World’s Largest Act of Faith

Glimpses of Mahakumbh Mela in Haridwar-2010
The author is monk of the Ramakrishna Order.
This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of Vedanta Kesari

On the Banks of the Ganges

Says the BBC documentary on Ganga,

Nowhere else on earth are the natural and spiritual worlds so intertwined as in India. This is the place where fire and air, animals and trees, mountains and rivers are revered as Gods. One of the most powerful of these natural deities is the river Ganges. She is a water Goddess, who blesses the many faces of northern India, in a thousand different ways. For millennia she has brought shape and life to a parched land, and provided sustenance for body and soul, to the countless millions who have lived and worshipped along her banks. All around her, the great cycles of birth, death and rebirth are endlessly played out. And flowing through these natural and spiritual worlds is the Ganges, India's river of life.1

Nowhere, again, in the recent past, could his interplay of the human and divine facets of Ganges be seen and felt more palpably and magnificently than in the just concluded Mahakumbh Mela held once in twelve years in Haridwar. Ganges, the river Goddess, was adored in a thousand wonderful ways for more than three months-from 14th January (Makar Sankranti) to 28th April (Chaitra Purnima, also called Vaishakh Adhimas Purnima) 2010. Millions of people-devotees, sadhus, sannyasins, common pilgrims, visitors-travelled to Haridwar these three and half months, bathed in 'Ganga Mai', as She is lovingly called, prayed standing in or near Her waters, offering flowers and lamps on it, leaving behind a holy trail of devotion, consecration and faith. And this has been going on for centuries-nay, since time immemorial.

Pilgrims taking a holy dip in Brahma-kund

To someone who has never taken part in the Kumbh Mela, a series of questions rise up in his mind, struggling for a response. Some of these questions could be: What is a Mahakumbh Mela? Why is it held? When, where and how long is it held? What happens there? And what do people do there?
Though one can put together all the facts, it is not easy to communicate the Kumbh experience. While one might attempt some descriptive, somewhat plausible and logical answers, one gets the real answer only by experiencing the Mahakumbh Mela in person. Experience has no substitute. Only through a direct, personal experience can one get a glimpse of the sanctity and magnificence of the Kumbh Mela.

Understanding Kumbh Mela

In his foreword to the book Kumbh Mela and the Sadhus-The Quest for Immortality, Christopher N Burchett writes:

Pilgrims walking on make-shift and permanent bridges near Hari-ki-pauri during Kumbh Mela-2010

Kumbh is the oldest religious gathering known to man. Even looking into the deepest depths of ancient history, it is almost impossible to pin a date on the exact origin of this huge gathering of religious heads. Not only was this gathering attended by holy men of all castes and creeds but by kings and nobility not to speak of the public at large too who made it a focus of pilgrimage. Another fact that we have to realize is that this gathering was essentially a gathering of religious personages who came together to discuss points of theology and philosophy with each other. It may be said that it was treated as a parliament or forum of religion where differences of belief and practice could be rationalized. There are many references to this gathering not only in historical records but also in the Mythology of the Hindu world, the most consistent being the references to the churning of the ocean in search of the nectar hidden within. The subsequent chase and conflict between the Gods and the Demons for possession of the nectar and for the places where the pot or Kumbh containing the nectar of immortality was spilt indicate the locations of the Kumbh gatherings.2

Kumbh Mela is not a temple festival, nor do the pilgrims come to Kumbh for darshan of a particular deity (as is the case with most pilgrimage centres). Kumbh celebrates a hoary belief in the sanctity of Ganges and a bath in her sacred waters. Millions come to take bath in the sacred river Ganges.

In Kumbh, it is said, one does snan (bath), dhyan (meditation), japa (repetition of God's name), upavasa (fasting), seva (service), puja (worship), bhajan (singing of bhajans), kirtan (group singing), pravachan-shravan (listening to religious discourses), and sadhu darshan (meeting holy men). The whole of Kumbh area reverberates with spiritual and religious fervour. And rightly has it been called the 'largest religious gathering on earth.' It is a veritable sea of human beings.

The Legend

There are many stories in the Hindu scriptures about Kumbh of which the following is the most popular and accepted. Called the Samudra Manthan episode (churning of the ocean of milk), it is mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana with some minor variations in details.

Once both the sons of sage Kashyapa, devas or devtas or suras (gods) and asuras or daityas (demons), in order to regain their lost strength, decided to churn (manthana) the great ocean called 'Ocean of Milk' (kshir sagara). Though arch enemies, they decided to bury their differences temporarily and jointly explore all the secrets that lie hidden in the divine ocean of kshir sagara.

