Kumbh Mela’s Sangam: A Confluence of Rivers, Rishis, and Rogues
A Confluence of Rivers, Rishis, and Rogues
Glimpses from the world’s largest mass pilgrimage, where mythology, faith, commerce, and mysticism come together seamlessly at the confluence of three sacred Indian rivers.
By RAJESH C. OZA
In my decades of travel, I’ve learned that the world rewards the traveler who strays off his itinerary. This understanding was reaffirmed once again on a recent trip to India combining a professional engagement with family reunions. Hopping across Hyderabad, Pune, and Kolkata with my wife, Mangla, I took a serendipitous detour through the Hindi heartland of New Delhi, Allahabad, and Varanasi, the highlight of this jaunt being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, now called Prayagraj by some.
The visit to the Kumbh Mela (literally, a “churning fair”) was courtesy of Mangla’s sister, Madhuri, and Madhuri’s husband, Colonel Mukesh. Mangla and I have seen much of India because of Mukeshji’s postings throughout the country. Now with retirement pending, he had returned to his Pune hometown for the post-Army stage of his journey. Like her sister, Madhuri is a teacher; because she had to attend an education conference in Delhi while Mangla and I were in Pune, we were not going to be able to see Madhuri at her own home.
But thanks to some last-minute planning, a good deal of flexibility, and a thoughtfulness that can only be called love, we all met up in Delhi. Our family yatra, resulting from a creative combination of consulting and Kumbh, then proceeded with Madhuri and Mukeshji’s son, Shravan, to Allahabad.
Ah, Allahabad. We arrived early in the morning having taken the Duronto Express overnight train from Delhi. Mukeshji had reserved a guesthouse in the cantonment. The Army defends India but seems so unlike India except for all the Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis, and agnostics who make up its nearly two million force. The Army has discipline, cleanliness, respect, and quiet; it all adds up to a peaceful shanti-ness that is rhythmically enhanced by the cooing of a bird. Its ontological order is a respite from the rest of India’s compelling chaos; even the chilled-out high-tech campuses that I have visited in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and now Pune don’t have this pervasive calm that is ever-ready to spring into unified action.
But we didn’t come to Allahabad to meditate on the Army’s lockstep Zen. We came to attend the Kumbh Mela at Sangam, which is where two rivers—Ganga and Yamuna—meet. Some say that a third river—the mythological Saraswati—is also at the confluence of the mighty Ganges and her sister Yamuna. Given that both my paternal and maternal grandmothers were named Saraswati, I’d like to believe that I was meeting my ancestral mothers at this sacred riverine meet-up.
(Left) The hundreds of boatmen from near and far (some row up the Ganga from Varanasi) are indispensable—and, if their dynamic pricing fares are a useful measure, they realize that fact!
Throughout our stay in Allahabad, I looked for faces that would remind me of my deceased grandmothers. They were there at the Hanuman Temple where no one seemed in a rush to move on from taking darshan of the reclining Hanuman. They were there in a youthful avatar at the ticketing desk for the boat ride to where Ganga and Yamuna would flow into each other. Maybe they were even there amongst the seagulls that were scattered by our motorboat. And they were certainly with me in spirit when Mangla and I did a puja at Sangam, which means confluence.
Ghatias (priests) were abundantly available on the boats, and eager to perform rituals to further aid the purification promised with a dip in the Ganga. The author, Dr. Oza, and his wife Mangala play the sporty clients of a ghatia, as Mukeshji and his wife Madhuri look on.
It was Mangla’s birthday, and I was open to most anything she wanted to do. She and I stepped out of our boat and onto another boat which was linked to a long chain of parked vessels. Each boat had a ghatia (priest) and series of middlemen who facilitated our taking a dubki in the water; in order for us to do the sacred dip, they smilingly dipped their heads with the belief that believers would further dip into their purses and reward the facilitators. When the ghatia was at the midpoint of his rituals, he asked us whether we had children; we nodded in the affirmative. He asked us if the children were married; we nodded in the affirmative. He asked us if our children had children; given that our daughter would soon be giving birth to our first grandchild, Mangla and I gave a hopeful nod. He asked us how many ancestors we wanted to honor by feeding a Brahmin at Rs 200 per person; I thought five sounded right, but Mangla said eleven, so eleven it was. A paan-stained smile spread across the ghatia’s face at the thought of Rs 2,200 for a quick mantra.
