Kumbh Mela - Of God men, and the Ganges


Hoping to extract “Amrita" or the Nectar of immortality by churning the oceans, the demigods went about their laborious task for a thousand years using a conical mountain as the churning rod and the King of snakes as the rope.  Drinking this “elixir of immortality" would rid them off the curse, placed by an ancient sage believed to be an incarnation of Shiva.

They were helped by the demons in this churning enterprise. When at lastthe nectar poured forth, it was drained into a “KUMBH" or a PITCHER and was handed over to the attending physician (ostensibly) for safe keeping. On learning that they had been tricked, the demons chased the physician through the heavens and earth for 12 long days.  During this chase, 4 drops of the nectar fell upon the holy cities Nasik, Ujjain, Haridwar and Allahabad.

The Hindus celebrate this epic chase every 4 years on a small scale (read 10 million) and on an epic scale every 12 years (read 78 million). This religious festival lasts for about 8 weeks an attracts, pilgrims and saints, initiates and touristsin equal measure. Its called the Kumbh Mela.

Welcome to the Kumbh, the very word resonates with the energy of a million A-bombs. so incredibly powerful is the energy here, this is the place where earth,wind,fire and water come together. The sky which is the fifth element provides the perfect cover, (albeit a bit cloudy) and the building blocks of the universe are in perfect harmony. Legend has it that the creation of the universe began here.

It is the mother of all festivals and events, whose logistics defy imagination.

Here are some interesting figures…

The 2012 London Olympics cost over 10 billion Dollars to stage, attracted half a million visitors, and had 40,000 security personnel.

The 2010 World Cup Soccer cost over 4.5 billion Dollars attracted 375000 spectators and 41,000 security personnel.

In comparison the Kumbh cost 225 million Dollars to setup.

50,000 Policemen 400 companies (8000 men/women) of Police Armed Constabulary… were deployed. It attracted over 80 million pilgrims, saints, tourists and others.. over 55 days.. AND GENERATED 2 BILLION DOLLARS IN INCOME!

The Olympics had been in planning for over 4 years, the World cup over 6.

To stage the Kumbh, the local administration had roughly about 12 weeks to setup the whole infrastructure, including buoys on which would stand temporary bridges, erect electricity poles, flatten the river bed, create roads, alleys and avenues, provide drinking water, setup 35,000 toilets, provide medical facilities, ambulances, fire tenders, ensure crowd and traffic control.

And they had to get it right. There were no site inspections here… And I arrived into this chaos or what was left of it on 16 Feb. with my mates Didier and Patrice. And here begins the story of my visit to the Kumbh Mela.

The tide of humanity had ebbed by the time we got to Allahabad. and by that I mean there were about a million souls of all genders, sizes and religious beliefs, compared to the 31 million two days previous. And I am scared to think what might have been, had the rains not played spoilsport.  We reached the Jhusi mound from where you get a birds eye view of the Kumbh Campsite. A full 180˚view. Mesmerizing.

We settled in nicely into our lodgings at Laxmi Kutir and went on foot into the Kumbh Mela.. And what a sight it was… A sea of humanity jostling, moving, signing, marching, worshipping, bathing, easing themselves in 2000 hectares of land ! Spectacular ! This was event management at its best. Two days before we arrived, some 30 million had plunged into the cold waters at the confluence and its believed that you can attain good karma and salvation, by taking a dip in these waters.

We met many interesting characters along the way, and we returned to attend an Aarti ceremony with our resident Sadhu babas who were offering their prayers to another demi-god called Dattatreya who is considered to be the Indian Trinity rolled into one.. But thats another story. The aarti over, we made our way back to the camp and settled in for the night after a sumptuous vegetarian meal.

As I snuggled into my bed that evening, my mind drifted to “THE DOORS” the legendary American Rock band, whose leader Jimmy Morrisson sang that epic song, “When the music’s over turn off the lights" !

The music was over for him. He lay in peace at Pere Lachaise dead, since 3 July, 1971, but here at the Kumbh, the question was “who would turn off the lights when the music got over?” !

The electricity had been cut off,… (the tents had been flooded from 2 days of rains, and were soaking wet and they didn’t want us to have a hair raising experience!) but the Music? There was no way this music was gonna get over. For it kept coming one wave after another, hitting you were it hurt most (in the ears!)

