Asia 12 – Kumbh Mela

Kumbh Mela (2)

The mass bathing

Whichever of the four mela locations you attend, the main event is always the mass bathing at the river. These invariably follow a familiar routine – you’ll gain a clearer sense of what that is if you get here several days before the peak, before the crowds become too much. Pouring in from the railway and bus stations, the pilgrims, carrying camping gear and provisions on their heads, first make for the ghats, or sacred steps, on the waterfront, where their ritual specialists, pandas, wait under ragged raffia sun shades. Pandas have responsibility for specific regions of the country, and the castes and villages in those regions, so every pilgrim has to track down the right person, whose ledgers will list each family’s records, dating back twenty or more generations. Renowned for their venality, pandas tend to be brusque and stroppy, and have little time for camera-toting tourists. The area they preside over, however, forms the religious focal point of the mela and is thus the best place to hang around at dawn, when the day’s ritual cycle kicks off. Hindus from all castes, regions and walks of life are drawn to the mela for the immortality-inducing dip, from poor rural villagers to government ministers and millionaire businessmen. Pride of place on the riverbanks, however, and priority access to the water at the key times, are reserved for India’s hardcore holy men, or sadhus (see box on this page). Every shade of the Hindu spiritual spectrum features in their ranks, from gold-robed, Transcendental Meditation­propounding Maharishi Yogis to naked Naga Babas smeared in cow-dung ash and sandalwood powder. Between dips, the pilgrims wander around in family groups in search of sadhu darshan – glimpses of these holy men. Moving between the camps around the rivers’ confluence, you’ll soon get a feel for the different sadhu sects, discernible by their attire (or lack of it), headgear, ritual paraphernalia, weapons and make up. As you move through the various sadhu encampments, it’s a good idea to gauge the reaction of their doorkeepers – not all sects welcome visitors, while some only admit foreigners to certain “open” portions of their camps. The time when you should really keep your wits about you, however, is during the build-up to a big bathe (see festival website on p.334 for exact dates). At certain times of day or night, the flow of people in one direction can make it impossible to get where you might want to go. The danger spots, where the risk of stampede is greatest, are along the riverbank on the key bathing days. At such times, you’ll be much better of watching from the fringes of the festival, although this will mean missing the awesome sadhu processions, when the sadhu sects, or Akharas, make their way to the river.

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