A traditional painting of Samudra Manthana

Using Mandarachal Parvata (the great mountain called Mandarachal) as a churning rod, they requested the mighty snake Vasuki to be the rope, with asuras on the head-side and devas on the tail-side. Lord Vishnu took the form a tortoise (kachchhapa avatar) and held the load of Mandrachal Parvata on his strong back. This mega-churning by two mighty forces went on for years. In the process, it gave rise to several precious objects such as the celestial cow (kamadhenu), Goddess Lakshmi, kalpa vriksha (the wish-fulfilling tree), and so on. The churning also brought to surface the deadly poison called the halahala, or kala-koota visha. At the request of devas and asuras, Lord Shiva drank the poison and held it to his throat. This turned Shiva's throat blue and he thus came to be known as Neelakantha, the 'Blue Throated One.'

Finally, after churning the ocean for very many years, emerged the God of Health, Dhanwantari, holding the Kumbh (pitcher) containing the amrita, immortality elixir. Soon, a furious fight broke out between devas and asuras to possess the Kumbh containing the amrita. At the behest of his father, Indra, the king of the gods, his son, Jayanta, wrested the pitcher. In order to keep it safely, he ran around the whole world, chased by demons for twelve days during which he rested at twelve spots.

As Jayanta ran, a few drops of amrita spilled out from the Kumbh at those four places in the earth and at eight other places in heaven and nether world. The four places where he stopped on this earth are: Haridwar, Nasik, Ujjain and Prayag-along the sacred rivers Ganga, Shipra, Godavari and at the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati respectively.

Another version of the legend has it that the devas and asuras fought for the ownership of the amrit-kumbh when Lord Vishnu flew away with the Kumbh of amrita spilling drops of amrita at the four places mentioned above.

The period of twelve days for the gods equals twelve years in human time; hence the Kumbh Parva happens in successive twelve years. The places where the nectar spilt became centres of pilgrimage where the Kumbh Parva is observed. Traditional belief about the spiritual and religious significance of Kumbh at Haridwar is:

By a ceremonial bath in holy Ganga at Haridwar during Kumbha one accrues merit greater than that of performing a thousand horse sacrifices.
Kumbh Parva

Kumbha, in Sanskrit, means a pitcher (especially a roundish pot with no handle), sometimes referred to as the kalasha. It is also a zodiac sign in Indian astrology for Aquarius, the sign under which the festival is celebrated, while Mela means 'a gathering' or 'a meet', or simply a fair. Originally it was called only as a parva or festival.

The Purna (complete) Kumbh takes place at four places (Prayag/Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik) every twelve years, while the Ardh Kumbh Mela is celebrated every six years at Haridwar and Prayag.

The Maha-Kumbh Mela ('Great Kumbh Mela') comes after 12 Purna Kumbh Melas which is after every 144 years. It is celebrated at different locations depending on the position of the planet Brihaspati (Jupiter) and the Sun. When Jupiter and the Sun are in the zodiac sign Leo (simha rashi), it is held in Nashik; when the Sun is in Aries (mesha rashi), it is celebrated at Haridwar; when Jupiter is in Taurus (vrishabha rashi) and the Sun is in Capricorn (makara rashi), Kumbh Mela is celebrated at Prayag; and when Jupiter and the Sun are in Scorpio (vrishchika rashi), the Mela is celebrated at Ujjain. Each site's Kumbh dates are calculated in advance according to a special alignment of zodiacal positions of Sun, Moon, and Jupiter.


The Kumbh is very, very ancient. The word Kumbh itself finds references in the Vedas. Etymologically, Kumbh means 'that which bestows auspiciousness on earth, and much contentment'

A verse in the Rig Veda, with an obvious reference to Kumbh Parva, says:

Just as a sharp edged axe cuts a log of wood, similarly merit accrued through the observance of Kumbha washes off demerits accumulated through eons.3

The first recorded evidence of the Kumbh Mela can be found in the accounts of Chinese traveler, Huan Tsang or Xuanzang (602-664 A.D.) who visited India in 629-645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana. He is recorded to have said,
I have seen the huge crowd of people having a holy dip at Haridwar in order to wash off their sins.

Another reference is to be found in The Imperial Gazetteer of India, which speaks of an outbreak of cholera in 1892 Mela at Haridwar leading to the rapid improvement of arrangements by the authorities and to the formation of 'Haridwar Improvement Society'. In 1903 about 4,00,000 people were recorded as attending the fair. Ten million people gathered at Haridwar for the Kumbh on April 14, 1998.

Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of free India, in his book the Discovery of India states, '. . .even at that [ancient] time, those Melas were considered to be much older and it cannot be said when they began. . .'

