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Visiting Maha-Kumbh Mela in Allahabad 2013
by Dr. Anil K Maheshwari - September 2013
The Maha-Kumbh Mela is one of the major religious events of the world. It happens only once every 12 years. This is a brief story of our 2-day visit to the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, in Feb 2013.
I had recently relocated to Fairfield, Iowa as a faculty member at the Maharishi University of Management. Set up by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, this university (mum.edu) is seeped in Vedic knowledge and tradition. It is full of what one could call ‘white desis’, white people more Indian at heart that Indians themselves.
In the summer of 2012, we had planned to visit India as a family during the December-January 2013 timeframe for some personal and family purposes. Some of our ‘white desi’ friends and colleagues at the university were excitedly talking about visiting India, solely to participate in the Kumbh Mela. I was intrigued. Their general conception was that it was every Indian’s dream to visit Kumbh Mela. However, I had grown up thinking of Kumbh Mela very differently. For me, Kumbh Mela was just a super-crowded place, where the religiously minded people went for rituals. There were fears of hygiene, and security breakdown, etc. Initially, my wife saw no point in visiting the crowded Kumbh Mela. My parents also discouraged me from visiting the crowds at Kumbh Mela, for safety and health reasons. But I was sufficiently intrigued by the enthusiasm of my ‘white desi’ friends in Fairfield. So, my wife agreed to go. I called my best friend in Delhi and informed him of my plans. He and his wife readily agreed to join us. So, the four of us began to making plans for attending the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.
I watched the 2005 movie ‘Kumbh Mela’ to learn all about the event. This movie was made for western audiences and shot during the last Kumbh Mela in 2001. I saw some famous gurus and the amazing feats they were showing at the Mela. One guru called ‘Pilot baba’ really intrigued me … he had retired as a pilot in the Indian Air force after having seen action in the 1971 Indo-Pak war,and then in a few years had built up a robust sadhu career and a big following. One Japanese lady guru went underground for three days without air, water and food and then came out alive and cheerful. And many others like that.
The Kumbh Mela started around the Sakrant day of Jan 15th and ended on Shivratri day of March 15th. During this 2-month period some 100 million devotees were expected to descend upon Allahand for a ‘holy dip’ at the sangam, or meeting, or three rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati). We decided to go to the Kumbh Mela on the Feb 6th, the Ekadashi day, which was one of the super-auspicious days for the holy dip. We decided to travel to Allahabad by an overnight train from Delhi. We reserved train tickets a couple of months ahead of time, so we had little difficulty obtaining the tickets. We booked multiple sets of train tickets for difference dates, to allow the flexibility on when to return from Kumbh Mela. However, it was a bigger challenge to get a hotel room for the most auspicious days. Eventually, my friend used his connections to secure a couple of hotel rooms for us for one night in a nice area of Allahabad. The prices were high, and the hotel was a little bit far from the ‘Sangam’, the holy spot where the holy dip is taken.
The trip to Allahabad
The overnight train trip to Allahabad was easy. We learned a lot by just asking questions of our fellow-travelers. One lady told us to see the view from Shastri Bidge (named after India’s second Prime Minister), of the amazing lighting on both sides of the river. Another man spoke about the most auspicious day of the Mauni Amavasya, which fell on Feb 10th, the day when about 40 million people would descend on Allahabad for a holy dip.
Upon reaching our hotel, taking shower, and eating breakfast, we decided to go straight to the Sangam for the holy dip. We walked part of the way to take in the scenery. We used cycle-rickshaws for the rest of the trip. The trip took about 30-40 minutes. When we reached the Kumbh Mela ‘township’, it was amazing that this sprawling temporary township had been built in just a few months. There were colorful tents everywhere. The people seemed very peaceful and cheerful. There was no sign of violence nor was there any kind of apprehension in the air. The public announcement system seemed to be functionally very well, and they were broadcasting common-sense safety instructions in a very pleasant tone. There were big wide, functional roads in the entire city. At each intersection of the roads, there were gun-toting military people in their fatigues, to instill an amazing sense of security. There were also many places for eating and drinking. There were temporary public restrooms along the roads, every 200-250 yards, for men and women. The most remarkable thing was that there was absolutely no smell inside or outside the bathrooms. That is absolutely amazing for public toilets anywhere in India. And here we were in the middle of essentially sand beaches!
