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Maha Kumbh Mela

The biggest religious ceremony in the world, known as “Maha Kumbh Mela” (Great Festival of Urn), took place for the last time in this millennium in the northern Indian town of Hardwar on the banks of river Ganges. Here, millions of people had their ritual cleansing bath on eleven auspicious days from the beginning of January up to the end of April.

Hardwar is situated close to the spurs of the Shivaliks, the lowest range of the Himalayas. Hardwar means “Gate of God’s Land”. The link to paradise is established by the holy River Ganges. The Hindus call her Ganga after the river goddess. During the mela (festival) Hindus consider Hardwar as India’s religious capital. Thousands of sadhus, gurus and their disciple as well as legions of pilgrims gathered there. More than ten million people – possibly twenty million, nobody could count them – dipped into the Ganga, in order to purify body, mind and soul and wash off their sins.

On the eve of such a bathing day, the town vibrates in hectic religious fever. In the courtyard of the railway station you can see many of India’s myriad communities. Under open sky Gujaratis and Punjabis, Bengalis and Rajasthanis, Haryanvis and Tamils camp there, all identifiable by their costumes, turbans, hair styles and caste marks. The pilgrims sitting on blankets and mats chat, eat their chapatti bread and drink tea. The same picture you will find in the camps before the town gates where hundreds of thousands of believers sleep on the naked floor. Hardwar has no other choice but to accommodate such an immense crowd.

On the Rail Road leading from the railway station up to the banks of the Ganga the shops are full of religious items. Multicoloured pictures of gods, saffron shawls with the words Jay Sri Ram printed on it, meaning ‘Hail god Rama’, vermilion powder, images of holy men as well as flower chains, coconuts and bananas as offerings. Above the three kilometres long Rail Road floats a sweetish vapour of incense sticks. The Dhabas, small street restaurants, are overcrowded. Temples and ashrams are magnificently illuminated. Although it’s well after midnight an unending chain of pilgrims rushes down to the river for a first “rendezvous” with the Ganga.

The pilgrims know from the legends the story of the Kumbha. The gods and the demons had decided to churn the ocean in order to get its hidden treasures. They used a mountain as a stirring tool and a huge snake as a ‘transmission belt”. And out they fished a lot of marvels, among them the fling horse, the magic moon, the celestial chariot, the white elephant, the magic cow Kamdhenu, the architect of the sky Viswakarma, the goddess of beauty and wealth Lakshmi, the deadly poison Halahala and finally the most precious thing – the kumbha, the urn containing the nectar of immortality. Immediately a quarrel began between both sides. Jayanta, the son of Indra, the rain god and administrator of heaven, caught the urn and escaped with it. On his way to paradise, while resting, he put the urn four times down on earth: two times along the Ganga at Hardwar and Prayag (today called Allahabad), once at Nasik and once at Ujjain. Later these became four holy places where Hindus celebrate the Maha Kumbh Mela alternately every twelve years. The flight took Jayanta twelve god-days. That equals according to the myths twelve human years.

The next day at the crack of dawn the throng of people drags us down to the river. Before the holy dip many boys and men get a clean shave of their heads. In the meantime the women prepare the offerings, mostly a little bit of rice and rose petals which they put on tiny ‘boats’ made from dry tree leaves. Singing and praying, the families enter with folded hands the water at the ghats, the bathing steps. They set the ‘boats’ in the river, wash their face and body, dip and sip a bit of Ganga water. With one hand they hold iron chains to brave the swift currents. The water is ice-cold. Quite a shock because outside the temperature is now already about 40 degrees Celsius. However Indians are accustomed to their daily cold shower-bath and even infants tolerate the frosty encounter with the Ganga without complain. After the dip the devotees change their clothes. They are “pure” now and therefore some of them throw their wet, old and dirty saris and shirts into the river. At the end the pilgrims fetch holy water from the river for their puja, the prayers at home, as well as for relatives and friends.