Haridwar-A Centre of Pilgrimage

An abode of Ashramas, Maths, Akhadas, temples and seats of Vedanta learning (peethas), Haridwar is located on the banks of Ganga. A hallowed and ancient centre of pilgrimage, Haridwar was originally called Mayapuri- the abode of the Goddess Mayadevi. The temple of Mayadevi, one of the shaktipithas, is located in the heart of the Haridwar town. The Juna Akhada is built around the temple now. Haridwar is considered one of the seven cities giving moksha (mokshapuris). Originally known as Gangadwar ('Gateway to Ganga'- to indicate that Ganga descends from mountains here), it is also called Haridwar ('Gateway to the temple of Hari'-Badrinath- located in the Himalayas) and Haradwar ('Gateway to the temple of Hara or Shiva'- Kedarnath-in the Himalayas).

A bathing ghat on the Ganga Canal—across Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama, Kankhal

Hari-ki-pauri ('the steps of the Lord Hari') or Brahma-kunda is the most sacred place for taking a holy dip in the Ganga. It is believed that the first concrete ghat at Hari-kipauri was constructed by the king Vikramaditya. There are a number of temples dedicated to Mother Ganga, Lord Vishnu and other gods and goddesses in the Hari-ki-pauri area. Important temples in Haridwar include hill temples of Manasa Devi and Chandi Devi, Bilvakeshwar Shiva temple, Sapta Rishi Ashrama, besides hundreds of other Ashramas, Maths, and places of worship.

Ganga enters the plains at Haridwar, flowing silent but with great speed, with ice chill waters melting from the Himalayan glaciers. It divides into several big and small streams at Haridwar. The main stream goes along the Hari-ki-pauri, and after travelling some four kilometers, it joins another stream of Ganga and flows into the 400 km long Ganga Canal towards Kanpur where it rejoins the mainstream. This more than century and a half old canal, constructed during the British reign, is the lifeline of hundreds of villages and towns in the northern belt.

On the western side of the Ganga canal is located Kankhal. Haridwar and Kankhal are twin centres of pilgrimage held in great sanctity. Kankhal (literately 'where even a wicked person becomes noble') is believed to be the place where the Daksha Prajapati held a mighty Yajna in ancient times. As Shiva, Daksha's son-in-law, was not extended an invitation, Divine Mother as Sati sacrificed herself in the burning fire of the Yajna. Later Shiva salvaged her body from the fire and scattered it all over the land. The fifty one places where parts of Divine Mother's body fell are located in various parts of India (some are now in Pakistan and Bangladesh) and are called shakti-pithas ('seats of Divine Power') and are held in great reverence. The Daksha Prajapati Mandir, the place where Daksha is believed to have conducted the Yajna, is located on the banks of one of the streams of Ganga in Kankhal.

Ganga arati at Hari-ki-pauri

In Kankhal is also located Ramakrishna Mission Sevasharma. Started in 1901, it is situated on the Delhi-Haridwar National Highway, along the Ganga Canal. The Sevashrama maintains a modern hospital with 150 beds. All monks, irrespective of the sampradayas are sects they belong to, are given free medical treatment here and the treatment to the general patients is provided at nominal charges. A beautiful temple of Sri Ramakrishna is located at the centre of the Ashrama. A bathing ghat named Vivekananda Ghat on the Ganga Canal makes the presence of Swamiji palpably felt.

There are numerous bathing ghats, temples and ashramas along the banks of Ganga. On various ghats one sees thousands of devotees taking a holy dip in the Ganga all through. As the evening descends, hundreds of devotees, standing on Ganga banks, wave the arati, with the sound of cymbals and bells accompanying them. The main arati, of course, takes place on the Hari-ki-pauri, while numerous other aratis are performed along the Ganga banks. Devotees join the aratis by singing bhajans, or leave on the sweet Ganga waters small earthen lamps, lit with ghee/oil, and flowers strewn around it, placed on large leaves. Wobbling up and down on the sacred waters of Ganga, these floating-aratis travel some distance and then get merged in the wavy holy waters that they adore. Along with the dimming sounds of bells and cymbals, the fragrance of the agarbatis too slowly wafts along the river banks, leaving behind the lingering memory of a divine experience.

The shrine of Mayadevi Mandir, Haridwar

There are numerous shops selling religious books, sweets, CDs, precious stones from Himalayan regions, and all else which a pilgrim may like to have. Beggars and unscrupulous elements too carry on their brisk business. A whole economy runs on pilgrimage!

A Note on Hindu Monastic Institutions

In order to fully appreciate the Kumbh Parva, one should understand the various monastic institutions which play a vital role in Kumbh.