The Holy Dip
At the Sangam ghat (beach), there were two options for taking the holy dip. One option was the simple beach option: just walk into water, take a dip, and come back out. The other was the boat option. There were scores of boats that offered you the option to take bath a little more auspiciously, at the center of Sangam, where the rivers actually met. Basically, you rent one of many boats for a few hundred rupees. The boatmen will take you to the center of the sangam area, and park alongside a boardwalk that goes far into the river. You step off the boat on to the board-walk, take off most of your clothes, and jump into the shallow water at that location. The boat returns you back to the shore. We took the boat option.
The river water was flowing, but the current was not too strong. There were ropes to hold on to while dipping. However, the water was very muddy and opaque when we jumped into the shallow area of the sangam. A gazillion people getting in and out of that area were stirring up the mud at the base of the river. There were a number of ‘pundits’ sitting on the board walk. They were ready to help us do additional pujas, for some quick money. Then there were other handlers who would help you offer some milk and coconut to the river. All this added up to another few hundred rupees per person, depending upon what one decided. After the dip and the puja etc, we came back to our boat, dried up with our towels, and got back into dry clothes. That was the essence of the holy dip. It was completed in just a few minutes per couple. We had decided to go in one couple at a time, with the other guarding the possessions in the boat. Once we were all back into the boat, the boat left the boardwalk. The entire holy dip experience was over in just 20 minutes. ‘Is this it?’ I wondered aloud. So, my friend asked the boatman to give us an additional boat ride, and take us around the sangam area and all the way to the big bridge in the distance. As our boat slowly moved away from the crowds, we felt the heavenly soothing river breeze. Our wet hair and clothes dried up very quickly. The breeze and the scenery inspired me to take out our SLR camera, and shoot some video.
We also took a bunch of photos of other boats, the ghat, the birds on the water, and ourselves. It was barely lunch time, and we had already accomplished our main purpose for coming here. Is this it? It seemed so easy. There had to be more. After visiting a famous Hanuman temple at the ghat, we decided to go for lunch. We had lunch at a ‘dhaba’ opposite Anand Bhawan, the home of the late Prime Minister Nehru.
After lunch we went back inside Anand Bhavan. That house has a nice Planetarium. In an engaging 45-minute show, it explained in beautiful 3-dimensional way how the dates or Kumbh mela represent the moves of the sun and move from in and out of certain celestial configurations. That was interesting.
On the way to the hotel, we stopped by a famous sweets-and-snack shop. We had a supper of giant kachoris and samosas and milk-cake. Then we took a couple of hours of rest before we started again to see the rest of the Kumbh mela.
Convention of Saints
Having completed the main task of a holy dip, we returned to the Sangam area in the evening with a completely relaxed and exploratory frame of mind. We wanted to see what else was happening there. What we saw could only be described as a Convention of Saints. Like a convention of the Academy of Science, but the participants here were the biggest of holy men from India, and a few foreigners. The following of each Baba (slang for a holy man) could be gauged from the size of their pavilion, which were replete with marketing gear in the front, including kinetic neon lights (like at New York’s Times square), and blaring music. Every saint was competing for attention and new followers. The pavilions were most self-sufficient onto themselves, with their own parking for dozens of cars, and dining areas etc. These were huge pavilions which had further sub-sections and tents to host the sub-gurus under the orbit of the main guru. In the smaller tents, sub-gurus of were holding court with his own followers. We visited many pavilions and tents, and took pictures. There was a baba who has been standing on just one leg for the last 11 years. There were babas who were covered with ash from head to toe. There was one who was sitting completely in the nude.
We also visited a large government led pavilion that offered free classical music shows from well-known artists. Later in the evening, we asked our driver to take us across the Shastri Bridge over the Ganges. We stopped in the middle of the bridge for an amazing view of lights on both sides of the rivers. There were endless yellow argon street lights, like diminishing stars, as far as the eye could see. Imagine a completely lighted township, miles long in either dimension; except that it was entirely a temporary creation that would last only for the couple of months of the Maha Kumbh mela. That place would go from sand beach to sand beach in 3-4 months. It was a amazingly functional small town with names streets and all lighting and other facilities, for those few months.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s smarak
The next morning, we packed up our stuff in a rental car and left our hotel. We went on a search for Maharishi’s smarak. We drove around many areas, and eventually found it on the other side of the Ganges river. We reached the Brahmanand Saraswati ashram, the home of Maharishi’s Vedic pundits. A large number of Vedic Pandits live there and do chanting regularly. We told them about our Fairfield connection, and were allowed inside the campus.
