Despite the world being in the middle of a deadly pandemic and India as the second most hit country in terms of infection (in absolute numbers) with over 10 million cases and 150,000 deaths, a Hindu festival that usually draws dozens of millions of pilgrims from all over the country has started. On January 14, despite the odds, some 800,000 people attended the first day of the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, the holy city in the foothills of the Himalayas, one of four places where the Hindu festival, widely regarded as the largest human gathering in the world, is cyclically held.
The organizers have discouraged large crowds from attending the Kumbh Mela this year, while taking special precautions to guarantee the safety of the event and its participants in accordance with Covid-19 guidelines. But journalists on the ground reported that many pilgrims attending the festival were not wearing a mask nor respecting social distancing guidelines, increasing the risk of infections. Millions of people are expected to reach Haridwar, in the state of Uttarakhand, and, as is the norm, special trains have been arranged for pilgrims, although numbers are expected to be smaller this year. “It’s really sad to see people not gathering at Kumbh in the same numbers as they would earlier – just because of a sneeze or a cough – The greatest truth on earth is death. What’s the point of living with fear?” one pilgrim said to the media.
I first came to know about the Kumbh Mela from a book by Mark Tully, the BBC’s historic correspondent in India. It was described as a gargantuan spiritual reunion of Hindu devotees on the banks of the holy rivers, but the reality on the ground was well beyond any expectation. In 2013 I travelled to Allahabad, one of the four cities where, in rotation every three years, the Kumbh Mela is held. That year was the year of the Maha Kumbh – the biggest of the four – celebrated every 12 years at the Triveni Sangam, the triple confluence of the holy rivers Ganges and Yamuna with the mythical yet invisible Saraswati in Allahabad. Devotees come from all over India, often travelling great lengths with every means of transport, to take a dip in the holy waters and wash away the sins of a lifetime: Hindus believe that bathing during the auspicious dates will make them attain moksha (or salvation from the cycle of rebirths, samsara). In 2013, an estimated 100 million people attended the event over 55 days.
The origins of the festival are rooted in Hindu mythology. It is said that gods and demons fought over a pitcher – kumbh – filled with amrita, the nectar of immortality. In the confrontation, four drops fell on the cities of Ujjain, Haridwar, Nasik and Prayag (the pre-Mughal name of Allahabad) where the four festivals are celebrated. I remember being surprised about the major Hindu gathering being held in a city with a Muslim name, but this is no longer the case. In 2018 the city’s name was been changed to Prayagraj. One of the many traces of the Mughal past that the majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to erase.
Crossing the river, a boundless expanse of tents and tarpaulins stretched over either side of the bridge, as far as the eye could see. A gigantic tented city spanning over the three banks of the Sangam stood out on the former river bed. The trembling lights in the night mist and the croaking sound coming from the loudspeakers thundering hypnotic mantras is the first memory of the Kumbh Mela. On the eve of the most auspicious of the dates set according to astrological conjunctions, pilgrims were arriving relentlessly. It was like a human river, channelled in orderly rows of men and women balancing huge bags on their heads and clusters of children clinging to their saris. In Hinduism, pilgrimage and bathing in holy rivers carry a meaning of penance and self-purification.
In 2013, on Mauni Amavasya, the most cherished of the dates, some 35 million people camped at the Sangam. People were sleeping everywhere: not only in the tented camps, but also on roofs, inside temples, squatting on the side of the road or in makeshift shelters. It was still dark and foggy when the human flow started to walk towards the Sangam. The shores were overcrowded by an undistinguishable and teeming mass of devotees trying to reach the river while the police, on horse or on foot, was patrolling the area. It was dawn when the mass of naked and numb bodies with entranced gazes splashed into the holy, freezing waters, praying towards the rising sun. There was a collective sense of redemption, an incredible energy coming from that human congregation, on a scale and peacefulness that is hardly imaginable outside of India.
“At the heart of the greatest gathering on earth, behind the gigantic, all-encompassing energy of belief and power lies the spiritual secret of Hinduism—moksha. Astrologically, whenever the planet Jupiter enters the astrological sign of Taurus when simultaneously the Sun and the Moon are in Capricorn, a powerful supercharge of positive energy happens at Prayag”, according to Sadhu Haridasa. “The whole area is energized—the water, the air and the entire atmosphere becomes charged with that force. Taking a bath in the Ganges, which is imbued with that power, promotes spiritual growth, health, emotional strength and puts you on the path to moksha”, he wrote about the Maha Kumbh. But it is not only about the pilgrims’ bath.
The Kumbh Mela is also the place where devotees meet mystics, the Hindu holy men or Sadhus. They are ascetic monks, who live a life of meditation and detachment from the material world and are revered as personification of the divine. Sadhus, divided into monastic orders called Akharas, gather at the Kumbh to entertain in initiation rituals, philosophical and religious discussions and devotional singing. The ritual bath of the Sadhus is the highlight of the festival: according to a precise order, the Akharas run towards the Sangam, while hordes of devotees are amassed against the bamboo barricades to watch the ritual. A mass of naked, screaming bodies, covered in orange marigold garlands and long dreadlocks twisted on their heads, run towards the holy waters.
While the meaning of the festival in Hinduism is undebated, questionable is the double standard adopted: only in March last year, when the coronavirus pandemic first exploded in India, Muslim devotees who had attended a Tablighi Jamaat gathering in the capital that became a super-spreader event, were tainted as plague-spreaders. A media misinformation campaign was built on a rumour of Corona-jihad in an attempt to further criminalize and stigmatize the Muslim community. But this time around, people seemed not to bother about Covid-19. “Everyone has come here for her [the Ganges River]. Coronavirus and all – she will take it all away”, said a Sadhu to a local newspaper.
Cover Photo: Hindu devotees take a holy dip in the waters of the River Ganges on the first day of Kumbh Mela – Haridwar, 14/1/2021. (Money Sharma / AFP).
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