The institution of sannyasa is as old as civilization. One finds references to it in the Upanishads and in the Puranas. The Vedic sannyasa tradition, however, is believed to have been organized into Dashanami Sampradaya (literally 'tradition of ten names') by Adi Shankara in the 8th century AD. These 'ten names' are the names which are added to the sannyasa name of the sannyasins, indicating a particular sampradaya, with specifications regarding the mahavakya, Upanishad, devata and so on. These names are Saraswati, Tirtha, Aranya, Bharati, Ashrama, Giri, Parvata, Sagara,Vana and Puri. These ten sects or names come under the Maths started by Shankaracharya. While the dashanami monks follow their spiritual practices and traditions laid down by Sri Adi Shankara, there are some other traditions which are partly or fully independent in their beliefs and practices.

One of the major sampradayas is that of Naga sadhus or the naked monks. In all Kumbh Melas Naga Sadhus occupy a place of privilege-and curious attraction. The Naga (possibly a degeneration of the term nagna or nanga, 'naked') monks as such are quite old. Alexander the Great (353-323 B.C.) refers to have met some gymnosophists ('naked philosophers') during his exploits in India. The last Tirthankara of Jainism, Mahavir, also belonged to this type. Epics contain names of Rishabhadeva, Shukadeva and Avadhutas under this group. This nakedness is a symbol of extreme renunciation and is not looked down upon as obscene, but as an act of utter non-concern about this transient world. Even a piece of cloth is considered as a nuisance.

A floating arati—all set for its sacred journey

As to the origin of Naga sadhus, the name of Madhusudana Sarasvati, a great scholar-saint of 15th century India, is invariably associated. The following would throw some light on the subject:

Madhusudana stayed for several decades at Gopala Matha on the Chatuhshasthi Ghat (popularly known as the Chaushasthi Yogini Ghat) in Benares. A historically important event at Benares in those days has been recorded by Prof. J.N. Farquhar: One of the notorious practices of the Muslim priests, 'as good Muslims', was to frequently 'attack and kill' the Hindus, lay and monastic, especially at pilgrim centres such as Benares. Those priests were protected by a faulty law that exempted them from any legal punishment! So the hapless Hindus approached Madhusudana to do something to stop this injustice. Since he was well known at the durbar of Emperor Akbar (who ruled between AD 1556-1605), he met the Emperor through Raja Birbal and narrated to him the religious atrocities at Benares, etc. As a solution, the Emperor suggested that Madhusudana should organize a militant band of sannyasins to defend Hinduism and its followers. At the same time he promulgated a law that thenceforth the Hindu sannyasins too, like the Muslim priests, were outside the purview of legal action. Thus was born at the hands of Madhusudana the much respected, and feared, Naga sect of Vedantic sannyasins. The recruits into it were mostly from the Kshatriya caste. They lived in monasteries called akhadas (literally gymnasiums) and were trained in the martial arts.4

About the Naga's attire, or rather lack of it, some people explain it, as an imitation of the Lord Shiva who is believed to barely cover his body. Their state of nakedness is symbolic of transparency and purity of mind, freed from all lower and baser instincts such as lust, greed, jealousy, and so on. It is symbolic of the state of mind of a five-year old child.

According to one source, among sannyasins there are two types: shastradhari and shaastradhari. The former (shastradhari, 'armed with shastra or weapons') learnt and mastered, besides wrestling, the use of swords, sticks and other simple forms of arms for the protection of Hindus and live in akhada. Each akhada has its own deity, lineage of preceptors, branch of the Veda they adhere to, and so on.

A naga sadhu (Juna Akhara)

During the medieval times, the shastradhari naga sadhus fought for the protection of Hindus from the attack of religious fanatics and forceful conversions. These akhadas have fought many times for the protection of sacred places and temples of Hindus. For instance, in 1666, they fought for the protection of Haridwar; in 1745, against Ahmad Shah Abdali for the protection of Prayag (Allahabad); in 1757 for Gokul near Mathura. And Kumbh became an occasion for extending invitation to unite for the cause of their religion. Presently the Naga Sadhus, however, remain in the ambit of non-violence, though some of them practice the sport of wrestling.

Normally eight dashanami akhada are listed: Ahvan, Agni, Anand, Atal, Gudad, Juna, Niranjani and Nirvani; Juna, Niranjani, Nirvani are principal akhadas.

The other group-shaastradhari ('the one holding on to the shaastra' or scripture) kept up the tradition of scriptural studies. They conducted scriptural classes and discourses for the benefit of their followers and general public by moving from place to place. This group was called mandali. The head of a mandali is called a Mandalishwar or Mandaleshwar.5 A Mahamandaleshwar means a great spiritual leader.

Another monastic tradition which should be mentioned is the Udasi tradition. Started by Sri Chand (1494-1643), son of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder and the first Guru of Sikhism, the Udasis follow both the Hindu and the Sikh scriptures. The term Udasi comes from the word udas meaning detachment or renunciation. Unlike the Khalsa Sikhs, Udasis do not prohibit shaving or cutting one's hair. Udasi heads of akhadas maintain accurate records of the chain of succession from Sri Chand.

