It’s around eighteen months since I was at the 144th Maya Kumbh Mela – a predominantly Hindu festival, where all spiritual leaders and the public, whatever their beliefs, are welcome. The imprint of this mystical adventure will be forever with me. Despite the avalanche of experiences the Kumbha Mela remains difficult to capture in words.
Official explanations of the Kumbah Mela explain it as providing the opportunity to purify the soul by bathing in the holy river Ganges, at specific places and to serve Guru’s saints and sages. But it was so much more than this for me -participating in this festival was profound, it bought to me a whole new way of being and seeing the world –it changed my reality.
I’ll start at the beginning, the first glimpse of the Mela, through sleepy eyes as we crossed over the bridge heading into Allahabad (we were travelling from the holy Shiva city of Varanasi and I had been napping and listening to podcasts and music along the way) was one of heart pounding excitement and vastness – the Mela stretched as far as the eye could see, tents spread out on the dusty lowland under the bridge and along the river bank. It reminded me of a sepia image, ethereal, otherworldly. One of those moments that literally takes your breath away. Finally we had arrived.
I have been captivated by the Kumbh Mela since I first learnt it almost 20 years ago and have read many accounts. The ‘major’ Kumbh Mela happens every 12 years, in Allahabad with smaller Mela’s happening each three years and rotating between the three ancient cities of Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. This was where the nectar fell from the pot that the gods and demons were fighting for possession of. The demi gods were trying to secure possession of the pot, given to them by Lord Bramha and Lord Shiva, to give them strength to fight the demons.
Day one at the Mela and our small bus enters the Kumbh Mela crossing over temporary, moving, single lane, manmade, pontoon bridges, shared with pilgrims, saints, three wheelers, motorbikes, cart sellers and cattle. I can’t stop looking around at the colourful array of pilgrims. There are around 14 sectors, covering something like 22 square kilometres. One hundred million people will gather over an eight week period, on auspicious bathing days there can be up to 10 million people, most days average 1-2 million people – it’s the largest (and one of the oldest) spiritual gatherings on earth. It was both what I had been anticipating and different at the same time. The reality of the Kumbah Mela is so outside of the realms of my experiences to date I really didn’t know what to expect.
With our Indian spiritual guide we head to sector 8 to the camp of Swami Avdheshanand, who welcomes us warmly in his private hexagonal tent – which is both tranquil and opulent – with mud walls, earthy burnt orange furnishings and hand paintings which remind me of the kolam (the welcome made with rice, paint or chalk outside peoples house). After a short spiritual talk (Darshan), where we are told that ‘noise is the nectar or devotion’ and India is where it is possible ‘ton find peace and devotion’ we are each gifted a mala made of Rosewood (108 meditation beads) and invited to take food that has been blessed called Prasad for lunch, we sit on the ground in rows, the mood is reverend and festive, food made with devotion is ladled from stainless steel buckets onto our stainless steel thali plates.
In an act of immense generosity we are asked to treat this camp as our home while we are at the Kumbah Mela. This is a humbling experience and a privilege. In the day to day world, the camp has toilets we can use and delicious chai tea to sip while taking a rest, to warm up or while we wait for each other. The camp is meticulously cared for by devotees and has Vishnu as its central deity. Vishnu is also the deity of Allahbad. I am drawn in by the simple beauty and calmness of this camp. It is a beautiful place to meditate.
SwarmiJi (as he is known) is graceful and grounded, his energy is profoundly peaceful yet uplifting at the same time. He founded ‘Prabhu Premi Sangh’ an organisation engaged in humanitarian efforts to uplift society globally – he has founded educational institutions and health initiatives, including mobile dispensaries. His aim – to make spiritually awakened people more responsive. He is very highly regarded – one of the days we were there literally 1000’s of Sadhus has queued for an audience with him. A sadhu is a person who leads a simple lifestyle and who practices abstinence from worldly pleasures to focus on a spiritual practice, they own very little and rely on the goodwill of others for food and shelter, they wear orange robes.
