The world's most massive act of faith
By Jack Hebner and David Osborn
came by the millions! Some arrived on overcrowded
trains carrying five times their normal capacity.
Some came by bus, by car, some by ox drawn
carts, and others rode on horses, camels,
and even elephants. The rich and famous chartered
private planes and helicopters, while the
less affluent came on foot carrying their
bed rolls and camping equipment in heavy bundles
on their heads. Wave after wave, they formed
a veritable river of humanity that flowed
onto the banks of the Ganges at Allahabad
to celebrate the greatest spiritual festival
ever held in the history of the world, the
Kumbha Mela has gained international fame
as "the world's most massive act of faith."
Pilgrims come to this holy event with such
tremendous faith and in such overwhelming
numbers that it boggles the mind. Faith is
the most important thing for the pilgrims
at Kumbha Mela, they have an "unflinching
trust in something sublime".
To understand the significance of the Kumbha
Mela and the important role that it plays
in the spirituality of India, it is helpful
to know something about the background of
the sacred Ganges River. The devout believe
that simply by bathing in the Ganges one is
freed from their past sins (karma), and thus
one becomes eligible for liberation from the
cycle of birth and death. Of course it is
said that a pure lifestyle is also required
after taking bath, otherwise one will again
be burdened by karmic reactions .The pilgrims
come from all walks of life, traveling long
distances and tolerating many physical discomforts,
such as sleeping in the open air in near freezing
weather. They undergo these difficulties just
to receive the benefit of taking a bath in
the sacred river at Kumbha Mela.
This spectacle of faith has for many centuries
attracted the curiosity of foreign travelers.
Hiuen Tsiang of China, who lived during the
seventh century, was the first to mention
Kumbha Mela in his diary. He gave an eyewitness
report that during the Hindu month of Magha
(January-February) half a million people had
gathered on the banks of the Ganges at Allahabad
to observe a celebration for 75 days. The
pilgrims, writes Hiuen Tsiang, assembled along
with their king, his ministers, scholars,
philosophers, and sages. He also reports that
the king had distributed enormous quantities
of gold, silver, and jewels in charity for
the purpose of acquiring good merit and thus
assuring his place in heaven.
In the eight century, Shankara, a prominent
Indian saint, popularized the Kumbha Mela
among the common people, and soon the attendance
began to grow to enormous proportions. Shankara
placed special importance to the opportunity
of associating with saintly persons while
at Kumbha Mela. Both hearing from sadhus (holy
men) and sacred bathing are still the two
main focus at Kumbha Mela.
By 1977, the number of pilgrims attending
Kumbha Mela had to risen to 15 million! By
1989, the attendance was in the range of 29
million-nearly double that of the previous
record. Photographer David Osborn and I contributed
to this year's record participation by spending
seven austere weeks living in a tent on the
banks of the Ganges, observing the Kumbha
Mela with wonder and admiration.
The ancient origin of the Kumbha Mela is described
in the time honored Vedic literatures of India
as having evolved from bygone days of the
universe when the demigods and the demons
produced the nectar of immortality. The sages
of old have related this story thus: once
upon a time, the demigods and demons assembled
together on the shore of the milk ocean which
lies in a certain region of the cosmos. The
demigods and demons desired to churn the ocean
to produce the nectar of immortality, and
agreed to share it afterwards. The Mandara
Mountain was used as a churning rod, and Vasuki,
the king of serpents, became the rope for
churning. With the demigods at Vasuki's tail
and the demons at his head, they churned the
ocean for a 1,000 years. A pot of nectar was
eventually produced, and both the demigods
and demons became anxious. The demigods, being
fearful of what would happen if the demons
drank their share of the nectar of immortality,
stole away the pot and hid it in four places
on the Earth: Prayag (Allahabad) Hardwar,
Ujjain, and Nasik. At each of the hiding places
a drop of immortal nectar spilled from the
pot and landed on the earth. These four places
are believed to have acquired mystical power,
and festivals are regularly held at each,
Allahabad being the largest and most important.
the Ganges, there are also two other sacred
rivers located at Allahabad, the Yamuna and
the Saraswati . The Yamuna, like the Ganges
has its earthly origin in the Himalayas. The
Saraswati, however, is a mystical river which
has no physical form. Its is believed that
the Saraswati exists only on the ethereal
or spiritual plane and is not visible to the
human eye. This holy river is mentioned many
times in India's sacred texts such as the
Mahabharata and is said to be present at Allahabad
where it joins the Yamuna and the Ganges.
This confluence of India's three most sacred
rivers at Allahabad is called the sangam.
The combined sanctity of the three holy rivers,
coupled with the spiritual powers obtained
from the pot of nectar of immortality, has
earned Allahabad the rank of tirtharaja, the
king of holy places.