A view of the temples on the banks of the Ganga

There are also Nirmal akhadas, another branch of the Sikh monastic tradition.

Finally, the Bairagis or the Vaishnavas who too have their own akhadas and they call it Vaishnava Ani. They worship Rama. They have four main divisions: i) Ramavat (Ramanandi), ii) Nimavat (Nimbarka), iii) Madhava Sampradaya, and iv) Vishnu Swami Sampradaya.

2010 Kumbh-Some Facts

Taking a holy dip in Ganga is central to Kumbh Mela or Parva. Based on astrological calculations, specific dates, held as auspicious, are fixed for the holy baths.

This time, beginning from January 14, the Parva continued until April 28th, comprising all full moon (purnima), moonless nights (amavasya) and other sacred days that fell during this period.

The Mela arrangements and related administration were efficiently carried out by the Uttarakhand State Government which undertook the mighty task of organising the Mahakumbh Mela. Elaborate arrangements were made and several hundreds of crores of rupees were spent by the State Government for the smooth running of the Mela. Temporary camps were set up to accommodate about 12 lakh pilgrims and monks. Nearly 60,000 security personnel manned the Mela area which covered nearly 130 square km spanning Haridwar, Dehradun, Tehri and Pauri districts.

The entire Kumbh Mela area was divided into 12 zones and 32 sectors. Many temporary and permanent bridges were constructed to decongest movement of pilgrims. Several new bathing ghats were constructed, extending the total length of ghats to 25 km; many stretches of roads were relaid to spruce up the whole Kumbh area.

A sadhu on one of the Ganga-ghats

Townships of festooned tents stretched wherever eyes could see. Multitudes of people kept pouring in through every inlet and the police were doing a near impossible job of directing them to riverbanks that overflowed with people resting, cooking, sleeping, bathing, singing or just waiting.
There were elaborate arrangements in place to maintain law and order and provide medical care and other assistance to the pilgrims. A Central Control Room (CCR) with modern communication systems was established for round-the-clock monitoring and management of the pilgrims' movement, especially in the Hari-ki-pauri area.

A public address system covering the entire city of Haridwar and Kankhal was busy announcing, besides other pieces of information, the names or descriptions of the young and the old who had lost their relatives. At times, the announcements (such as an old lady who had got separated from her relatives and was waiting for six hours) moved our hearts. Several thousands of such incidents would have happened, we were told.
According to the State Government, this time, from January 14 to April 28, more than six crore people took bath in the Ganga. According to another source, it was 'the world's largest peaceful gathering ever'.

At Haridwar

We arrived at Haridwar some four days before the main bathing day of April 14th (mukhya shahi snan). As we alighted at the Haridwar Railway Station (the station building has the look of a Hindu temple),we could sense the festivities vibrant in the air. Although the Indian Railways had run several Kumbhspecial trains, yet nearly all the trains that came in and left the station were overflowing with people. More than 90 percent of passengers in the train, in which we travelled, too, were pilgrims.

While proceeding to our 'camp' at the Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama at Kankhal, the century-old charitable hospital started at the instance of Swami Vivekananda, we could see many eye-catching billboards by various sadhus and organisations, welcoming pilgrims to the Kumbh. Besides welcoming, these billboards also informed about the dates and venues of various Kathas and Pravachans (discourses) in progress. There was such variety of billboards! One board that had its presence all over the Kumbh areas was that of a monk bearing the name Soham Baba, advising people to plant more trees, do better waste disposal and work seriously to check global warming. There were also boards urging the Hindus to wake up to the need of the hour and protect and nurture their religion and culture.

Pilgrims cooking by the road side

At the Kankhal Sevashrama arrangement had been made to accommodate 2000 devotees from all over India. There were similar arrangements in many akhadas and ashramas. The whole of Kankhal Ashrama, its temple, hospital and other buildings, had been illuminated with serial lights and a colourful Pandal for conducting cultural and religious programmes had been put up.

In the next four days, we went to Hariki- pauri everyday and had our bath there-in the midst of crowds of pilgrims. In view of the Mela, all private and public vehicles had been restricted and except for a few police jeeps, a small number of cycle rickshaws and official vehicles, no vehicles were allowed to ply during the Mela days. Roads, lanes, ghats, all were crowded with people. People, people, people everywhere! What a mind-boggling diversity of humankind it was! All forms of traditional Indian clothing were visible as also were heard diverse languages and dialects spoken in India.

As we walked along the ghats, we could see pilgrims bathing-old, young, men, women, sadhus. While bathing, they made water-offerings to the Mother Ganga; some offered lamps and flowers and even milk and honey. What love and shraddha for Ganga Mai!

