Mela by using the online service of Indian Railways (www.indianrail.gov.in) or UK-based SD Enterprises (www.indiarail.co.uk).

When to go
Kumbh melas can take place at any time of year, depending on astrological arrangements. The summer heat in Northern India can build up to over 40C, while monsoonal rains can begin around June. The next Kumbh Mela takes place at Allahabad (Prayag) from 27 January to 25 February 2013. This is late winter and the weather can be very cold.

Need to know
Visas: UK nationals must obtain a visa before arriving in India. http://in.vfsglobal.co.uk
Currency: Rupee (Rs). £1 = Rs69.
Vaccinations: It's imperative to consult your GP not just about the usual jabs and anti-malarial precautions for India, but also about illnesses that may be transmitted in close contact, such as TB.
International dial code: 00 91.

How to do it
Double rooms at the mid-range Hotel Alpana, Haridwar, start from £36. www.alpanahotels.com
The five-star Ananda in the Himalayas is a destination spa hotel with double rooms based on two sharing from £247. www.anandaspa.com
Mid-range: Real Holidays offers a 10-day itinerary taking in the holy Ganges cities of Varanasi, Haridwar and Rishikesh from £2,350 per person. www.realholidays.co.uk
Undiscovered Destinations can tailor-make Kumbh Mela packages for Allahabad 2013. Prices on request. www.undiscovered-destinations.com  

More info
The India Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, Mayfair. www.incredibleindia.org
Kumbh Mela on the web: www.kumbhamela.net
Footprint India Handbook, by Annie Dare, David Stott and Vanessa Betts (Footprint).  RRP £18.99.

Published in the Mar/Apr 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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