Last April, I sat in predawn darkness on the banks of the Ganges, watching as wave after wave of pilgrims descended to the winter-chilled river. From villages and cities all over India and Nepal, more than 10 million of the faithful converged on Haridwar to celebrate the Kumbha Mela, the largest and most important celebration in the Hindu world. Held every three years, with the site rotating between the cities of Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik, and Ujjain, the festival has always drawn sadhus (wandering ascetics or holy people) and Hindu householders from all over the subcontinent, but modern transportation has transformed the Kumbha Mela into perhaps the largest periodic gathering on the globe.
The mythological roots of the festival stretch back to the Hindu epics and their stories of endless wars between gods and demons. In one battle, the demons gained possession of a golden chalice (kumbh) containing the nectar of immortality and omnipotence. Through clever trickery the gods recovered the chalice, but in their haste to escape, four precious drops of nectar fell to Earth, consecrating the four sites of the Kumbha Mela (Festival of the Urn or Chalice).
Although the history of the Kumbha Mela is more obscure than its myth, the festival appears to be ancient. A Greek account from the fourth century B.C. and a Chinese one from the sixth century A.D. describe gatherings much like today’s.
Tradition holds that the famous ninth-century sage Shankaracharya organized the festival, encouraging all the different monastic and philosophical schools to attend and exchange views. These gatherings quickly attracted many religiously minded lay people, and fourteenth-century records of the festival include all its key modern elements: the ritual bathing, the congregating of sadhus, and the hordes of pilgrims. Through times of Moslem and British domination, the Kumbha Mela helped preserve and vitalize Hinduism, and the modern festival still provides an occasion for Hindus of all schools to converge and celebrate the diversity of their religion.
The Pull of the Ganges
At the heart of every pilgrim’s festival lies a ritual plunge into the holy river. Purity forms one of the cornerstones of Hindu thought and practice, and bathing in one of the Kumbha Mela’s three holy rivers at such an auspicious time restores the pilgrims’ purity, recalls them to their intention to live a godly life, and helps ensure an auspicious reincarnation. Haridwar’s river, the Ganges, is the most important of all. Known throughout India as Ganga Mai (Mother Ganges), the river is revered as a goddess.
Haridwar marks the passage of the Ganges from the Himalayas onto the vast North Indian plains. The course of the river is compared to the life of the goddess, from her birth in a Himalayan spring to her death in the Bay of Bengal, where she merges with the ocean. By bathing at Haridwar where the goddess comes of age, the faithful hope to cleanse their souls with her youthful purity while simultaneously absorbing her maturing spiritual energy.
Pilgrimage to Haridwar
Lured by one of the largest religious gatherings on Earth, on the eve of the festival I boarded a jammed pilgrim train in New Delhi and headed north. Outside the Haridwar railway station, I joined a sea of devotees heading toward the Ganges.
Finally I reached my room overlooking the river. Thousands of people, their belongings piled on their heads in colorful cloth sacks, surged back and forth like a floating patchwork quilt. As darkness fell, pilgrims settled into temporary encampments and silence enveloped the riverside, the calm interrupted only by electrified prayers blaring from the new citywide loudspeaker system installed just for the festival.
Predawn at the Ghat
To the Hindu mind, the day begins at 4 a.m. Hours before dawn, the first bathers groggily made their way to the center of Haridwar and the Har-ki-Pauri ghat (bathing area), venerated as the site where the Ganges first fell from the heavens. In the sharp, silver light thrown by towers of electric lamps, the ghat looked ghostly and the river menacing. A cold drizzle fell, and the bathers seemed to move in slow motion. To me, the scene was hardly enticing, but the faithful seemed to have no qualms about leaping into the icy arms of Mother Ganges. Most ducked their heads, some shouting mantras all the while; then, still muttering prayers, they rushed back out of the frigid waters. With this simple immersion, many believers accomplished the whole point of their journey.
The Naga Babas
By dawn, the growing crowd packed the ghat, and the water at its steps frothed like an overflowing bubble bath. At 7 a.m., the loudspeakers asked all bathers to clear the area for the approach of the sadhus. The early morning drizzle changed to a heavy, cold rain, but all around me tens of thousands of believers waited patiently, shivering in their thin cotton clothes.
Although the sadhus form only a small percentage of all pilgrims, their parades generate enormous anticipation. In some ways, sadhus are the human core of the Hindu religion, perhaps roughly comparable to Christian monks and nuns in medieval times. (By far the bulk of sadhus are men, but there are sadhvis—holy women—as well.) Sadhus come in a multitude of forms, from scholarly masters to wandering ascetics, but none are as notorious as the Naga babas.
Practitioners of the most radical forms of worship, these men surrender themselves completely into the care of the Hindu god Shiva. They often wear no clothing and eat whatever they can find (including, according to rumor, body parts left unburned at the charnel grounds). Camping by the funeral pyres, they cover themselves with the ashes of the dead and contemplate bodies waiting for the final cleansing fire.
To an outsider, the relationship between lay Hindus and the Nagas can be bewildering. The ascetics seem to represent everything the religion preaches against—they are unkempt, disorderly, often antisocial, and occasionally violent—yet they also embody the ultimate in abandonment of worldly concerns and surrender to God, and many believers find their mere presence a blessing. Judging by conversations I overheard, my neighbors in the crowd seemed attracted to the Nagas not just by religious veneration, but also by a hope they would combine the sacred and the sensational. In the past, different sects have engaged in bloody battles over precedence in bathing order. And only 40 years ago, when the Nagas found their path to the river blocked by swarms of devotees, they unsheathed their serpent swords and hacked their way to the water’s edge, leaving dozens dead and precipitating a stampede that killed hundreds more.
Finally, the Nagas rounded the last corner, led by a troupe of fire eaters and acrobats, a circus of asceticism on parade. Dreadlocked and naked, they danced the last 200 yards to the river, waving sabers and screaming the name of Mother Ganges at the top of their lungs. Jumping, leaping, throwing themselves about in complete abandon, they entered the river. Then, just as suddenly, it was over. Having purified themselves, the Nagas climbed back up the steps of the ghat and headed back to their camps.
The Kumbha Mela stretches on for weeks, with the crowds swelling when astrological signs indicate propitious days for bathing. Pilgrims immerse themselves at dawn and dusk, socialize, participate in the nightly arti puja (fire ritual), visit temples and the camps of the sadhus, and buy flowers, dyes, and foodstuffs in the expanded marketplace. Then, suddenly, the festival ends, Haridwar shrinks back to 200,000 souls, and the Ganges returns to the quiet, calm stillness that makes it seem the mother of all things.