A whole system of bridges and bathing steps was constructed in Hardwar, so that the last mela of this millennium can run smoothly and as many people as possible can have their dip at the same time and thereafter leave the ghats quickly. Dozens of life saving guards keep a close watch. Policemen with their permanent “concert of whistles” remind the crowd to hurry because thousands of other devotees are already impatiently waiting for their turn. Sadly part of the mela is the infamous tradition that in the past hundreds of people were killed in stampedes or drowned. Dr. S.P. Sharma, on duty at one of the medical checkposts on the banks of the river, explains that there were 640 patients within the last 24 hours to be treated for injuries, fever, cold and diarrhoea. But in Dr. Sharma’s stretch there was no deadly accident or drowning.

Mr. Dutta, a lawyer from Rajasthan came by bus with twenty people from his home town. He has just finished his bath and is in high spirits. Enthusiastically he praises the mela, because it gives proof “how strong the religious bond of the Hindus is, even if many of them may not know the holyscriptures.” How does he explain the magic cleansing effect of the Ganga? “According to legends, Brahma, the creator, gave Ganga the order to liberate mankind from its sins. Ganga asked him who would purify her after wards. So Brahma decided that a dip of the holy men, the Sadhus, during the Maha Kumbh Mela would purify her again and again” the lawyer narrates.

The centre stage of the Maha Kumbh Mela is occupied by the sadhus who belong to dozens of Hindu sects. The most exotic among them are certainly the Naga sadhus who are totally naked or wear tiny loin clothes. All of them put ashes on their body, so they look grey. The majority of Naga sadhus have long beards, very long “Shiva-hair” which is knotted in huge buns and they carry short range weapons. The Naga Akhara Movement was founded in the 8th century by Adi Shankara Acharya when he established a group of militant initiated followers whose task was to protect pilgrims and sadhus from robbers and other enemies. Those special protection forces later became the Nagas. For them the Maha Kumbh Mela is of great significance, because they are the first ones to take the holy dip in the Ganga on the most auspicious day during shahi snan, the “royal bath”, which marks the climax of the festival. They are the privileged people who cleanse the river goddess. The right to have the first bath has been the cause for bloody fights among Naga sects since the last 200 years. This time two groups fought each other resulting in 150 sadhus and onlookers being injured, many of them seriously. The Kumbh Administration suspended the shahi snan on April 13 for the time being.

The Naga sadhus live during the mela in their own camp above which a huge orange flag flies in the wind. When we visited the camp we saw smoking fires in front of every tent producing the much desired ashes. The Sadhus smoke enormously and mix ganja and other intoxicating “grasses” into their tobacco. The chelums (smoking pipes) never become cold and are also offered to visitors. In the tent of the Tanapati, one of the highest religious dignitaries of Benares (Varanasi), one can meet even holy men and some women who are from Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany or Japan. Many of them have got their consecration after an intensive period of studies and exercises with their Guru (spiritual guide and teacher) and now they hold officially recognized sadhu certificates.

Finally the most important day dawns, the climax of every Maha Kumbha Mela. At the end of a long night session the authorities gave the permission for the “royal procession” and for the following “royal bath” of the sadhus. Some sects feel nevertheless discriminated against and don’t take part in the procession which starts at 10.30 in the morning. The stark naked sadhus march ahead. In silver plated palanquins they carry their dignitaries. An umbrella protects symbolically the sanctum, an only 30 cm miniscule idol of Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of the divine couple Shiva and Parvati. The Procession of about 8000 sadhus moves first out of the town crossing the Ganga and then turns making a wide circle back to the ghats. Along the route hundreds of thousands of pilgrims wait behind wooden barriers in order to see the holy men from close range. It ‘rains flowers, coins and different offerings for the sadhus.

Around 12 o’clock the tip of the procession escorted by a massive police force reaches Har Ki Pauri, the holy place where a foot print allegedly from god Vishnu is worshipped. There at Brahm Kund the sadhus enter the water and unite with the Ganga. They offer garlands and coconuts to their goddess. They wash flags and other religious symbols in the holy river. During that period not a single ordinary mortal is permitted to have a bath in the river. The faithful chant slogans and sing songs to praise the gods: Har Har Mahadev, Jay Sri Ram and Ganga Devi ki Jay. Frantically they clap their hands and after half an hour or so the sadhus start marching back to their camp. A man next to me whispers in religious ecstasy. “ To see the Nagas is like seeing god.”

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