As an aside, on my most recent trip to India, staying with my friend and spiritual guide from the Mela trip, in Haridwar I visit the Ashram of SwamiJi and by chance we are again blessed with is presence, he is on his way to Lucknow and as he leaves school students he has been working with chant ancient scriptures. His ashram has the same energy as his camp at the Kumbah Mela did.
The Dalai Lama was to give darshan at SwarmiJi’s camp – and the group I was with were invited, to say we were excited was an understatement and we all dressed with great care that morning. The event, however, ended up being cancelled as the Dali Lama was unable to travel on that day due to problems with security, we were of course disappointed. We felt deeply for the devotees over in sector 6 who had been preparing a huge feast in honour of the Dali Lama. I heard that the Dali Lama did make it to the Mela several days later.
At the Mela we all wander off in different directions to explore the nearby sectors. Myself and a friend come across the camp of Sivananda Baba of Varansi, who is 117 years old. Through one of his disciples we chat with him. Baba explained his religion was serving people and when I asked him how he stayed healthy he replied he has vegetarian diet and doesn’t take fruit or milk. Each day he also practice savangasana – better known as shoulder stand. With this be tucks and tightens the white cloth he is wearing and pops on up into a shoulder stand. I am left in awe, the biggest takeaway for me is that you are never too old. It’s the boost and inspiration I needed for my own yogic practices. We are offered more Prasad, we politely decline as we are still full from lunch, offer a donation and head off.
Umma, the hugging female saint from the South of India – known for her compassions has a camp here (however she has headed home after taking a dip on an earlier auspicious day). A few of us contemplate spending the night in her compound, but in the end we settle for the comfortable bed of the hotel we are staying in rather than the soft straw and cold nights at the Mela.
Pilot Baba, who as the name suggests used to be a pilot until he had a number of visions and became a revered guru also has quite a large compound. We briefly encounter with Pilot baba, some members of our group get a private audience with him, while he is being filmed by an American TV crew, we also meet some Russian sanyasani, in pilot Baba they are pure of heart and have a beautiful ashram in Russia, it can’t be easy for them to practice their spirituality.
Kathia (or chastity) baba, another of the famous babas living by sacrifice, celibacy and dedication dedicated was unwell and couldn’t make it to this Mela.
We are welcomed with generosity wherever we chose to explore and participate in countless Darshan and ceremonies, classes and rituals, some are in Hindi, so we only stay a short while, though it is still possible to saok up the atmosphere. Some camps are huge others no more than a tent. We chant with a baba and a pilgrim in one of the tents.
As we wander we drink in the sights and sounds of the Mela, food, brightly coloured powered, book shops, decorated elephants, horses and camels also wander among families and sadhus – the holy men and women dressed in orange, visit the temples, simple and elegant Puja trays with flowers and a candle are sold – these are lit and placed in the river.
It is vibrant, new, stimulating, chaotic, dusty, tiring and energising. Contradictions abound – spiritual leaders with mobile phones, naked ‘naga babas’ who live in the forest, except when the Mela is on, store their phones in long dread locked hair. The devoted, mix with those trying to make money, sacred objects are alongside fair like trinkets. Above all the atmosphere is exceptionally chilled.
The Mela has its own rhythms throughout the day. My most favourite time was early evening, around dusk when activity heightens. Primordial like Shiva fire ceremonies where the trident of Shiva is decorated with tinsel take place and the haunting sounds of the counch shells can be heard. Here the Shiva energy can feel masculine, yet it dances with duality and is both masculine and feminine, creator and destroyer. Dusk gives way to night and the neon signs light up again the atmosphere is spiritual and fair like – auspicious neon peacocks abound.
No visit to the Mela is complete without a dip in the holy Ganges at the Sangram where the three holy rivers meet. Join me for part two as we haggle with boatmen to get to the Sangram, participate in the puja or river ceremony, visit the ‘trick babas in sector four and the Mela and finish with the ancient Aarti – fire ceremony.