There was, again, a young man from the nearby mountains, who had brought his ailing, old mother. As she could barely stand, he carried her on his back all the time. Another man, on one of the ghats, kept bringing Ganga water, in his cupped hands, to be poured on his old mother who was too infirm to get into waters. While children frolicked around on the ghats, quite a few were scared by the ice-chill waters and pleaded with their elders to spare them from taking a bath. But once inside the Ganga Mai, they were all joy and invigorated!

After their baths, while some sat down on the steps and offered short pujas, many others just relaxed, watching the Ganga flow by. There were also people observing Kalpavasa, a month-long vow wherein the practitioner rose early, bathed in the Ganga, ate selfcooked food once a day and repeated a certain number God's name (japa). Most of them would observe it on the banks of the Ganga.

A view of the Bairagi akhadas' camp

Shops in the narrow lane and bazaar behind the ashrama and temples did brisk business. There was much trade of rudraksha and sphatika malas, black and red thread malas, brass and copper vessels for puja, pictures of gods and goddesses and bhajan CDs, along with prasad packets and eatables of all kinds. Pilgrims thronged shops to buy memorabilia to commemorate their Kumbh visit.

We may mention here that this Kumbh Mela was perhaps the most photographed Kumbh Mela-thanks to digital cameras and mobile cameras. For every little event or place, one could see someone taking a photograph!

Haridwar wore a festive look. Many buildings had been painted and illumined by serial lights. Faith and joy were in the air. While endless number of people kept walking towards Hari-ki-pauri and other ghats, there was no anxiety on their faces. Pilgrims were pouring in-in big and small groups, nay whole villages. All they carried was a bag or two placed on their head or hung on their shoulders, and an unshakable faith in the glory of their Ganga Mai. There were, for example, a number of village women, who came in groups, singing some folk songs in praise of Ganga, Kumbh or God. Their singing was full of joy for 'having come to Kumbh.' We saw some village women playing kar-tals (round metal instrument used for keeping time while singing) while they sang Bhajans, and danced.

After the bath, we saw one night, they just settled down under some roadside tree, spread a sheet of cloth and slept over it. They lit small kerosene stoves that they carried, or put two bricks and lit a fire of small pieces of wood and made their simple fares of chapattis and dal. They were pilgrims to the core!

Amazing Sights

There were two visits which we especially remember. One was to the Bairagi Akhada Camps-a temporary township on the Neeldhara of Ganga, accommodating Vaishnav Ani, or the Bairagi Akhadas. It was a huge affair. There were, perhaps, nearly 60-70 akhadas who had put up their camps there. In all akhadas, devotees and Bairagi sadhus, with large religious marks (tilak or namam) on their foreheads, attended to their rituals and practices in the morning and in the evening. There were Pravachans, arati and Prasad distribution. There were also cultural programmes depicting scenes from the lives of Rama and Krishna. Some of the camps had huge welcome arches and fancy facades. In one camp, we saw an organisation's efforts to provide free medical care to polio victims. Free surgeries had been conducted on affected children who were seen recouping in a make shift camp nearby. They were also provided with artificial limbs and an exhibition on the organisation's service activities had been put up.

In another Bairagi akhada, we saw people sitting amidst a circle of fire lit using cow-dung cakes, meditating and doing Japa. Whatever one might say about it, that was quite an inspiring sight!

Glimpses of sadhus, sannyasins and Mandaleshwars in the Mahakumbh Mela, Haridwar

Spread over several acres, the Bairagi akhadas' camp was colourfully decorated. But as it was located in an otherwise dry, dusty place, the constant movement of pilgrims had raised a dust cloud which had covered the whole place! At night the whole place looked so different, it was filled with a variety of sounds-bhajans, discourses, cultural programmes, announcements and so on. A religious cacophony at its best!

Some of the monks who had gone to visit Mandaleshwar Nagar, on the Gauri Shankar Dweep, on the other side of Neeldhara recalled similar arrangements for the Dashanami monks. There were also camps where the Shankaracharyas of Dwarka and Puri were accommodated. In a relative sense, the Mandaleshwar Nagar was rather calmer and silent.

A Jangama sadhu

Another experience was that of visiting some of the Chaavanis (camps) of the Juna and Nirvani akhadas. Juna akhada is located in the heart of Haridwar town, consisting of a few two-storied buildings around the Mayadevi Mandir. A lane or two away, they have a bathing ghat on the Ganga. The Chaavani of Juna akhada consisted mainly of makeshift tents, with a number of naga sadhus occupying them. Besmeared with ashes, the naga sadhus sat in their camps, often with a burning dhuni (fire) in front while some of them smoked from their chillums. Visiting devotees offered their respects to the naga sadhus, who in return gave them some ash or touched their heads with peacock feathers or steel tongs (chimta). Signs of modernisation were also visible everywhere. Though without any clothes, many naga sadhus were seen talking on their mobiles. Some camps had portable TV sets playing religious films.

