Kumbh Mela Festival: A Godly Experience in India

April 15, 2013
Kumbh Mela Festival: A Godly Experience in India

To try to surmise the Kumbh Mela in a short article is both impossible and unfair – there simply is not enough space.  With that in mind I will keep it simple.

We arrived at the Maha Kumbha Mela in Prayag, Allahabad, on the 9th of February, along with approximately 30 million other pilgrims, just in time for the main bathing day of the 10th.  The atmosphere was intense, chaotic, and awe inspiring as we amalgamated ourselves into the seemingly unending sea of pilgrims that descended upon the 35 square kilometer festival grounds in preparation for bathing in the Sangam – the amalgamation of the three major rivers in India at Prayag.

Here it is believed that Hindus will have their sins washed away by bathing on auspicious dates relevant to the alignment of the stars.

Kumbh Mela Festival: A Godly Experience in India

The Mela has been the subject of much writing and film over the years and the event held this year, estimated to house between 60 and 100 million participants, was clearly going to be no exception. Unsurprisingly, I found the entire event to be rather bewildering.  On the up side, my prior anxieties about overcrowding and sanitation were unfounded.

On the down side, I had not banked on the air quality being so poor (think desert dust loaded with enough DDT to kill all the mosquitoes in the world).  Nor did I consider that everything would be orchestrated in Hindi, which was really quite stunningly stupid even for me, but I had come from Goa so my cultural perception of India was bound to be massively obscured.

The Mela has been the subject of much writing and film over the years and the event held this year, estimated to house between 60 and 100 million participants, was clearly going to be no exception.

Whilst the spectacle of 30 million pilgrims dashing for the Sangam (the merge point of the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati) on the 10th was mind-blowing, undoubtedly the highlight of this event for me came on the bathing day of February the 15th.  On this day we were invited by one of the Baba camps to bathe with them – an honour not extended to many westerners.

At first I found myself conflicted over this invitation as I was not a Hindu, and they do have a lot of Gods whose wrath I would incur if exposed as the usurper I blatantly was.  Think about it.  The wrath of Shiva is probably way more perilous than that of Jesus – I was taught that he was known as the destroyer in school, it’s in the name!

Kumbh Mela Festival: A Godly Experience in India

However, after some deliberation, I decided that we wouldn’t have been invited if bathing would have been likely to invoke some kind of Hindu-based Armageddon.  What’s more, Shiva is a God and therefore probably quite reasonable despite his destructive credentials.

On that day, we were introduced to the Mata-Jis, or female Babas, who were, for want of a better word, awesome.  They were fierce, powerful, wise, and intimidating yet simultaneously heartfelt, caring, and protective.

They helped us dress appropriately in orange robes for the bathing itself, and were ferocious in protecting us from the chaotic, excited, crowds.  The ambiance that morning as we prepared to bathe was indisputably tense and as we entered the main arena chanting and punching the air under their instruction.  It felt more like we were charging into battle rather than on our way to be chastised in a magic river.

The ambiance that morning as we prepared to bathe was indisputably tense and as we entered the main arena chanting and punching the air under their instruction.

The bathing itself was certainly an awakening on merit of the dizzying hoards of pilgrims, ash clad Babas, and other religious folk all whizzing around us like a shoal of fish in an undersized fish bowl.   There was also the shock of being launched into a freezing cold river at stupid o’clock in the morning wearing nothing but strips of orange cotton which served me as a pretty stark awakening.

By the time of our return to the Babba camp a feeling of euphoria appeared to have spread amongst the participants that day.  Everyone was relaxed and giggly as they recounted the bizarre sights they bore witness to, and the Matas in particular, were now completely relaxed; fussing over plying us with chai tea like a gaggle of old dears at a knitting convention.

On the way back one of them even bought us a bag of popcorn each which made me feel like I was on a day out with my Aunt rather than in the company of a religious leader!

In summary; the Kumbh Mela was an event that will stay with me from now until death.  From the seemingly unending crowds of pilgrims parading towards the Ganges on the main bathing day on our arrival, to the strong, powerful, yet maternal demeanor of the Mata-Jis; words fail me in being able to convey the eclectic montage now forever lodged in my mind. Incredible.

 

Have you traveled to the Kumbh Mela Festival? How was your trip? Email us at editor@pinkpangea.com for information about sharing your experience with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you.

Photo credits for Kumbh Mela Festival: A Godly Experience in India by Emily Morus Jones.

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