The stain polluting the Ganga and Yamuna for the past many decades of India’s incessant urbanization does give one pause. While Mukeshji did a full dubki, Mangla and Madhuri purified only their faces, hands, and feet with the confluent waters. As for me, given my experience with typhoid, I was a bit dubious about the government’s efforts to clean our holy rivers and merely dipped my fingers and toes into the muddy-green Gangetic flow.
Perhaps the same caution restrained me from fully embracing the babas who are at the heart of the Kumbh Mela. There were a wide variety of holy men physically or virtually present. The virtual presence was unavoidable with loud, colorful hoardings of the ever-smiling Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with his Art of Living followers, and the ever-expanding Baba Ramdev with his yoga practitioners and Patanjali-product consumers.
(Left) Curiosity gathering around scowling baba and his seemingly lost, teary-eyed, blonde-haired acolyte.
But I found these well-known babas less interesting than the scowling mad man with his seemingly lost, teary-eyed, blonde-haired acolyte and the baba who seemed content to sit by himself on the banks of Yamuna, far away from the maddening crowd. Their idiosyncratic quirkiness brings the Kumbh alive and accessible, makes it less of a slick, glossy brochure for an “Incredible India” ad campaign. Even the begging baba who stuck to us like an over-eager fly hovering over an offering of gulab jamuns put a smile on my face.
We only caught a glimpse of the tents where the akharas were based. This is where ascetics, following in the path of eighth-century rishi Adi Shankaracharya, carry forward a way of life apart from the mainstream; their espoused renunciation of material goods is unique in a modern world whose overwhelming religion is market capitalism. While the religious militancy can be off-putting to those coming from a secular world-view, and the in-your-face nakedness may be too stark for those preferring modesty, there is no denying the eternal Hindu heterogeneity championed in the various philosophical camps of intellectuals and warriors.
Perhaps it is fitting that there is an ordnance depot in the Allahabad Fort towering above the Kumbh Mela. Mukeshji gave us a tour of this fort that Akbar built in the 16th century. Part of the tour included an opportunity to see the Akshaya Vat tree. It had been many years since pilgrims to Kumbh were allowed to visit this tree, which has been verdantly vibrant for centuries. Legend has it that although Mughal rulers had attempted to destroy it, the tree never dies; and to this day it is said that the Akshaya Vat does not shed a single leaf.
The fort is but a stone’s throw away from the churn of the Kumbh, but a world apart in its serenity: peacocks roam the grounds, magnificently sashaying their colors; parrots make nests in the fort’s walls, flitting here and there like pilgrims going from one akhara to another; and political leaders stride up a staircase to take in the grandeur of the rivers bringing millions together over two months. Indeed, just a few days after current Indian President Ram Nath Kovind attended the Kumbh Mela, we were fortunate to be at the fort’s viewing platform which India’s first President Rajendra Prasad had inaugurated shortly after Independence.
Of course, in India religion and politics mix together like the Ganga and Yamuna coming together (though perhaps the green muddy flow is more of a brown muddy muck). Photographs of Prime Minister Modi were more omnipresent than those of any baba. With elections just a few months away, local politicians jockeyed to have their faces plastered over the same hoardings occupied by Modi’s visage. Most prominent among these faces was that of the monk-turned-saffron-robed-politician, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Yogi-ji, as he is known by his followers, conflated Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid v. Ram Mandir debate with a small temple inside the Allahabad Fort by proclaiming, “This is the first time Akshaya Vat and Saraswati Koop will be opened during the Kumbh Mela. Mughal emperor Akbar commissioned a fort there and that’s why people were not able to offer prayers there." I was much more pleased to hear a pandit tell the story of Akshaya Vat’s immortal sacred banyan tree and to imagine the Saraswati River flowing nearby than to see them weaponized by politicians.
