Millions of faithful to go for a drop of immortality

Millions of faithful to go for a drop of immortality

Every 12 years, millions gather at Hardwar -- the gateway to the abode of Lord Shiva in the Himalayas -- for the Maha Kumbh Mela in a show of faith that is rivalled only by the Maha Kumbh Mela at Prayag (in Allahabad), the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers.

The belief has not only been sustained over millennia but has grown, as the rest of the world -- from Huang Tsang in the seventh century to Mark Twain in the 19th to many more in the 20th -- has looked on amazed. The BBC described the 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela at Allahabad the biggest religious gathering in the world -- with 60 million people. Hardwar is set to surpass that figure this year, with 70 million expected.

What draws the layman among the Hindu faithful is a drop of immortality. In Hindu mythology, the Kumbh Mela traces its origin to the Samudra Manthana -- the churning of the primordial ocean -- described in the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

When the churning brought up the kumbh (pot) of amrit, the nectar of immortality, the gods had to safeguard it from the demons. Lord Vishnu's carrier Garuda the king of eagles flew away with the elixir. Four drops spilled on four places -- Hardwar, Prayag, Ujjain and Nashik -- where the Kumbh Mela is held to this day.

The symbology is of the triumph of good over evil and the beginning of a prosperous cycle in the world. To be a part of it, there is no better time than to bathe in the holy Ganga during a Maha Kumbh Mela. While it is a religious fair (mela) in every sense of the term for the laiety, it is a very important theological gathering for the priesthood. The Kumbh Mela is when the numerous sects of Hindu priests come together to discuss and debate scriptures, to meet their lay devotees, to formally initiate recruits into their akharas (sects) and of course for the holy dip in the river.

It was such a gathering that Chinese traveller and historian Huang Tsang chronicled during his travels in India 629-645 AD during the reign of king Harshavardhana. The tradition was already many hundreds of years old, he was told.

It came from the time of the Vedas, when religious gatherings were held on the banks of rivers.  For many sadhus -- especially those from the Naga (naked) sects -- the Kumbh Mela may be the only time they interact with other people. Little wonder that the sight of hundreds of dreadlocked and ash-smeared naked sadhus -- many armed with spears, tridents, swords and sticks -- marching down to the river in their hundreds evokes an equal mixture of fear, reverence and curiosity among the thousands who gather to watch.

Mark Twain wrote after visiting a Kumbh Mela in 1895: "Kumbh Mela is the most sacred of all pilgrimages. Thousands of holy men and women attend the fair and the auspiciousness of the festival is attributed to this. The sadhus are clad in saffron and some of them are called Naga Sanyasis. They are seen without clothes even in winter and generally lead an extreme lifestyle."

Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering in the world, will begin in Hardwar Jan 14 and go on till April 28. Here are the important bathing dates of the Kumbh Mela:

Jan 14: Makar Sankranti
Jan 15: Mauni Amavasya-Suryagrahan Snan (Solar Eclipse and New Moon bathing)
Jan 20: Basant Panchami (Saraswati Puja)
Jan 30: Maagh Purnima
Feb 12: Shree Mahashivratri-Shahi Snan
March 15: Somawati Aamavasya-Shahi Snan
March 16: Shree Ramnavami Snan
March 30: Chaitra Purnima-Vaishnav Akahara Snan
April 14: Mesha Sankranti-Shahi Snan
April 28: Visakh AadhiMaas Purnima Snan

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