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The Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela is the greatest of north-Indian fairs and it has exerted a mesmeric influence over the mind and the imagination of the ordinary Indian from time immemorial.

It is held once every three years by rotation, on the banks of holy rivers—the Godavari in Nasik, the Shipra in Ujjain, the Ganga in Haridwar and the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati in Prayag or Allahabad as it is called now. The Purna (complete) Kumbh, the biggest and the most auspicious fair, which falls once every twelve years is always at Allahabad, for the Sangam or confluence of rivers is considered to be particularly holy. When the particular configuration of the Kumbh at Allahabad falls on a Monday, it is called the Somvati Amavasya and the spiritual benefits increase manifold. The Purna Kumbh is followed by the Ardh Kumbh in importance and this fair falls every six years when millions of devout congregate at Allahabad on the banks of the holy river, braving the hazards of cold, disease, hunger and a myriad other privations, to gain spiritual salvation and contentment.

The origin of Kumbh which is an ancient and continuing element in the Indian ethos, extends backwards into mythology. The story of the origin is related with some variation in the Ramayan, Mahabharat and the Puranas. According to one source, the gods, who had been defeated by the demons, approached Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, seeking the boon of regeneration and the gift of immortality. Vishnu directed them to the primeval ocean in which were hidden the secrets of life and death. The gods sought the help of the demons, to whom they promised part of the spoils. Making a paddle out of Mount Mander and a rope out of serpent Anant Nag they churned the ocean till it yielded the holy cow an they flying horse, the Iyre and the siren, Lakshmi and Vishvakarma. Finally, Dhanvantri, the divine physician, emerged holding the kumbh (pitcher) of amrit (the nectar of life) that could bestow immortality. As both the demons and the gods lunged for the pot. Dhanvantri changed himself into a rook and flew off the heavens, with the pitcher. On his journey, which lasted twelve days, he rested at four spots-Prayag, Nasik, Ujjainn and Haridwar-which have consequently been consecrated by drops of nectar that fell there. Therefore, these places are considered holy by the Hindus and have become important pilgrim spots.

Historically speaking, the roots of the Kumbh can be traced to the river festivals in which pots of grains were soaked in the waters of the holy rivers ad put to seed, with the rest of the grain, at sowing time. It has also been considered to be a Pre-Aryan fertility ritual, for the kumbh symbolizes not only the Mother goddess but also the womb, the generative pot. Rivers as givers of life and agents of fertility, became tirthas (holy places) as they act as bridges between heaven and earth, the human and the divine.

Credit for organizing the Kumbh into a congress of Hinduism, where rishis, munis, sadhus ad yogis gathered to discuss and debate upon the finer points of their faith and disseminate their religion goes to the seventh century saivite philosopher and religious guru Adi Shankaracharya. He infused new life into the tottering citadel of Hinduism, which had been badly battered by the break away religious of Buddhism and Jainism, by organizing the Kumbh Mela.

Thus the kumbh Mela became an important meeting ground for the devout Hindus and its importance has not diminished over the years and even today millions of pilgrims from all over the world, from various walks of life, sects and communities gather at the Kumbh. For most it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. They probably plan and save over many years to make this visit to the king of tirthas, the Purna Kumbh, seeking salvation. For thousands of traders, shopkeepers and pedlars who gathers there, the Mela means business and profits. Many come to enjoy the lively and colourful bustle of crowds buying curios and magical stuff and generally having fun. It is both a holy day and a holiday for the people.

The main rite performed at the Mela is the ritual bath. Orthodox Hindus, who give great importance to the performance of ritualistic action, believe that a dip in the sacred waters the auspicious day will cleanse them and their ancestors back to the eighty-eighth generation, off all evil and sin, thus ensuring their salvation or freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. Ritual bathing is a public act ad is performed I the open and ideally on the banks of a river or stream. It includes the complete submergence of the body under water and an oblation to the sun. The most auspicious day for the ritual bath at Kumbh is on the day of the new moon.

The ascetics and sadhus are an integral part of the Kumbh. One of the aims of devout hindus, who make a pilgrimage to the Kumbh is also to have darshan of these holy men and by touching the dust of their feet and listening of their words, hope to have some of their merit rubbed off on themselves.