The main highlight for most pilgrims during
a Kumbha Mela is the observance of a sacred
bath at the sangam. It is said that a bath
in either of the sacred rivers has purifying
effects, but where the three rivers meet,
the bather's purification is increased one
hundred times. Furthermore, it is said that
when one takes a bath at the sangam during
the Kumbha Mela, the influence is one thousand
According to astrological calculations, the
Kumbha Mela is held every twelve years and
begins on Makar Sankranti, the day when the
sun and moon enter Capricorn and Jupiter enters
Aries. The astrological configuration on Makar
Sankranti is called " Kumbha snana-yoga"
and is considered to be especially auspicious,
as it is said that the passage from Earth
to the higher planets is open at that time,
thus allowing the soul to easily attain the
celestial world. For such reasons it is understandable
why the Kumbha Mela has become so popular
among all classes of transcendentalists in
year Makar Sankranti fell on January 14th
and the Kumbha Mela began with all the pomp
and glory for which it is famous. The temperature
dropped to 35 degrees Fahrenheit on the evening
of the 13th, but bathers were not to be discouraged.
Just past midnight, thousands began to enter
the confluence of the three rivers, immersing
themselves in the icy cold water. Loud chanting
of "Bolo Ganga Mai ki jai (all glory
to Mother Ganga)" filled the clear night
air as the pilgrims washed away their bad
karma. They came away from the bathing area
wrapped in blankets and shivering from the
cold. But as quickly as they came out of the
water, thousands more came in their wake.
With continual chants of " Bolo Ganga
Mai ki jai" they entered the waters.
dawn the sky reddened and the sun rose to
reveal a crowd of five million enthusiasts
slowly advancing towards the sangam. From
the center of that mass of humanity came a
marvelous procession announcing the official
beginning of the Kumbha Mela. Bands played,
people danced in jubilation, and colorful
flags and banners flew above the crowd.
At the head of the procession were the nagas,
India's famed naked holy men. These holy men
engage themselves in renunciation of the world
in search of equilibrium. They hope to escape
the world's concomitant reactions and suffering
by their austere practices such as complete
celibacy and non-accumulation of material
possessions. Thus they are known as liberationists.
With matted locks of hair, their bodies covered
in ashes, and their tridents ( the symbol
of a follower of Shiva) raised high, they
descended upon the bathing area. Entering
the water in a tumult, blowing conchshells
and singing " Shiva ki jai, Ganga ki
jai," they splashed the sacred waters
upon each other and played just like children.
Indeed, they are said to be the very children
of the Ganges.
came the Vaisnava vairagis, the wandering
mendicants who dedicate everything to Visnu,
the Sustainer. These saints live a life of
service and complete dedication.Then
came the innumerable other sects of ascetics
dressed in saffron colored cloth and carrying
their staffs of renunciation. All the centuries
gone by of India's spiritual evolution were
simultaneously there together in the procession.
Each in turn bathed in the sangam.
Several hours passed before the procession
had finished. Then began the mass bathing
of the pilgrims. From the high banks of the
river one could see the dark blue water of
the Yamuna mixing with the silver gray water
of the Ganges. Bathers, immersed up to the
waist, scooped up water with folded palms
and offered it to heaven in a timeless gesture.
Boatmen rowed their boats full of pilgrims
to a small sandbar in the middle of the sangam
which soon disappeared under a cloud of bathers.
There was none to young or old for this occasion.
A young mother sprinkled a few drops of the
rivers' water over the head of her newborn
baby, asking God to bless her child with a
good life and prosperity. In another place
an elderly couple eased themselves into the
cold water. Some bathers made offerings of
flowers, sweets, and colored dyes to the sacred
waters, while others offered Vedic hymns.
The chanting of OM - the supreme combination
of letters - and Sanskrit mantras issued from
the lips of every pilgrim.
As night fell, thousands of campfires could
be seen burning along the riverbanks. In the
central festival area, gaily decorated pandals
(large tents) accommodated the thousands who
listened to some of India's most exalted gurus
lecturing on spiritual and philosophical topics.
In some pandals there were Indian drama and
classical dance groups whose exotic costumes
and performances attracted large audiences.
In other pandals there were elaborate displays
and dioramas illustrating the stories from
India's ancient epics like the Ramayana and
Mahabharata. There was so much to see and
do that there was never a dull moment.
Some pilgrims prefer to come to the Kumbha
Mela on the days of the big sacred baths like
Makar Sankranti and then return home, while
others prefer to set up camp and stay for
the duration. This year at Kumbha Mela there
was six scheduled days for important baths.
Those who remained for the full 41 days of
the festival and observe all the important
baths are called kalpvasis.
