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A dip at the Kumbh Mela

The term Kumbh comes from a mythical pot of nectar, but it is also the Hindi name for Aquarius, the sign of the zodiac in which Jupiter resides during the Haridwar Mela. But, of course, there is always a story behind everything and this is the story behind the Kumbh.

It is said that once Sage Durvasa passed Lord Indra and being in a rather cheerful mood      ( which in itself was unusual since he was rather infamous for his bad temper ), gave a garland from his own neck to Lord Indra.

Lord Indra, lost in his own thoughts, and not being entirely mindful of what he was doing, and more importantly, to whom, carelessly passed the garland onto the elephant he was riding on instead of showing his gratitude to the great sage.

The elephant took the garland given to it, threw it on the ground and proceeded to playfully  crush it with its legs.

Enraged by this complete lack of respect, Sage Durvasa  cursed Lord Indra to lose all his      ( and by extension the Devas’ ) material comforts and strengths which the sage believed gave Lord Indra the arrogance that he had just shown. The Asuras ( the demons ), with whom the Devas were constantly at war, immediately defeated the Devas and took control of the Universe.

The devas, devastated by this loss of position and security, rushed to Lord Vishnu for help, who told them that only the nectar, which resided at the bottom of the celestial ocean of milk can make them strong again, after drinking which they would become immortal.

However, there was a catch.

The ocean would need to be churned in order for the nectar to surface, and the Devas wouldn’t be able to do this alone (remember, they had lost their strength thru the curse ?). They would need to seek the help of the Asuras for this and the possibility of getting the nectar and hence immortality, would be the reason for the Asuras to agree to help.

Finally, and many sub plots and fascinating stories later, the nectar surfaced and the Devas and the Asuras started fighting for the first right to drink it. For twelve days and twelve nights, both of them fought for it. ( Each day for the Gods is equal to a year for the humans and hence the relevance of the 12 years with the Kumbh ) and during this fight the precious nectar fell at four places – Nashik, Ujjain, Hardwar and Allahabad. 

There is another version which says that Garuda flew away with the pot of nectar to save it from the Asuras and while he was flying, the drops fell at these four places.

During this auspicious period of the Kumbh, wherever its celebrated that year, the waters are said to become the equivalent of the nectar and those who take a dip in these waters, cleanse themselves of all their sins.

Millions of people descend on the banks of the rivers when the Kumbh is on. To take a dip. To cleanse themselves of all sins. To listen to the discourse of all the sadhus present there.

*****

To be honest, I didn’t have much of a clue about the Kumbh.

I had a rather remote idea about it as a place where hundreds of thousands of people come for a dip. A crowded place, if ever, there was one and an impossibly messy one at that.

Then, a few years back a good friend had gone to the Kumbh and came back with some very good photos and a lot of words of appreciation about the place and the experience. A tiny idea was born then, that maybe it would be good to visit the Kumbh once. It stayed as an idea at the very back of my head for a very long time.

News came about the Kumbh at Allahabad this year. I stayed unaffected. The Kumbh started and I started reading a little bit about it, came to know of friends who had visited and idly wondered why I had not planned to visit it.

Maybe next time.

And then in early Feb I heard that the last day of the Kumbh is on March 4.

Hmmm. Is there still time to plan a visit ?

Fortunately for me, I happened to voice my thought to a friend and before I knew it, the idea had gained momentum and our plans were frozen.

We were going to the Kumbh . During the weekend before the last day – the Maha Shivratri when the Kumbh for this year comes to a closure.

*****

Just one last lil bit of info.

The schedule of the Kumbh. There seems to be surprisingly quite a few widely varying info about it when I was trying to understand the Kumbh better in the days before our trip.

But broadly, this is what I found :

  1. The Maha Kumbh occurs after 12 Purna Kumbh Melas i.e. every 144 years.

  2. The Kumbh Mela (sometimes specifically called Purna Kumbh or “full Kumbha”), occurs every 12 years at a given site.

  3. Ardh Kumbh (“Half Kumbh”) Mela occurs every 6 years between the two Purna Kumbha Melas at Allahabad and Haridwar.

In summary, Kumbh Mela, is celebrated four times over the course of 12 years, the site of the observance rotating between four pilgrimage places on four sacred rivers—at Haridwar on the Ganga, at Ujjain on the Shipra, at Nashik on the Godavari, and at  Allahabad at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Sarasvati. Each site’s celebration is based on a distinct set of astrological positions of the Sun, the Moon, and Jupiter, the holiest time occurring at the exact moment when these positions are fully occupied.

*****

The entire experience of being at the Kumbh was simply wonderful.

By the time we reached, almost all the Sadhus’ and the Naga babas’ akharas had wound up and left Allahabad. Apparently, after Basant Panchami, they usually leave. That was a bit of a disappointment when the very first night we arrived, we went for a walk around the place where the Kumbh was taking place.

But whatever disappointment we had, whatever apprehensions we had about having arrived too late soon dissipated the next morning. The banks were overflowing with people. People who had come from near and far, people from all sorts of backgrounds, old and the young, rich and the poor, assembled on the banks preparing to take the ritualistic dip.

