The Kumbh Mela
Pictured: Premajyoti floating across the Yamuna with the Kumbh Mela in the background. (More pictures below)
The Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth is held every 12 years on the banks of the ‘Sangam’- the confluence of the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The Mela alternates between Nasik, Allahabad, Ujjain and Haridwar every three years.
The one celebrated at the Holy Sangam in Allahabad is one of four places, according to legend, that drops of the nectar of immortality fell during a great battle between the Demigods (Devatas) and Demons (Asuras). Allahabad is the largest and holiest of the gatherings and it is considered to be the most significant as it marks the direction of wisdom or light at the place where the sun, symbolizing wisdom, rises.
In 2013, it has been widely estimated that 80 Million pilgrims will visit the holy site and bathe in the holy water. I was at the Kumbh Mela for 7 days during February. A western woman in yogic dress – not the most common sight in the myriad of people, and I am delighted to say it was a completely positive and uplifting experience. Sure – many things didn’t go according to plan, but it was an amazing lesson in acceptance, sharing the experience of humanity and the capacity of India’s ‘people power’ to organise such a great event.
An entire camping city has been built at the Sangam (holy confluence of the rivers) and this includes streets, lanes, villages and foot bridges across both the Yamuna and Ganges rivers. It is cleanest outdoor area I have visited during my two trips to India. There are people designated to sweep the sand and clay and there is scarcely any litter to be seen anywhere. Bottled water and reasonable food is readily available. I was definitely impressed!
Yes there were many amazing sights, sounds, people and energies to encounter at this event, but it is often what you experience that gives you the most in life. A little bit of a trial here and there can certainly give new perspective and the chance to view things differently.
Part way through our stay, we needed to move camps. Fortunately, we were wise enough to leave our main packs in Varanasi and take smaller bags…unfortunately, we had an 11km trip to the other side of the Kumbh to our next camp… fortunately, we had a place to meet the manager of our new camp… unfortunately, on that particular day, the busiest and most auspicious bathing day – all vehicles were banned from the exact area we need to travel in (not even a cycle rickshaw!)
First lesson in acceptance – I will have to walk 11km in the heat and dust with my (still quite large) bag and a bucket. I also have to trek barefoot as my footwear has caused a blister the day before. This is the point I realise that the Kumbh Mela is a great leveller of humanity. It makes no difference that I am more materially wealthy than most of the other pilgrims walking with their bags on their heads (many of them older and less fit that I), we all have to walk. There is nobody to pay or bribe to get there more easily.
Second lesson in acceptance, the pace is really slow… there are throngs of people all sharing the same road. I start off impatiently – I just want to %#!* get there and get this over with! Then I get present the harmony amongst all of us moving along the road and I get the sense that we are all flowing as one in the same direction with the same sense of purpose. People smile as I walk by; people are chanting mantra, looking after each other, making way for each other. Hang on – could this be a gift?
Third lesson in acceptance… the bridge we finally get to and have planned to use to get to the general area of our new camp has been changed overnight and designated as one-way in the direction opposite to where we need to go! We need to walk a further 2km to the area where boats are taking people across the Yamuna and we will land a further 2km away from our new camp. There are hundreds of people waiting to get on these boats.
And so it goes on… the series of fortunately/unfortunately until I finally realise that what might at first seem fortunate could flip in a flash to what might be deemed unfortunate. What might at first seem like a barrier, can indeed become a gift. Over the course of 4-5 hours of walking, I get to realise that all there is to do is accept, accept, accept and to not let faith and determination falter.
We made it of course – not with ease, but without resentment of the journey and a definite feeling of rising to the challenge. There was definitely a sense that to have access to the immense energy and grace within this festival, you first have to do the ‘hard pilgrimage yards’.
It should not be overlooked that the majority of pilgrims at the Mela had travelled many, many miles with much greater effort and sacrifice than we have made. There were many people of great age who found it difficult to walk, people with obvious disability and amazing souls who can carry several times my load elegantly on their strong shoulders or heads.
For those of you who are curious – yes I did bathe in the Ganges – twice, I did feel cleansed, and I didn’t get sick. In fact I have read that levels of illness were inexplicably low at the festival. I guess some things just can’t be explained using science and western logic. Supposedly pollution levels were tested to be at least double the maximum acceptable level for bathing… sacred water? Who can say, but the whole experience has certainly enriched me. Thank you again Maa India!
Yogi, Sadhu, Devotee, Chella – all one Atman… post Ganga bath, and sharing the energy at Khumbh Mela… aligning with what we share, rather than what’s different!
Women devotees parading at Kumbh Mela with offerings.
The people in our neighbourhood at Kumbh Mela.
To see more pictures and reflections from Premajyoti’s visit to India, go to her Facebook page Brightstar Yoga.