Diversions around the Kumbh Mela abound in historic Allahabad. Seen here is Anand Bhavan, one of the ancestral homes of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. “Regardless of one’s political leanings, there is a thrill to be had in walking through the rooms of an estate where Jawaharlal Nehru lived, Indira Gandhi was born, and leaders of India’s freedom movement convened.”
Allahabad has long been home to politicians, dating back to antiquity when a small settlement in its vicinity was called Prayagraj. So on our last day in a city whose name has Muslim echoes but has been renamed to its imagined Hindu roots by the state’s current Chief Minister, we took a tour of Anand Bhavan and Swaraj Bhavan. These museums were once the ancestral homes of the Nehru-Gandhi clan that has ruled India for so many (or too many, depending on your politics) of the post-Independence years. Regardless of one’s political leanings, there is a thrill to be had in walking through the rooms of an estate where Jawaharlal Nehru lived, Indira Gandhi was born, and leaders of India’s freedom movement convened. I must confess to goose-bumps as I reflected that the Mahatma (Gandhi) and the Sardar (Vallabhbhai Patel) had marched through the same hallways in which I found myself wandering back in history to a pivotal time of wonder.
Although the time in Allahabad/Prayagraj ended with a hasty realization that we had a train to catch, the goose-bumps stayed with me. We took Indian Railways to Varanasi and sat at the Ghats mesmerized by the Ganga Arti chants and then onward to Sarnath where in a deer park, at another confluence of rivers—the Ganga and the Varuna—the Buddha first taught the Dharma to his disciples. Serendipity followed us as the Prime Minister was feting members of the Indian diaspora with a Pravasi Bharatiya Divas hosted in Varanasi, the constituency from where he would seek re-election. The public spaces of Varanasi/Banaras/Kashi were clean, the walls were transformed into frescoes as part of an imaginative street art initiative, the meeting venues were patriotically decorated in saffron/white/green tricolor of the Indian flag, “Jai Hind” could be heard inside and outside the Army cantonment, and even the venerable Banaras Hindu University was spruced up with a light show for the foreign sons and daughters of India’s soil. But these are stories for another time.
We ended our trip to India in Kolkata, spending time with family in Mangla’s childhood city. I was taken aback to be received as an enlightened carrier of the Kumbh’s blessings by so many younger and elder relatives. To be sure, the youngsters have always bowed to receive my blessings, but I recoiled from an elder uncle doing the same. It was only when I humbly realized that I was a simple vessel for the Kumbh Mela’s ashirwaad that I fully embraced the role reversal and passed along blessings to one and all.
And so, gentle reader, I end here wishing that in the next six to twelve years, you, too, receive the purifying blessings of Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati. But until then, perhaps the words you’ve read here can be an ashirwaad of sorts.
Rajesh C. Oza, who for many years wrote Khabar’s “Satyalogue” column, is an avid reader and freelance writer. This article is in appreciation of Madhuri and Mukeshji, who have immeasurably helped the author expand his knowledge of India from words in books to people in places.
FAKQ (Frequently Asked Kumbh Questions)
What is the frequency of the Kumbh Mela?
To be sure, policing was key. While much has surely changed at the Kumbh through the years, what seems to have stayed the same is the remarkably calm and restrained efforts of the police force. Perhaps this is due to the influence of the former Deputy Inspector General of Police Trinath Mishra whom Mark Tully quotes liberally in his pamphlet-sized book, The Kumbh Mela. While DIG Mishra believed that his biggest challenge was moderating the disputes between the various akharas and their babas, perhaps he set a tone for the 1989 Kumbh with this official note: “Special emphasis will be given to motivate the policemen to exhibit exemplary behaviour and courtesy towards the general public." Whatever the motivation was, the tone of civility seems to have been sustained through the decades leading to this year’s Kumbh.
