This major Indian spiritual festival is currently underway in the northern pilgrim towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh. It began on Makar Sankranti, 14 January 2010, and will continue until 28 April 2010. The photographs included in this section are selected from the contributions of three individuals, including a young Brazilian businesswoman, lawyer, life coach and student of Vedanta in Rishikesh.
The ancient Indian understanding of the sacred Universe is strongly and vigorously alive in the person of the Sadhu, whom faith has placed at the apex of the pyramid of human evolution, as somebody who has renunciated from the coils and tentacles of material maya of the samsara after full satiation of desires through life after life. These are the men and women who have left home and their personal disappointments behind to follow the call of the spirit, travelling fearlessly with the sadhu jatthas or pilgrim groups across the length and breadth of India, walking barefoot over extremely inhospitable terrain, often on empty stomachs. In the course of their parikramas, they connect with ancient ascetic wisdom of timeless India, the rigors of their travels transforming their bodies into sheer laboratories of faith at a very cellular level.
The Kumbh mela seamlessly connects with the Hindu beliefs of Creation as related to the churning of the Ocean, which places India at the fountainhead of the spiritual quest for immortality. It is an astronomically timed event, which strongly weaves in the cosmic dimension and its strong liberating influence on denizen of the Earth planes, of which the great water bodies, rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati (the first river merging in the Ganga from above Badrinath), Kshipra and Godavari are specially empowered to transform the essence of karma in the lives of the bathers.
In Haridwar-Rishikesh, the liberating influence is charged upon the mighty Himalayan River Ganga, which is in itself a composite flow of the waters of the Saraswati (Keshav Prayag above Badrinath), Dhauli Ganga, Pindar Ganga, Nandakini, Mandakini, Alaknanda and Bhagirthi. Tributary after Himalayan tributary merges in the great flow, in a series of sacred Prayags or Sangams, until it finally flows down the Himalayan foothills of Rishikesh, onto the plains of India for the first time at Haridwar! The sheer force of the River flowing down the Himalayan slopes, as she cuts through the great mountains in awe-inspiring gorges, fully justifies the legends of the descent of the Ganga from the heavens. Hers is the power flowing untamed through the matted locks of Shiva onto the knees of the Rishi – bent in supplication to break the force of the cascading waters – after whom she is also named as Janhavi! Her mission is to bring back to life the perished progeny of the old land, reduced to ashes at the end of devastating warfare. She is charged with the cosmic powers of revival, rejuvenation and liberation as the Goddess of heavens, Shakti Ma, astride the crocodile as Makarvahini Ganga!
Haridwar-Rishikesh is the blessed terrain traversed on foot by hero after hero of ancient India on the Himalayan quest for knowledge, penance and liberation across thousands of years of living history from before the times of Ramayan and Mahabharat. This tradition has continued down to the present times, becoming the hard core of a living faith, in its most simple form manifest as the ritual of the Ganga snan especially on days of marked astronomical significance in the charged times of the Kumbh Mela. Simple people from remote corners of India visit the bathing ghats in touching surrender to the extraordinary belief in her powers to ease suffering and to eventually bring liberation from the painful cycles of life and death.
The Kumbh Mela has in effect served across millennia, as the awesome unifying platform across diverse regional cultures and faiths of India. It culminates in the Shahi snan or the ‘Royal Bath’ of the sadhus. The latter belong to a diverse and heterogeneous mass of the sadhu hierarchies that enjoy special rights and privileges according to the strict bathing protocol on auspicious days in the course of the four-month long festival. Naked bodies of the sadhus lining for the holy dip, across all lineages and orders, represent the innocence and childlike openness of the spirit of renunciation that has nothing to hide from God. At times, the painfully thin naked bodies of the sadhus are uncontrollably shivering in the cold air of an overcast winter dawn, as chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ rend the atmosphere with the fervour of faith.
In Haridwar, the chief divinities representing the pantheon of the sky-clad sadhu on this occasion are: Shiva, and his Shakti as the divine mother Ganga; Mayadevi as the presiding deity of Haridwar, formerly named after her as Mayapuri, which was one of the holiest seven cities of ancient India; and the trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh in the form of the wandering ascetic Dattatreya, whose charan padukas are also taken out for the holy dip at the head of the procession.
Apart from the sadhus, it is inspiring to experience the faith of common Indians of all backgrounds and states waiting patiently to take their turns at bathing along the ghats lining the entire length of the pilgrim towns from early mornings to sunset times. The immense expanse of the ancient towns easily absorbs the vast sea of humanity converging to participate in the holy event, so that there is only a pervading sense of peace and serenity of timeless dimensions. This is the space that offers rare opportunity to dissolve all fears and transgressions of the rootless modern times into the unity and bliss of surrender in the arms of the Divine Mother Ganga.
It is a great blessing that faith conquers all reservations, in the absence of the gawkers, hooters or the eve teasers in an atmosphere of simple celebration of pure faith and nothing else. Walking around the ancient city and the temporary tents of the travelers and Babas at the other end, offers a grand view of the ebb and flow of a living faith that survives with vigour amid the inexorable commercial advance of the utterly faithless secular times. It is time that more ‘modern’ Indians also learn to discard the faithless veneer of superiority to connect with the timeless beliefs at the core of this powerful tradition of the kumbhsnan, which is something of a last opportunity at redemption before inexorable cosmic events overtake us in this era.
Also read –
1. Pictures of Haridwar Kumbh Mela 2010
2. Pictures of Prayag Kumbh Mela
3. Kumbh Mela and the Media