Faith and Fanaticism: Maha Kumbh Mela

(or “100 Million People Can’t Be Wrong”)

Imagine standing on top of a hill looking over a sea of tents as far as you can see. Everywhere, across an area the size of Manhattan, people are coming and going, carrying bags and pots of food. Sitting down when they just can’t walk anymore. Sleeping under the open sky if they can’t afford a camp site. Squatting down to take a dump, with their naked butts visible for all to see, because they’re not used to even the most basic toilets. Like in a huge refugee camp, the majority of the attendees at the Kumbh Mela are poor. But they are determined. They have a very good reason to be here.

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Every 144 years, the stars align in Allahabad to form a particularly auspicious constellation for reaching nirvana. It is called the Maha Kumbh Mela. Millions of Hindus walk hundreds of miles from their villages to bathe in the Sangam, where the sacred rivers Ganges and Yarmuna form a triad with the mythological river Saraswati . Because if you bathe here on any of the specified bathing dates, your sins will be washed away, and you and your family will be blessed by the divine for generations to come.

The tradition of the Kumbh Mela goes back thousands of years. Legend tells us that eons ago, when the gods resided on earth, they became exhausted due to a curse. To regain their strength they decided to churn the seas to create an elixir of eternal life. Because they were so weak, they asked the demons for help in return for an equal amount of the immortality nectar. However, when the nectar finally appeared in an urn, the gods did not want to share it. Of course the demons were outraged, and a war ensued. For twelve years, the gods and demons fought in the sky, until a celestial bird flew away with the urn, spilling the elixir in four places: Allahabad, Hardiwar, Ujjain and Nashik. These are the places where the Kumbh Mela’s are celebrated every twelve years.  And every 12 x 12 years, the magical Maha Kumbh Mela takes places in Allahabad.

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It is a golden opportunity for all guru in India to attract new followers. Like a huge spiritual fair, they pin up posters and signs, guiding people to their ashram, where they sell calendars, t-shirts, books and posters with pictures of themselves. To make sure they really get noticed, they all transmit their message through loudspeakers from before dawn to midnight. Just in case, you know, someone might not have heard their voice. And if all else fails, they give away free food to lure more possible prospects into their web.

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However, all wise men are not of the egotistic, self-serving type. In the sector closest to the Sangam, India’s most revered and spiritually powerful holy men reside. Here the naked Naga Sadhus live next to the voluntarily mute babas and those who have kept their arm up in the air until it rotted. Sitting in tents along the main thoroughfare, they offer blessings in return for cash. But mostly, they just sit and smoke hashish with their pals in front of a bonfire.

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The energy builds up for several weeks up until the main bathing day. The crowds increase gradually, every day,  drawing in like a tsunami. And just like a killer-wave, you know that 30 million people in one place can be fatal. Your mind goes haywire, affected by the pull of the river and the mass-hypnosis of people running towards it. It’s terrifying and fascinating at the same time, and suddenly you become very aware of your own mortality. Your eyes are drawn towards the plastic bottles in their hands. If the bottles are empty, it means they have just arrived. They still need to fill them up with Ganges water. If the bottles are full, well, hopefully they are on their way out.

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The loudspeakers closest to the Sangam spell a different message. There, the announcements are not advertising, but family members crying about a mother, brother, husband who has gone missing. On the main bathing day, a disproportionate number of grandfathers run around, half-naked and desperately lost. Old women so crooked it seems they should not be able to walk, sprint towards the beach. They have to enter the waters before 4 a.m., when the guru-parade starts; floats with self-centered sadhus sitting on thrones, being fanned by their disciples shouting “Hail Shri Ram” (Hail Lord Ram). Time is of essence, if they want salvation.

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This year, one hundred million people made their way to the Sangam during the 2 months of the Maha Kumbh Mela. The stampede we feared did not happen at the bathing site. But unfortunately, 36 pilgrims were tragically trampled to death at the Allahabad railway station on their way back home.

Luckily, they had already taken their bath.

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