The decibel level had reached a crescendo and now there was no stopping the devotees, and the saints !! alike.. And there was every kind music to be heard. Indian devotional, Classic, devotional rock, Masala, disco devotional with a generous sprinkling of top hits from the Bollywood movies..

I plugged my ears. In vain. … thankfully the hot water bottle served as a surrogate Single Malt (on my belly) and soon I wafted into my dreamworld and slept like a baby !

But to understand all it complexities, of logistics and other things, that go on at the KUMBH imagine yourself attending WTM or ITB or even EIBTM. The only difference is that you won’t be a HOSTED BUYER! and the fair perhaps 100,000 times bigger ! than all three put together !

The exhibitors (literally) live in clusters called AKHARAS, which means a (“wrestling arena”) or an organization of the different sects of Sadhusor Hindu renunciates each practicing different rituals, the purpose of which is to strengthen the Hindu religion and seek enlightenment at the same time !!

These stalls are divided into different camps according the the gods they worship. But mostly its the HIndu Trinity. of Bramha, Vishnu and Shiva and their offshoots and re-incarnations.

As with the concept at most trade shows, they are further sub divided on the lines of GLOBAL VILLAGE, by Zones, like Continents, Tourist Boards,  airlines, restaurant areas etc.

The biggest of these stalls is the JUNA AKHADA which is so because it has the largest number of saints in it, the big chief is called the ACHARYA and then his subalterns who go by names like Mahamandaleswar (Hindu monks of a particular sect of renunciates).

There are two important dates during this 8 week fete, which kicks off on 14 January when the members of the Mahanirvani AKHARA are the first ones to descend upon the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Their Praveshi or (entry) and the rituals that subsequently end with a bath in the rivers, officially marks the beginning of the festival.

The only business thats conducted here is the business of induction and salvation. There are plenty of adverts, from Coke to Redbull, from Iskconites, selling Krishna propaganda, dancing japanese girls, to naked yogis riding a bi-cycle, there is never a dull moment. And while the trade shows, close in the evenings and parties take place elsewhere, this is one non stop party. Its one big festival with religious shades.

The Shahi Snan or the Royal Bath, the main bathing date (is the most important) on which the saints come out in a colourful procession sitting on gilded chariots, and elephants while the NAGA SADHUS walk towards the rivers edgeled by their Mahant who sits atop an elephant on a Silver throne. The ascetics walk alongside, brandishing lances, and swords their naked bodies smeared in ash, this is a cortege that has all the trappings of a Royal procession.

I can only imagine what a spectacle that must have been. Most of the camps had been dismantled and truckloads of camping and other equipment were on the move. The Naga Sadhus had all left the Kumbh on their journey to the holiest of Hindu cities. Benares. Here they will camp until 10 March to celebrate Maha Shivaratri (the day Shiva married Parvati) perform the rituals and head back to their cavernous dwellings, in the Himalayas.

It was time for us to move on as well and despite a detour into the city of Allahabad, we made it to Civilian air terminal at Bamrauli airforce base to board our flight back to Delhi. And it is only in this city of Allah and sacrifice could one see the true benefits of being a son-in-law…

A notice board at the airport displays a list of persons exempted from security checks. It begins with the President of India, which is correct and all is well until you scroll down. No 32 is no “MANGO MAN" for he is none other than Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi and has been awarded this special dispensation, when escorted by Z Sec, which is most of the time…

Ah the advantages, of being Sonia ji’s son-in-law. But this is Incredible India and we are LIKE THAT ONLY…

And for the record Allahabad, was known as “Prayag until the great Mughal emperor Akbar erected a strategic fort, and renamed it Allahabad.

It was home to our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru,The Allahabad high court sent Indira Gandhi to Jail, and last but not least Allahabad observatory sets the Indian Standard Time. It is exactly 5:30 hours ahead of GMT.

Until we meet again at the Kumbh(s) in
Haridwar where the Ganges enters the plains from the mighty Himalayas. April 2018
The sacred Prayag (confluence) in Allahabad of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati (which is the invisible river) 2022 - 2025
On the banks of Shipra River at Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. April. 2016
On the banks of Godavari River at Nasik in Maharashtra. August. 2015
May the blessings of the holy trinity be upon you ! This Kumbh Mela was called Maha Kumbh (occurs every 144 years) as it was the culmination of 12 successive Kumbhs. It couldn’t have been more auspicious !