There was one Sadhu, bare-bodied, who had his right hand raised all the time-for the last 12 years! We did not try to go into the logic of such practice; we just admired his will power and remembered Swami Vivekananda's words that for the sake of a religious purpose, people in India do extraordinary things. How true.

Referring to this orientation of the Indian mind, in comparison with the Western mind, Swamiji said,6

Just as your people [in the West] are practical in many things, so it seems our people [Indian] are practical in this line. Five persons in this country will join their heads together and say, 'We will have a joint-stock company', and in five hours it is done; in India they could not do it in fifty years; they are so unpractical in matters like this. But, mark you, if a man starts a system of philosophy, however wild its theory may be, it will have followers. For instance, a sect is started to teach that if a man stands on one leg for twelve years, day and night, he will get salvation-there will be hundreds ready to stand on one leg. All the suffering will be quietly borne. There are people who keep their arms upraised for years to gain religious merit. I have seen hundreds of them. And, mind you, they are not always ignorant fools, but are men who will astonish you with the depth and breadth of their intellect. So, you see, the word practical is also relative.

There were so many types of sadhus. In the Juna akhada, for instance, we also saw the Jangamas, a type of sadhus who had a distinct style of dressing themselves: white kurta and dhoti, and a white headgear with an upturned metal cup having peacock feathers. They moved in groups and sang bhajans.

In the Nirvani akhada we attended a sadhu bhandara (community feast of monks) attended by more than a thousand monks. Devotees were seen giving dakshina or pranami (money-offering) to the sadhus; many others just stood around respectfully watching the sadhus eat. It was an atmosphere of reverence and sanctity.

Kankhal Sevashrama—public meeting

Kankhal Sevashrama—cultural programm

A Memorable Congregation

The Kankhal Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama organised a public meeting on 13th April. Swami Gautamanandaji, head of Chennai Math, spoke in Hindi (on Sri Ramakrishna); Swami Bhajananandaji, Assistant Secretary of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, spoke in English (on Swami Vivekananda), and Swami Suviranandaji, another Assistant Secretary of the Math and Mission, spoke in Bengali (on Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi). Swami Gurusharananandaji, the Head of Bada Udasin Akhada, presided over the public meeting and gave an hour long talk on the significance of Kumbh Mahaparva.

On other days, the Sevashrama organized cultural programmes such as ras-leela, bhajans by noted artists and screening of religious films and documentaries.

Shahi Snan or the Great Royal Bath

Then, finally, came the day of mukhya shahi snan, the main royal bath. It is called 'royal' because on this auspicious day, all the akhadas go in a royal procession, to take bath in the Hari-ki-pauri. The time and order of Shahi Snan is predetermined. When the akhadas take their holy dip at Brahmakund, public is not allowed there.

Many Shahi Snans, let us mention here, are held during a Kumbh Mela. This time the Main Shahi Snan was on the 14th April, the New Year day for Bengali, Punjabi, and Tamil speaking people.

Akhada processions (called peshwai, in Hindi, meaning 'presentation') during the Kumbh have great public attraction. Monks of different akhadas were given time-slots for the shahi snan. Accordingly, they gathered in their camps and set out on their tastefully decorated 'chariots' (mostly tractors or large cars), with the head of their camp, revered Mahamandaleshwarji, wearing a flower garland and sitting on a throne like seat, with a chattri (ceremonial umbrella) held over him and, in some cases, a chamara (hand fan) being waved by a disciple. (On some occasions, horses and elephants were used). In front of every decorated vehicle stood a number of followers and devotees with yellow or orange flags, or some insignia such as Om. They chanted bhajans or stotras and gave 'Jai' now and then. Several bands, hired for this purpose, played popular bhajans and religious lyrics to go with the occasion.

There were several processions, representing different akhadas. At the head of each akhada was a dharma dhvaja, several foot-high flag of their sampradaya. Then came a chariot containing the metal image of their deity or adi-guru, with two naga sadhus playing drums, mounted on horses. This was followed by decorated chariots of various sects and subsects of ashramas and mathas affiliated to the respective akhadas. Many sadhus carried a staff tied with ochre cloth while some had trishuls (trident) in their hands.

Some of the Mahamandaleswars were quite young. Some women Mahamandaleswars were also seen so also one group of westerners with a Mahamandaleswar sitting in the chariot.

After the dashanami sadhus of various akhadas was the turn of Bairagi akhadas.

The procession of chariots heading towards shahi snan

We, more than 250 monks from the Ramakrishna Order, started from the Kankhal Sevashrama, around nine in the morning. We reached the neighbouring Nirvani akhada to join the procession for the shahi snan. Many chariots were being done up with garlands and other decorations. It took several hours for the procession to start. One reason for the delay was a dispute between naga sadhus and devotees as sequel to a jeep accident, near the Hari-ki-pauri area. We were told of such incidents taking place in the past also-on much larger scale. Unfortunate and sad.

