Haridwar wakes to mystical Kumbh snan

via Anupma Khanna | Haridwar - Daily Pioneer published on January 13, 2010

As the first rays of the sun warm this crisp winter morning, the mystical Kumbh Mela comes to a magnificent start, transforming the long beach of the Ganges into a sea of humanity embracing tourists, pilgrims, scholars and holy men of various religious orders.

Having at its centre ritualistic ablutions in the Ganges to cleanse one’s soul of sins and attain salvation, the massive festival is expected to draw more than 60 million spiritual seekers from across the world in the ensuing three months. Spread over a sprawling 130km, it extends to Haridwar, Rishikesh, Munikireti and Swarga-shram banks of the river.

With expenditure exceeding Rs 500 crore by the Government, the colossal congregation of people has been prepared for months on end, giving rise to a parallel tent city following its own administration and traffic rules with 140 hectares of camping area, 14,000 toilets, 32 police stations and 36 fire stations.

The Kumbh is being held from January 14 (Makar Sankranti) to April 28 and has eleven bathing dates in between, including the three biggest Shahi Snan (Princely ablution) days of February 12, March 15 and April 14 marked by fantastic religious processions. Astrologically, the festival marks the entry of Jupiter into Aquarius and the Sun into Aries.

There are a few things as powerful as an individual’s faith. And when this faith transcends the frontiers of space and social order to culminate millions of beliefs and the bizarre into an undivided devotion; the consequence is an overwhelming phenomenon that both captivates and confounds. This in essence is the twelve-yearly Kumbh Mela, the biggest sacred gathering on planet Earth that makes a spectacular start in the holy Himalayan town of Haridwar this morning.

Having its roots in the Vedic period, the magnificent confluence of devotees transpires from the ancient legend of Samundra Manthan or the churning of the ocean of milk. As the lore goes, thousands of years ago the Gods and the demons decided to work together for yielding amrit (the nectar of immortality) by churning the Milky Ocean and to share it equally.

However, when Dhanwantari, the divine healer, appeared with the Kumbh (pitcher) containing the nectar in his palms, a great battle ensued between the gods and the devils to wrest the pitcher. The demons absconded with the pot and were chased by the gods. In this celestial war that lasted twelve divine days (equivalent to twelve human years) drops of the nectar spilt at four places —- Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. And these places have thus been venerated as the sites of the awe-inspiring Kumbh Mela that has preserved its symbolism and charm ever since.

In lesser-known references, the origin of the Kumbh Mela has also been traced to the river festivals in which pots of grains were soaked in the waters of the holy rivers and put to seed with the rest of the grain, during the sowing time. The religious carnival has also been regarded as a pre-Aryan fertility ritual for the Kumbh symbolises the Mother Goddess and also the womb, the generative pot.

The grand spectacle of the Kumbh has roused the curiosity of foreign travellers since the ancient times and Huan Tsiang or Xuanzang of China, who lived during the seventh century was the first to recount the fair in his diary. Having visited India during the reign of King Harshvardhana, he described how half a million people had gathered on the banks of the Ganges along with their king, his ministers, scholars, philosophers, and saints. The king distributed enormous quantities of gold, silver, and jewels in charity for winning a place in heaven.

And The Pioneer’s interactions with local veterans revealed that, to quite an extent, this tradition has remained conserved with the affluent pilgrims offering free food and sweets to the poor during the Mela in their aspiration to get nirvana.

The hermits include Urdhwavahurs, who believe in putting the body through severe austerities; arivajakas, who have taken a vow of silence; shirshasins, who stand 24 hours and meditate for hours standing on their heads and kalpvasis, who bathe thrice a day. However, the most fierce and striking of the sadhus who come to the Kumbh are the Nagas (the Naked Ones), the belligerent wing of the sect with their ash smeared stark naked bodies.

“They come from their ashrams, monasteries, caves and veritable palaces of marble, gold and glass. They come from India’s vast rural backyard, cities, clearings in dense forests and remote ice-bound heights of the Himalayas. Some come humbly with the meagre belongings of a holy man —- the water pot, the fire tongs, a shoulder bag and a blanket. Some come with their retinue of disciples following the guru like a medieval army, armed with tridents, chains, spears and muskets. Then, there are the heads of large monastic orders that arrive to the fanfare of brass bands, and some, well-heeled international gurus come in limousines.’

Reminiscent of the cholera outbreak during the 1892 Mela at Haridwar, the State this year confronts the challenge of curbing the spread of Swine Flu among the millions of who will throng the pious city. And for the security, it is naturally a concern to control the gargantuan influx of people.

Notwithstanding, one recalls Mark Twain’s eulogy of The Kumbh, “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people.”

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