Mahakumbh witnesses refreshing winds of change

Mahakumbh witnesses refreshing winds of change

In the last few weeks, the entire nation has been up in arms over the rape of a para-medical student in a moving bus in Delhi on December 16. But a radical change was happening quietly at Allaha­bad in Uttar Pradesh and it was lost in the din raised by the horrific rape of the 23-year-old woman.

Juna Akhara, India's biggest Akhara (organisations of different sects of sadhus in the country), was in the process of setting-up a separate Maibara (a place inside the makeshift ashram at Mahaku­m­bh where only the women monks live) and allowed the sadhvis (women mon­ks) to have their separate dharm dhwaj (flag of dharma) and also hoist the same, signalling a welcome departure from the age-old traditions and reflecting the changing times as well as according the women due respect.

Since its beginning several centuries ago, Mahakumbh has undergone several changes but the most important one that could be clearly seen at the ongoing once-in-a-12-year event is the entry of the wom­en monks into various Akharas and their role in organising religious programmes. There has been a sizeable incr­ease in the number of women ascetics holding important posts at the different Akharas.

“The number of women ascetics has now reached around 100 and it is set to increase further in the days to come,” quipped Mahant Hari Giri of Juna Akhara.

He hoped that the tradition, started by the Juna Akhara, would be followed by  other Akharas and mutts. “After all, sadhvis also play a crucial part in religious activities. Their role must also be recognised,” said Mahant Hari Giri, who is also the secretary of the Juna Akhara. In 2007, for the first time, the Mahant recalled, the Juna Akhara had made a woman monk a “mahamandaleshwar” (a religious title).

In several temples, controlled by the Juna Akhara, women were the mahants (chiefs).
Each Akhara has a religious flag known as dharm dhwaj. The pole of the flag is made from a log of a particular tree, measuring about 20 feet.

It is believed that the deities of the Akharas reside in those trees and, therefore, the dharma dhwaj represents the deity of the Akhara.

“At last, the Akharas have started accepting women monks and giving them due respect and honour,” said Mahant Devya Giri, a woman monk, who is also the mahant of a famous temple at Lucknow. Following the new tradition, the Mahanirvani Akhara also bestowed the title of mahamandaleshwar on woman monk Ved Giri.

She runs an ashram at Ludhiana in Punjab. Hundreds of sadhus, including Naga sadhus from different other Akharas, were  present at the ceremony which lasted for more than two hours. “The trend is fast catching up and many other Akharas are also likely to follow suit,” said Devya Giri. The Nirnajani Akhara has announced that it will confer the title of mahamandaleshwar on Sadhvi Nirbhayanand Puri at Mahakumbh on Tuesday.

Several women from other countries have became sanyasins and joined  Akharas. On the occasion of the first royal bath on Makar Sankranti, a woman from France joined the world of ascetics and was enrolled at the Juna Akhara. She was given the name of Sangam Giri. The Kumbh may have been a purely religious gathering in the beginning but over the years changes have also taken place in its character. It is not untouched by the advances in the field of science and technology.

Sadhus and saints would move around in luxury vehicles, carry sleek cell phones and use internet to reach their disciples and followers across the world. Some of them carry firearms for safety. The passage of time has also seen departure from the age-old traditions, reflecting the changes taking place in modern times.

Many foreigners have also become sanyasins. For devotees from the hinterland, the “white saints and sadhvis” may appear to be unfamiliar, for the Akharas and mutts they are not strangers. In almost every ashram, foreign saints and sadhus could be seen taking a puff of chilam with others.

It’s a dip that attracts millions from across the world--the rich and the poor alike--without any advertisement or announcement. The sea of humanity at the Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers at Allahabad, splashes in the sacred waters longing for only one thing—salvation.

The rush of the naked ascetics, saffron-clad sadhus and saints and devotees, braving the chill towards the Sangam at the break of  dawn produces a mesmerising effect and leaves one spellbound.

The Kumbh is dubbed as the greatest show on the earth in which millions of people take part. “No one gives any advertisement about the Kumbh fair. Devotees know when to go,” stressed Pandit Upendra Dixit, a senior priest in Lucknow. The Kumbh fair is held at

Allahabad, Nasik in Maharashtra, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and Hardwar in Uttarakhand at regular intervals. “It is celebrated at different locations depending on the position of the planets,” Dixit said. “When the Jupiter is in Taurus and the Sun is in Capricorn, Kumbh is celebrated at Prayag (Allahabad's old name),” he added.

The Hindu theologians trace the history of the Kumbh to the 7th century AD and refer to the accounts of the Chinese traveller Huan Tsang, who had visited India during the reign of the King Harshvardhana.  Hindu religious scholars also refer to a mythological reference to the Kumbh, which, in Sanskrit, means pitcher. They say that the gods and the demons had fought over the Kumbh containing the nectar that was found after churning of the “Ocean of Milk”. During the fight, Lord Vishnu flew away with the urn but a few drops of the nectar spilled at Allahabad, Ujjain, Hardwar and Nasik and hence the congregation.

The 55-day-long congregation will have six shahi snans (royal baths--bathing at the sangam by the saints and sadhus of 13 Akharas). While the first royal bath was on January 14, the other two would take place on Mauni Amavasya (February 10) and Basant Panchami (February 15). The other important dates for the Mahakumbh bathing are Pauash Purnima (January 27), Maghi Purinma (February 25) and Maha Shivratri (March 10).

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