We spent quite a few hours simply walking around the entire place. I have rarely done street photography and was quite uncomfortable initially to take pics of people around me. I soon got over my discomfort. I asked permission when I could, but on many occasions I kept shooting and no one got offended. We Indians, I think, generally are very comfortable about and possibly eager to get photographed. Some gave me their contact numbers asking me to send them their pics thru the ubiquitous WhatsApp. ( I did )

By the way, the arrangements were simply outstanding. Security, the overall level of cleanliness, the arrangements for toilets and water….everything was simply top class. I read somewhere that more than 20 crore ( 200 million ! ) people came this year. And the arrangements withstood that onslaught of humanity. Awesome.

The most common question after I returned ?

“ How was the experience ?”

All of us struggled to find out the exact word that described the atmosphere. To me, the feeling I could sense was one of simple happiness. A liberated, carefree mood. I won’t call the overall atmosphere to be overly devout and religious. It was just happy.

There were hundreds of thousands of people but still you didn’t get the sense of a huge, unmanageable crowd. No one was pushing, no one was overly anxious to get in for a dip before the next person, there were no exhibitions of bad temper or irritation.

And…oh, what colours !! Such rich, brilliant loud colours !! Brilliant yellow, saffron and white mingled with the rich brown of the skin….was such a delight photographing the abundance of sights around.

I thought, instead of even attempting to put the entire experience in words ( which I was confident, I will thoroughly fail at ), possibly the pics alone might help in communicating the experience that is the Kumbh.

So here goes 🙂

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The Kumbh !!! We were delighted to see the crowds the first morning allaying our fears of having reached a bit too late !


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It was still early. The vendors were just getting ready for the customers


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One of my first photos…I was a bit unsure about the way to ask permission and this tall, sturdy gent was striding purposefully towards the waters. He glanced at me, noted my enquiring look, nodded imperceptibly and paused mid stride to allow me to take a quick shot. Nice of him 🙂


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You could find all sorts of people and you will get all sorts of looks as you wandered around with your camera


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The bemused look


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The intense look – even if he was clearly posing and has a hint of a smile in acknowledgment


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And see all sorts of people…the thoughtful ones


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The pensive ones…


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The serious ones…


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And the gentle ones…this lady was protectively helping her husband to get ready for his dip


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The only ash smeared sadhu I saw…he was lying on a bed of thorns and had another prickly set kept on him !!!


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Soon it was time for us to take our dip…we go off on a boat led by a slightly unusual cavalcade


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They timed their flight perfectly at the last minute..


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And soon we had reached the spot where we could take our dip…we had got ourselves a slightly separate spot. I think those coming by boats get  separate enclosures


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Not that it was less crowded ! A view of the line of boats that were waiting for their passengers to finish their dip and then head back


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The slightly separate spot for us to take our dip…


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This is how it was for those on the banks and not coming on the boats


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Many boats had everything ready for doing a small pooja


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Where people could do their pooja before taking their dip


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While some others did their own stuff


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While their kids of course,  were having a blast


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This couple got a few moments for a private chat in the middle of the thousands of people


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Knowing that their passengers will take some time to start their return journey, these two friends decide to have a quick bite


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While another boatman preferred to lounge under the warm sun  waiting for his group to return


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All around us, the scenes were similar


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All sorts of people were around us…grandfathers with grandkids


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Sons helping their aged fathers


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Ladies of a family with the children


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And, of course, the single devotees…this lady was amazing to observe. She was so focused on her prayers and the process …completely immersed in, oblivious to everyone around her


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Another devotee praying to the rising sun in between her dips..the guy is simply shivering from the shock of the first dip into the cold water !


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And, of course, every occasion is a good occasion for a family photo !!


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And, if not the family pic, definitely the solo selfie ! He observed me taking this pic and wanted a copy to be ‘Whatsapped’ to him …its now his profile pic 🙂


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And then there was this cute little girl with a brilliant laugh looking longingly at my camera and wanting to be photographed. I said, ‘Chalo, let me take a pic”, she looked at her father for permission. Granted with a smile and he too joined in…the protective father behind his daughter. Loved the smile on her face !


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The packing of the important holy Ganga water for everyone back at home


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The Kumbh is rightly called a Kumbh Mela (fair)…it had all the elements of a fair. Need a head shave before your dip ? No problem !


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Beads, necklaces, bangles ? Name it….and such colours !!


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A flower girl selling her flowers to people just as they were about to enter the waters…she was rather shy and told me…only one photo !


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This young man was waiting for the next set of customers


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She was selling more pooja stuff near the bank. ” May we take your photo ?” my friend asked. ” “But why would you want to ?” ” Because you have a lovely smile”. Blush. Click. Perfect


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The arrangements were outstanding. An old man sips from a free cup of tea that was being given to anyone who was around.


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Safety….everyone who was on a boat had to wear a life jacket.


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Security. There were cops all around. Friendly. Helpful. Firm.


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This gent epitomises the riot of colour that the Kumbh is !


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