The most conspicuous sadhus at the Kumbh are the Nagas or naked sadhus. The Nagas smear their bodies with ash and sport long matted hair. Constant exposure to the elements ad rigorous self control makes them impervious to the extremes of hot and cold. They ever need to adjust their clothings to suit the weather. Originally a militant armed bad, the Nagas were recruited to defend the ascetics who had taken the vow of nonviolence and therefore could not retaliate when they were attacked by hostile Buddhist, vaishavite or other monastic orders. The eyes of the Nagas are usually red with the intake of charas ad ganja, which is also considered to be one of the means of attaining siddhi (greatness).

Besides the Nagas, there are several other types of sadhus, like the Urdhwavahurs who practice severe physical austerities and their bodies are usually emaciated and limbs shriveled; the Parivajakas, who live under a vow of silence and go about tinkling little bells to get people out of their way; the Shirshasins who stand all 24 hours and sleep with their heads resting on a vertical pole attached to a oblong pole or meditate for long hours steading of their heads; the Kalpvasis, who spend the entire month of Kumbh on the banks of Ganga, meditating, performing rituals and bathing thrice a day and may others.

There are also thousands of Godmen among the bustling crowds, who try to outdo each other in selling themselves. Many guarantee peace, freedom and salvation over loudspeakers competing raucously for attention. However, the more prominent, better established or well connected ones are not so brash.

On the day of the new moon, the day begins very early at about 3 p.m., when the first pilgrims line up for a dip in the river. Scantily clad, they chat no-stop ‘Jai Ganga Maiya’ (long live mother Ganga). When they finish, they leave quickly, to make way for the next lot of bathers. Most of them shave their heads before the holy bath as it is considered a part of the ritual.

With the first rays of the sun, the processions of akharas or groups of sadhus of a particular sect begins. The different sects of sadhus move in the form of a procession towards the river. The processions are usually led by the nagas. Every akhara at the kumbh is preceded by a messenger who carries a turban aloft a pole announcing their arrival. There is an air of ostentation about these holy men. The heads of the sects move in golden chariots, with silk umbrellas and leopard skin rugs. All the akharas try to outdo each other in themes of grandeur and fanfare. The endless crowed surges towards the Sangam, which is the magnet which draws them all together. Everyone is wholly absorbed in the magic of the moment.

After their minds and bodies have been cleansed by the purificatory dip, the pilgrims do fresh clothes and proceed to perform puja on the river bank. After having had their meals, the pilgrims walk around listening to discourses of various sadhus or have a darshan of the well-known godmen. By next morning the pilgrims are ready to leave. Some stay back a few days, weeks, even a month but eventually they depart, cleansed of all their sins and hoping to have had achieved spiritual salvation.

There is story that neatly sums up the attitude of the ordinary Hindus to the Kumbh. According to this story, as Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, watched the millions gather at the holy Kumbh, she became pensive and turning to Shiva said “You are indeed compassionate my Lord but to me it seems your compassion has done more harm than good for only a fool would lead a virtuous life when moksha can be attained by a mere dip in the holy river. On hearing her complaint, Shiva suggested that they pay a visit to the Kumbh. Taking the form of a Brahmin couple, Lord Shiva lay prone on the ground while beside him Parvati sobbed profusely like a bereaved wife. When the pilgrims stopped to enquire about her plight, she answered all queries by saying, “Lord Shivas has promised that the mere touch of a sinless man can bring my husband to life. But if the person is not sinless, he will die instantly”. On hearing this all the pilgrims recoiled for none of them truly believed that they had been cleansed of their sis after the holy dip. Thus the widow sat crying, until a drunk came staggering along and as soon as he found out her problem, he was certain that a dip in the river would purify him. After a quick dip in the river he returned and bent down to touch the dead Brahmin, whereupon Shiva revealed himself and said, “You indeed attained moksha my so, so far only you.” Back at their heavenly abode, Shiva asked Parvati, “With all my divine compassion I do not seem to have succeeded in making salvation so very cheap, after all, havel I?

This, then, is the reality of the Kumbh Mela, a populous testimonial to the power of religion; a magical experience promising salvation to the many millions who came to the Kumbh.

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