Kumbh Mela…The Mother of all Festivals…

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[dropcap]The[/dropcap] stats are absurd: 56 square kilometers, 14 sectors, 18,000 police & other personnel, plus 110 million devotees – these are some of the mind-boggling facts from the Kumbh Mela (Pitcher Festival) held at Allahabad last year – the city which alone holds the purna Kumbh (complete Kumbha) every 12 years. Other cities which hold smaller Kumbh Melas’ by turn are Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik.

The city of Allahabad is considered incredibly holy by people of Hindu religion as it sees the confluence of 3 rivers at a place called the Sangam – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Saraswati (which is invisible and flows underneath).

the entry to the Kumbha mela from the City side

The entrance to Kumbha Mela.

a view of the subcity

View of the sub-city.

a huge temporary city is built to cater to the millions who visit the fair

Huge temporary subcity is built to cater for the millions that visit the festival.

a sure shot way to practice celibacy which they have to follow

Sure way to practice celibacy, in which the Baba’s need to follow.

a group of sadhus buying garlands and miscellaneous artefacts

Group of Sadhus buying garlands and miscellaneous artefacts.

I have been a regular visitor to the last 3 Kumbhs at Allahabad.  One redeeming feature of the every Kumbh Mela are the Akharas (mini community colony belonging to a particular sect or following), besides many other Hindu organisations and corporates who put up tents for accommodation for their followers, devotees and employees.

Juna Akhara is by far the most popular Akhara, primarily for it’s ‘naga’ (naked) Sadhus who even in the severest of winters do not wear any clothes.  Their power to withstand the severe weather conditions is amazing.  However, to my utter surprise, some supposedly naga Sadhus in the Juna Akhara were moving around fully clothed and on asking they told me that they take off their clothes only during the ‘shahi snan’ days (holy days as per the lunar calendar) – big deal!! All the Akharas are virtually mini townships as their inmates stay there for two long months.

I also met Sadhu Prem Giri from Bhuj, Gujarat there who has kept his right hand up for the last 8 years and will keep it for another 4 years before putting it down on the Shivaratri day (birthday of Lord Shiva) at his Ashram – the nails have grown to maybe over 6-8 inches and have curled (see pic).  Then there was Giriji Maharaj who has been standing for the last 10 years (see pic)!!

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Left: Sunset at the Kumbh – a number of temporary pontoon bridges are built for the festival. Center: Giriji Maharaj has kept his hands up continuously for the last 10 years. Right: Smoking pot is very usual among the Sadhus.

this person has been standing for the last 10 years as a penace

This baba has been standing for the last 10 years, as a penance.

a naga (naked) sadhu with followers from Russia

Naga (naked) Sadhu with followers from Russia, Masha or Shivagirl (far left of picture) has been living in India for six years.

  The Miamians

drying sari - the dress for the Indian woman

Drying saris – typical dress for Indian woman.

early morning bath at the ganges

Early morning bath at the Ganges.

The place is less crowded on days other than ‘shahi snan‘  when vehicles cannot go within 100 meters of the banks of Sangam.  Unless you are ready to battle the crowd of 30 million people (that’s the number of people who took bath on the auspicious Mauni Amavasya – a day considered holy) and are religious to the core, you can comfortably take a dip on any day in between.

I took a boat-ride early in the morning from the Sangam ghat to capture the confluence (see pic) for the ninth time.

ISKON group volunteers propagating

ISKON group volunteers propagating.

 harimati - the sadhu from Amsterdam

Harimati – a Sadhu from Amsterdam.

photo op with a local girl

Photo op with a local girl.

smoking pot is a way of life with these mendicants

Smoking pot is a way of life with these mendicants.

braving the early morning chill - a bard singing devotional songs

Braving the early morning chill – a bard singing devotional songs.

India has always been high on the spiritual map of the westerners and Kumbh is an all-time favourite.  This Kumbh Mela the amount of foreigners seems to have increased by leaps and bounds going by the number of foreign Sadhus, both male and female.  I met the beautiful Masha (now called Shivagiri) from Russia (see pic) donning saffron who actually is an architect but now for the last 6 years has been living in an ashram in India.

I also met two ladies from Amsterdam who have families there and have been visiting India regularly on spiritual trips since 1978 – they have not completely renounced the western world – though one of them has changed her name to Harimati (see pic).  A modern Sanyasin who was very much connected to the world with a cellphone and even has a Facebook profile!!

That’s not all – I randomly received requests from naga sadhus for a copy of the picture I shot of them; and one naga (with fancy goggles) went to the absolute extreme – he fished out his visiting card from the zipped slingbag (they don’t wear anything with pockets!) and told me to mail him picture to him! I just went gaga over this naga!!

the platform where the actual confluence of ganges, yamuna and saraswati is - the holiest place for a dip

The platform is set up where the actual confluence of Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati is – the holiest place for a dip.

they live and sleep in makeshift tents for a month

They live and sleep in makeshift tents for a month.

two young children dress up as Shiva

Two young children dressed up as Shiva.

Amitabha Bose

Amitabha is a compulsive traveller and a photographer who writes about what he sees and feels.  Presently in the self confessed wrong profession of being an Executive Director, he lives with his family in Delhi.