The dhoti-clad man stood on the banks of the river. Alone! Far from the madding crowd of devotees that had congregated for a dip at the sangam of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers, further upstream. He chose to make his purifying dip in the waters of the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh, a private affair… with his cell phone as his sole companion. Over the mobile, which he held close to his face, his family pujari back home took him through the rituals and recited mantras which he echoed. Wary of intruding, we kept our distance and held our cameras at half-mast till he acknowledged our presence and nodded his consent. The shutter tripped and captured what, to us at least, represented the essence of the Kumbh.
The Kumbh throws up intimate cameos like of the digital-savvy pilgrim but is primarily a grand spectacle. It commences with the Peshwai, a magnificent procession of saints and holy men of the different akharas (holy orders) arriving on elephants, camels and horses, chanting Vedic shlokas and prayers as they make their way to the mela grounds to set up camp for the duration of the fair. En route, devotees shower the seers with flowers as the grand procession winds its way through the city and are blessed by the holy men. One of the last of the akharas to set up camp at the mela this year, Shri Shambhu Dashnaam Aavahan Akhara, celebrated their arrival with an orchestra band and even a disc jockey, streaming in with hundreds of seers and naga babas.
The Niranjani Akhara, founded in 904 CE, is the second largest akhara after the Juna Akhara. Niranjani Akhara, headquartered in Prayagraj, has the maximum number of naga sadhus, and the mela is often associated with the antics of these ash-covered naga babas. (One chased our companion with a trishul for sneaking in a photograph of him without rewarding him with a currency note). But the Kumbh is also a deeply spiritual happening that embraces millions of devotees from all walks of life. Earlier that day, we had crossed one of the many floating pontoon bridges that spanned the Ganga and merged into the swirling streams of faith and devotion and rode the current towards the confluence of rivers where believers were massed like an invading army.
Around 30 million people — more than the entire population of many countries, including Australia — had gathered to participate in the Mauni Amavasya Snan, making it the largest congregation of people on earth. An entire tented city, dotted with 1,22,500 toilets, had been established to accommodate these mind-boggling numbers. We strolled through this temporary citadel which was awash in a kaleidoscope of colour. Columns of orange-robed holy men with foreheads stained with sandalwood paste; men sporting colourful turbans that betrayed the regions they hailed from; clusters of women in brilliantly hued saris… reds, yellows, greens… strolled barefoot or in slippers with makeshift bundles on their heads, lips moving silently in prayer.
Some had little children in tow. They had walked from distant villages and were foot sore but happy to have made it. They merged into the sea of colour and devotion. Many sadly get separated from their families. A constant stream of announcements from the lost and found tent informed husbands that their wives and children were waiting to be united with them.
We stopped at one of the many akharas to photograph a group of sadhus with flowing grey beards dancing in a stupor to the rhythm of bhajans belted out by musicians whose lead singer was a Caucasian gent! A flag-waving tour guide led a clutch of Japanese tourists who trooped behind us, looks of sheer bewilderment writ large on their faces as they too navigated the choppy rivers of people, ranging from devotees and pilgrims to tourists and wayfarers, intent on capturing this most moving spectacle on their cameras.
A marked stirring in an already agitated crowd suggested that we were approaching the akharas of the naga babas. These ash-smeared naked ascetics who had descended on the Kumbh from their cave dwellings in the Himalayas and from ashrams in Varanasi and elsewhere were the showstoppers of the mela. Some wore bizarre accessories from dark glasses, bells and floral head gear which were designed to shock and amaze; others had draped their bodies in multiple rudraksh malas and dreadlocks; some were naked and ash-smeared, despite the biting cold. “They are testing the limits that they can push their bodies to; a mind over matter exercise,” our guide explained.
They were unabashed about expressing their displeasure if someone stepped too close and beyond the permissible limits where they prayed before a holy fire. They brandished trishuls or advanced threateningly on the offending person to convey in no uncertain terms that it was thus far and no farther. Some were dressed in faux animal skins, as though playing to the gallery, for a largely awe-struck audience. They blessed pilgrims who touched their feet in acknowledgment of their courage in seeking release from the circle of life and death by turning their backs on the social norms of civilised society.
Indeed, the naga babas claim first rights to a dip in the waters of immortality at the sangam of rivers on the three days of the Shahi Snan (holy bath) as also on Paush Poornima, Maghi Poornima and Maha Shivratri after which the holy men of the 13 akharas immerse themselves in the chilly waters, offering magnificent optics to the devotees lined on the banks and in boats waiting their turn. Ordinary pilgrims then waded in, some in their saris, kameezes or even in thermals, and emerged glowing from the waters as though moksha was within their grasp. Quickly, they donned their clothes again, shaking out droplets from long tresses, deftly twisting on saris or slipping on their kameezes like lithe acrobats and then joined extended families with a look of supreme satisfaction.
The story of the Kumbh is embedded in cosmic time; a time when the devas and asuras set aside their eternal differences and churned the oceans with the help of a giant serpent to retrieve the nectar of immortality. When the ocean, after many false starts, finally surrendered its prize, the two sides reneged on their tenuous truce, and resumed hostilities. In the scuffle that took place, a few drops of nectar fell in the rivers that flowed through Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, Nashik in Maharashtra, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and Haridwar in Uttarakhand. Every three years, when the planets are auspiciously aligned, the Kumbh is celebrated in rotation between these four locations. It is believed that those who bathe in the Kumbh waters attain moksha.