Finally, after some three hours' delay, the procession began. The place resounded with the shouts of har har mahadev. As the procession slowly moved, thousands of devotees on either side, greeted the monks by offering namaskars from the balconies and rooftops. Some devotees had set up counters for providing drinking waters for the monks and devotees. The sun was scorching and blistering but the enthusiasm of the devotees and monks was no less igniting.

Near the crossing, called Shankaracharya Chowk, some of the groups who did not belong to the official list of dashnamis were taken out from the procession. This created a long gap in the procession and as the timeslot set for our bath was nearing, we had to practically run to cover up the gap. It was rather arduous but then nothing comes without paying for it!

We reached the Hari-ki-pauri around 1.30 pm. Unlike other days, there was not much crowd there. Police officials and representatives of akhadas were regulating the shahi snan. As we crossed the temporary bridge leading to Hari-ki-pauri, some of the policemen on the ghat greeted the monks with folded hands.

A sadhu blowing the bugle during the procession

In the Hari-ki-pauri, a number of security men were present to maintain law and order. They also saw to it that bathing takes place speedily. 'Three dips Maharaj, three dips!' some of them were seen requesting the monks. Yes, there were others waiting for their turn. The security men had folded up their trousers and were helping the older monks in the waist deep, ice cold waters, to finish their bath.

We had our holy dip without much hassles. We offered water-arghya to the Ganga Mai, did japa and walked back to the place of our 'chariot' which was parked along with other chariots on the other side of Ganga.

After the bath, many of the devotees were seen carrying the Ganga water in a large Kumbh placed in a vehicle, to the accompaniment of music and singing. They obviously headed towards their villages carrying the Kumbh water as Prasad.

The Government sources said that nearly 1.6 crore people had taken bath in the Ganga on the shahi snan day.

As we prepared to leave the place, we saw some women devotees quietly slipping through the barricades and collecting the dust and sand from the road on which the monks had walked. This was their 'collection of the holy dust'. Does it not sum up the spirit of the Kumbh, this sense of devotion and of sanctity? It was a humbling experience to see the religious fervour and solemnity that pervaded the place. The Kumbh was an effective spiritual and cultural integration of India. From strange and bizarre to beautiful and charming, the Kumbh Mela had something for everyone; the paradox of Hinduism seemed visibly illustrated and personalized. It was an experience unforgettable and well cherished.

After visiting the Kumbh Mela of 1895, Mark Twain wrote:7

It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvellous to our kind of people, the cold whites.

We were reminded of Swami Vivekananda's words,8

Each [race] represents, as it were, one peculiar note in this harmony of nations, and this is its very life, its vitality. In it is the backbone, the foundation, and the bed-rock of the national life, and here in this blessed land, the foundation, the backbone, the life-centre is religion and religion alone. . . This is the very reason, the raison d'etre, that this nation has lived on, in spite of hundreds of years of persecution, in spite of nearly a thousand year of foreign rule and foreign oppression. This nation still lives; the raison d'etre is it still holds to God, to the treasurehouse of religion and spirituality. One thing we may note, that whereas you will find the good and great men of other countries take pride in tracing back their descent to some robber-baron who lived in a mountain fortress and emerged from time to time to plunder passing wayfarers, we Hindus, on the other hand, take pride in being the descendants of rishis and sages who lived on roots and fruits in mountains and caves, meditating on the Supreme.

Participating in the Kumbh Mahaparva was a great experience and a reaffirmation of Swamiji's discerning words.

The procession of monks proceeding for shahi snan


1. Ganges, India's River of Life, a documentary on the Ganges produced by Den Rees and serialised on the BBC by Ian Gray

2. Kumbh Mela and the Sadhus-The Quest for Immortality, Pilgrims Publishing, B-27/98 A-8, Nawabganj Road, Durga Kund, Varanasi, 221010, Uttar Pradesh. Website:

3. Rig Veda, 10.89,7

4. Introduction by Swami Atmaramananda to Bhagavad Gita, with Madhusudana Sarasvati's Gudhartha Dipika, tr. Swami Gambhirananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, p.16-17. Also see A History of Dashnami Naga Sanyasis, Sir Jadunath Sarkar (pub. Sri Panchayati Akhara, Mahanirvani, Daraganj, Allahabad).

5. Amrita Ganga, Commemorative Souvenir, Mahakumbha 2010, published by Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama, Kankhal, Hardwar. Cf. 'Kumbha Mahaparva', by Swami Amareshananda, p.7-8

6. CW, 2.24 7. Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World 8. CW, 3: 148, 139