We drove to the grand structure of Maharishi’s smarak. It has a nice big dome-like shape in the center, and it also has many Roman style pillars in the front. There is also a stand-alone pillar. The smarak was almost complete, but there were still many workers on the site still placing the carved stones in the right places. We had arrived just about a week ahead of its formal inauguration on Feb 15th. We met inside the construction area a white gentleman who had come from Fairfield to bring the marble stones with carved messages.
The smarak is at a height over the river, so the view of the Kumbh Mela township from the smarak was majestic. Looking towards the river, we could see in the distance an uncountable number of colorful tents on both sides of the river. These tents are where the Kumbh attendees were staying. We could also see the busy Shastri bridge over the Ganges, in the distance.
Baba Ram Dev’s five star pavilion
One of the Pavilions at the Kumbh Mela bears special mention. One of the biggest recent yoga phenomena in India is a relatively young Swami called Ram Dev. He is based in Haridwar and has taught Yoga and natural healing practices to over a billion people around the world, through his daily morning 2-hour yoga show on TV. His pavilion was very big, and had at its center a five-star quality tent with shiny colorful walls and pillars. This tent had a huge beautiful stage decked with lots of colorful flowers. In the audience area, there were sofas for dignitaries and thousands of chairs for ordinary visitors. It was very impressive.
It was lunch time. Utilizing my membership of Swami Ram Dev’s Patanjali’s Yog Peeth, I was able to get us four admitted to their dining hall (or langar). A langar means free food for devotees, and is a tradition at many temples and other holy places in India. At Ram Dev’s pavilion, they offered a wonderful meal of delicacies like kheer, puri and maal-puas (a great dessert). I was astonished to see such high quality of expensive food being served with great order and respect to many thousands of people. Almost a thousand people were served in each sitting, for lunch and dinner, every 45 minutes or so.
After the meal, we returned to the main tent. Soon, Swami Ram Dev arrived and addressed the gathering. Some other well-known sadhus came to the tent and sat down on the plushest of sofas, along with Swami Ram Dev. Mr. Anup Jalota, the famous bhajan singer, was the main attraction of the afternoon. Anup Jalota came in and was profusely cheered. His sang wonderful bhajans, very melodious and joyous, and very appropriate for the occasion. After listening to him for almost 45 minutes, we decided to go to see other places.
We went into a large pavilion nearby and sought permission to use their private toilets. I was amazed that there were western style bathroom with running water inside those tents! All in a place where there was only a sandy beach a few weeks prior. I was impressed by the quality of arrangements, and also at the resources available for the tents, as well as for fancy pavilions of Swami Ram Dev.
We had heard about the convention of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (literally, World Hindu Council) taking place somewhere there. Mr. Narendra Modi, the chief Minister of Gujarat, and potentially the next Prime Minister of India, was rumored to visit and give a pro-Hindutva speech at the convention that afternoon. We went there. It was getting to be early evening, and the crowds were beginning to swell. From outside the pavilion itself, we could hear one fiery saffron-clad lady speaker for a few minutes. We decided it was a little too much for us. Mr. Modi had also changed his plans at the last minute and had decided to delay his trip to Allahabad. So, we decided we had seen enough and left.
We asked our driver to take the next 30-45 minutes to take us around the rest of areas in the Kumbh Mela township. Soon we stopped for supper at a snack shop in the market there. We sat on chairs in the open air to just relax and reflect upon our experiences. We ate samosas and kachoris and besan laddoos, and drank tea and soft drinks, and also took in the crowds. I felt an amazing sense of accomplishment and happiness. We had not felt any worry or insecurity about anything. There were almost 10 million people in town that day, and the system was working like clockwork. This could be seen even on the smiling faces of the workers working on the stone masonry at the Maharishi smarak. The district administration had a done an incredible job of preparing for the event. But more than that, people gave credit to the sense of dedication with which all the organizers … government officials, volunteers, and sponsors … were doing their duty. They felt privileged to serve the devotees coming for their karmic liberation through taking the holy dip.
We drove to a nice Udipi restaurant in Allahabad city for dinner. We had wonderful rasam, and giant 4-foot dosas. The drive back to the railway station was interesting as there was an enormous crowd of cars trying to get into the station. We could have missed our train if we had not got off the car and walked with our baggage for the last 100 yards. We could feel that the traffic had significantly increased in the last 2 days that we had been in town. This was the evening of the 7th of Feb. In 2 days it would be the morning of the 10th, when an astounding 40 million devotees would take a holy dip in just 24 hours.
The train journey back to Delhi on such a busy travel day was surprisingly easy and uneventful. The next day in Delhi we rested for a while and then decided to visit an amazing new religious structure in Delhi called the Akshar Dham. But that would be another story, some other time.