This year the Indian government spent more
than 8 million dollars on preliminary organization
for the Kumbha Mela. According to national
newspaper reports, arrangements provided 5,000
gallons of purified drinking water every minute;8,000
buses which shuttle pilgrims in and out of
the festival area that spread over 3,00- acres;
16,000 outlets and 6,000 poles which provided
electrical facilities; 6,000 sweepers and
sanitation employees who worked around the
clock to maintain health standards; 9 pontoon
bridges which spanned the Ganges at intervals;
20,000 policemen, firemen, and the Indian
National Guard who kept a constant vigil at
checkpoints and with closed circuit TV guarded
against traffic congestion and other possible
outbreaks or disturbances; and 100 doctors
and nurses on call at all times at medical
An entire city sprang up along the banks of
the river during the Kumbha Mela complete
with markets, hospitals, and even a tourist
camp to accommodate visitors from foreign
countries. The tourist camp informed me that
they had sheltered over 1,000 visitors from
abroad during the festivities, most being
from Europe and South America. Some of these
visitors from abroad had never been to India
before. Others seemed as well acquainted with
what was happening as did the Indians.
In the market areas all the required necessities
and luxuries of Kumbha Mela were for sale.
In one place fruits and fresh vegetables were
available. In another place wool blankets,
which sold briskly, were piled in big stacks
for easy selection. Along the main thoroughfares
gypsies spread their wares which included
different shapes and sizes of brass pots and
bowls, beads for meditation, exotic perfumes,
incense like kastori(musk) and chandan (sandalwood),
and even tiger's claws set in gold.
It was also interesting to note that all the
food arrangements throughout the festival
were vegetarian. There was not a trace f meant,
fish or eggs to be found in any camp or in
any public eating place. We learned that meat
is strictly taboo amongst all types of transcendentalists
For the novelty seekers there was also a wide
selection of oddities in the market. For a
rupee or two one could employ a snake charmer
who, when playing on his pungi (snake charmer's
flute) would make the cobras dance, swaying
to and fro. It is a long standing belief that
the cobra is charmed by the sound of the pungi.
Having observed several of these performances
, however, it was our conclusion that the
snake charmer charms his audience rather than
many palm readers and mystic soothsayers set
up shop along the Ganges offering passers-by
a look into the future. Astrology and palmistry
are traditional sciences in India, but one
could not help but think that some of these
"mystics" were simply out to turn
a fast rupee from a gullible public. No doubt
that among the sincere and authentic spiritualists
at Kumbha Mela there were also the cheaters
and hence the cheated. Buyer beware.
The camel, a hardy beast of burden, used in
India for centuries to transport cargo long
distances and through difficult terrain, was
the unsung hero of Kumbha Mela. Carrying heavy
loads of firewood, tents, and foodstuffs on
their raised backs these awkward creatures
formed the very lifeline to the Kumbha Mela
residents. In the soft sand, cars, trucks,
and even horse carts often got stuck. But
the camel was rugged and the goods always
For everyone at Kumbha Mela, early mornings
were the most austere time of day because
it was always colder than at any other time.
However, chilly sunrise is considered the
most auspicious time of the day for spiritual
practices.Every day at dawn , thousands arose
early to bathe in the Ganges and return to
their camps to change mantras and meditate.
At the northern end of the festival grounds,
cast against the stil blue sky, stood a lone
grass hut built upon sturdy stilts. This was
the ashrama of Devara Baba who, according
to his followers, is more than 200 years old.
Devara Baba is a lifelong vegetarian and celibate
yogi. His admirers believe that his exceptional
longevity is due to the fact that he only
drinks and bathes in the Ganges, whose waters
are considered very sacred.When we asked Devara
Baba about his exact age, he replied, "
I have lost count of the years. It has been
a very long time."
Every morning and evening tens of thousands
of pilgrims walked the two mile stretch along
the Ganges to the ashrama of Devara Baba with
the hope that they might get a glimpse of
this ancient sage. Much to their delight Devara
Baba was always willing and even happy to
accommodate them. Sitting on the veranda of
his simple raised hut, the old sage relaxed
in the warm rays of sunlight and blessed his
visitors. Sometimes smiling or raising his
hand in a gesture of grace Devara Baba radiated
the aura of peacefulness. Some pilgrims brought
offerings of fruits and flowers, while others
came only with their prayers for blessings.
It was our prayer to the sage that he allow
us to take a few photographs, and in his usual
gracious manner he consented.
As prominent as Devara Baba was, we sensed
that there were many great souls who went
undetected in our midst. We photographed until
we ran out of film and were left only with
a feeling of helplessness. Kumbha Mela was
indeed a magnificent and awesome encounter.It
was impossible to capture the festival. Indeed,
it was the festival that captured us. Words,
film, print, and paper can not do justice
to the event — it is one that has to
be experienced personally.