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Scroll through the slideshow below to see Kris Hariharan’s beautiful images of the largest peaceful human gathering on earth, the religious ritual of immersion in the Ganges.
A profound transformation comes about the devout when they take a dip in the holiest of the holy, Triveni Sangam, the confluence of three rivers at Allahabad, Prayag, during the Maha Kumbha Mela, the largest religious congregation on this planet. Caught up in the unimaginably massive sea of humanity, the pilgrim realises that man is insignificant, just a drop in that ocean. It does not matter what colour the devotees have or what race they come from. What matters is why they are here and what they get here. They discover that man has to shed his pride and arrogance if he has to discover God. Kumbh Mela is a place where the devotees lose themselves, lose their false notions about themselves and their species and are reborn as better human beings.
My urge to be a part of such an event grew when I learnt that Mauni Amavasya Snan, the main bathing date of the event, would draw close to 30 million pilgrims. I wanted to be lost in the sea of faith and re-born from the seed of belief.
According to Vedic scriptures, the demigods were keen on obtaining the nectar of immortality from ocean. Though the task seemed simple, the efforts involved were massive. On the suggestion of Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe, the demigods had to join forces with the Demons to get the job done, agreeing agreed to share the nectar.
It is said that Mandara Mountain acted as the churning rod and Vasuki, The King of Serpents, was used as the rope for churning the ocean to make the nectar. Initially, the ocean spat deadly poison, which was swallowed by Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe. Soon, the mountain sank into the ocean, which was uplifted by Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe, in the form of a Tortoise. After tens of centuries and hundreds of hurdles, the duo finally received their prized possession—the nectar.
The demigods, worrying that with the possession of the nectar, the demons would be more powerful and harder to defeat, stole the pot of nectar and fled. Having learnt that they were merely used by the demigods, the demons chased them across the universe for 12 days and 12 nights, demanding their share. In the process, a few drops of nectar fell on earth at Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain, which were later declared as the holy places of the Hindus. Since 12 days on Devaloka (abode of the demigods) is equivalent to 12 years on Earth, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated once in 12 years.
This story of re-birth, the afterlife and the power of liberation brings together people from all walks of life to one place with one ultimate goal – to find God.
Kumbh is the largest gathering on Earth. Over 55 days in January this year, an estimated 80 million people participated in the mela.. The people have been following this sacred tradition for centuries, believing this holy dip will allow them to skip the afterlife and reach God. Many of these devotees are obscure and ordinary men and women, sincere in their quest for the spiritual. Some of them are from far-off lands; the USA, France and Italy.
On the day of Mauni Amavasya Snan, the mercury touched as low as 6 degrees, something which I am accustomed to only once in a year in Bangalore. The previous night I was restless due to severe cold, the bustling noise made by the moving crowd, the constant sound of the whistles blown by the Mela cops and the bhajans and vague voices calling out for help on loud speaker etc. It was the day of Amavasya.
An event of such magnitude must be systematic and highly organized. The procession takes place in a pre-decided order. The Sadhus, one of the main attractions of the gathering, enter the water in the early hours of the day. Out of the shivering water, the Nagas smear white ash onto their bodies, leaving behind unique patterns created by their fingers, a few helping each other in rubbing their backs, stretching their hands and legs. Then the Sadhus march back into their Akharas. First the Juna, and the Niranjani and Mahanirvani akharas proceed into the water. The procession is witnessed by the pilgrims. For a minute, one would think if the entire population of India was at one place – such is the magnitude of the crowd. It is here that I found my true self. Here. a strong atheist may even become a theist, for a day.