Below, clockwise from top right: Vedic tent city, Kumbh rituals, flamboyant akhara processions, Ganga aarti, flamboyant akhara processions, a sadhu at Kumbh.
The Spiritual Significance
of the Kumbh Mela
Pilgrims of all stripes routinely report of deeply moving, and even life-transforming experiences at the Kumbh Mela. Yet, for the foreigner or the uninitiated, the Kumbh, at least at face value, looks like a freak show—naga babas, quirky sadhus, bone-crushing crowds, hustlers and tricksters, and what not. Where is the spirituality in all that, some may wonder?
For thousands of years, the Kumbh Mela has been a knowledge base, and a place and time when large numbers of people came and sought a source of inspiration, healing, and transformation. In the last few centuries it may have lost some of its relevance and significance because the nation was not in our own hands.
The Kumbh Mela is an offshoot of Bhuta Shuddhi, the fundamental dimension of yoga, which means to cleanse the five elements in our system. Everything—this body, this planet, the solar system, and the universe—is a play of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. The entire universe—the trillions of forms that life has taken—is just a mischief of five elements, not five million, just five. This shows the brilliance behind creation. In the yogic system, it is understood that if you gain some mastery over these five elements, your health, wellbeing, prosperity, and access to the universe are taken care of.
The elemental composition of the human body is such that 72% is water, 12% is earth, 6% is air, 4% is fire, the remaining is akash or space. For one to live well, water plays the most important role because 72% of the body is water.
The water within you responds to the water outside of you. Water is not a commodity; it is life-making material. The water that you drink is taking the form of a human being. It has memory and intelligence. Only if you treat it well, it tends to behave well. This science of how to treat water was culturally established in this country, but these aspects have largely been lost because we are becoming a very economy-driven culture. Economics is only about our survival, about procurement of what we need. Economics should not be the guiding point of our lives.
The Kumbh or this science of making use of the confluence of rivers at certain latitudes came not because of belief, but from a keen observation of how life and the different forces around us function. We identified many spots where certain forces are at work at different times of the year and different times of the solar cycle—which lasts for a little over twelve years. Wherever two water bodies meet with a certain force, it creates a churning of water. This body, being 72% water, receives maximum benefit if you are there at that particular time.
If you stay at the Kumbh for a mandala—a period of 48 days—and spend time in the water daily with the appropriate sadhana, you can transform your physical body, psychological framework, energy framework, and above all, find enormous spiritual growth within you.
Unfortunately, today, this has slowly become more about a quick visit and one dip. If it is not possible to spend 48 days at the Kumbh, it is important that you at least practice some simple ten to twelve minute sadhana for forty days at home, and then take a dip at the Kumbh. This will make a huge difference. If a certain volume of energy is present somewhere, the important thing is whether you have the ability to receive and perceive it. If you cannot perceive it, everything will go waste.
It is my intention and my wish that the Kumbh Mela should not become just one more ritual, where a huge number of people gather, get viral infections, and go home with some story to tell of the weird people they saw. This should become a transform-ative process. This is important in the making of this nation because a nation does not become great with just economic growth. It is about the inner balance that we gain.
As Indians, if we display a different level of equanimity within us, in the next twenty-five years we will be the most valued nation because this will be the biggest challenge for the rest of the world. The rest of the world knows how to do many things, but they want to know how to be within themselves. This is something that we can offer to the world, because when it comes to the inner mechanics of a human being—I am not saying this with the prejudice of being Indian—no other culture has explored the inner dimension of the human being with the profoundness that this culture has.
This is something in which we have invested our time, life, and energies for almost eight to ten thousand years. This is not something that we believe or made up as philosophies, but something we observed and made tools to access.
It is my wish and my blessing that the Kumbh Mela should become a huge step in that direction, to awaken the world to this possibility.
Ranked amongst the fifty most influential people in India, Sadhguru is a yogi, mystic, visionary, and bestselling author. Sadhguru has been conferred the "Padma Vibhushan," India’s highest annual civilian award, by the Government of India in 2017, for exceptional and distinguished service.
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