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Millions seek cleansing at the Kumbh Mela, Hinduism's biggest festival

 

UJJAIN, India - Dawn came almost unnoticed to the sacred river Shipra. Even the waking sun seemed overwhelmed by the scene unfolding at the water's edge.

Hours before, drum-led processions of Hindu monks and mystics had arrived in the sweltering darkness, zealously guarding their right to lead throngs of pilgrims to the river for a "holy dip" during Kumbh Mela - Hinduism's biggest, grandest festival.

Naga sadhus (holy men) -- their wild hair matted and dreadlocked, their naked bodies smeared with ash to show their abandonment of all things worldly - rushed in first, waving swords and tridents. Then came white-bearded saints and swamis from far-flung monasteries, followed by their shaven-headed novice disciples and a bewildering array of other swamis and gurus.

As first light approached, thousands of nervous riot police finally allowed the masses of common pilgrims to descend the long steps of Ram Ghat to the river, where Hindus have sought spiritual cleansing for millennia.

They came in their waves - families, solitary pilgrims, the young, the old, the middle-aged, the poor, the rich - all mingled together in temporary suspension of caste, class and social differences. Women modestly entered the water in their saris, gathering in groups to laugh and bob up and down together. Elderly gentlemen and shouting boys abandoned all but loincloths for the dip. A crying toddler tugged against his mother, who pulled him toward the water. A teen wearing dark shades, hands stuffed in his designer jeans, tried to maintain his cool as the rest of his family heedlessly rushed toward the river.

 

Offerings for holiness

Nearby, a bathing pilgrim chanted in ecstasy as he raised handfuls of water. He flung them toward the sky, clasping his hands in prayer as the glistening droplets fell back into the tide.

Some offered floating candles and armfuls of flowers to the sacred river. Others filled small metal containers to take home a portion of liquid mercy. The holy water will never smell or lose its purity, the faithful believe.

"This is my first time," said G.L. Agarwal, looking out over the river with a beatific smile. He came by train from faraway Madras with his wife, who was on her fourth Kumbh Mela pilgrimage. "When I take a dip in the Shipra, I have become the holiest man in my village."

As the sun rose higher, the police whistles, the worshipers' mantras, the ranting loudspeakers mounted to a hypnotic crescendo that floated back and forth across the river.

 

A pilgrim flood

The anticipated crowd for this day alone, one of the "royal" bathing dates of the festival held earlier this year - was 1.5 million. Four million had come a few days before. Up to 30 million pilgrims were expected to flood the holy city of Ujjain, in central India, over the course of the month-long event.

That total fell short of the 60 million people who were claimed to have attended the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2001, the first Kumbh of the new millennium. A one-day crowd that year - 20 million - was declared the largest religious gathering in history by Guinness World Records.

But the masses this year were more than enough to overwhelm ancient Ujjain (normal population: about 1.3 million) - and appeared as shadows on satellite photos taken hundreds of miles up.

Indians converged on Ujjain from every direction and by every conceivable conveyance: planes, trains, busses, cars, auto-rickshaws, horse-drawn carts, on foot. Using an intricate system of roadblocks and openings, fences and brigades of police - authorities steered the crowds in concentric circles into and out of the bathing areas.

The goal: to give each group of pilgrims an average of 12 precious minutes in the water before yielding in the next throng.

Crowd control is a deadly serious business at the Kumbh Mela, which rotates between Ujjain and three other sacred Indian cities in three-year intervals. Fifty people died in a stampede at the 1986 festival in Haridwar. Some 800 died in Allahabad in 1954.

Sheer numbers aren't the only threat. In the past, competing sects and sadhus have violently attacked authorities - and each other - in disputes over bathing order or camp locations.

What's all the commotion about?

The Kumbh Mela (translation: Pitcher Festival) stretches far back into Indian history and mythology. Hindu legends recount an epic 12-year battle, during which the gods and demons fought over an "amrit kumbh" - a pitcher or urn containing the nectar of immortality - recovered from the churning of the ocean. In the struggle, drops of nectar spilled on Ujjain and the other three Kumbh Mela sites (Haridwar, Nasik and Prayag near Allahahbad). The four drops of nectar became the sacred Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari and Shipra rivers.

The stars and heavenly bodies align auspiciously once every 12 years at each of the four holy sites, marking the month when the Kumbh Mela shall be held and in which location. Hindus believe that pilgrims who come for the "holy dip" at such times will be absolved of all past sins, receive countless blessings - and attain salvation.

Prayag, where three sacred rivers converge, is perhaps the most revered site for the festival. But Ujjain has no shortage of sacred significance. For Hindus, this place, not Rome, is the "eternal city," the place beyond time. It has been inhabited - and visited by pilgrims and sages - since at least 600 B.C. Many regard it as the cultic capital of Hindu India. It is the home of innumerable temples, including the Temple of Mahakal, the "god of ages." Mahakal is a manifestation of Shiva the Destroyer, one of Hinduism's three chief gods. The Shiva idol at this temple is said to be "born of itself," not made by human hands, and to derive power from itself, not from ritual or worship.

 

Victim to hype

Myth holds that Lord Krishna himself came to Ujjain long ago to study at the ashram of a renowned guru.

Little wonder that they come by the millions during the Kumbh Mela. Some stay only for a one-day dip, but many camp in the vast tent city that springs up near the river during the Kumbh Mela. Gurus of every description hold forth in their ashrams, competing over loudspeakers with other chanting swamis for the devotion of the faithful.

It's part revival camp meeting, part state fair, part family reunion, part bazaar, part Woodstock.

Like everything else in the advertising age, the Kumbh Mela has fallen victim to hype. It's now the "World Cup of religion," scoffed India Today magazine in an article headlined "Quick Dip in Spirituality."

 

Spiritual searching

This year's festival "has been a revelation - not of anything particularly spiritual but of the hold media, money and marketing have over the purveyors of spirituality," reported Neeraj Mishra. "There are any number of swamis ... heavily advertising for attention, and half-a-dozen television channels carrying their paid messages .... The newly built air-conditioned halls in Ujjain invite devotees to listen to a 'maharaj.' Elaborately decorated tents with all conceivable five-star amenities pronounce the power of a guru and his authority in the material world."

That may be so. But millions of pilgrims who came to Ujjain were utterly sincere in their spiritual search - for cleansing from sins, enlightenment, release from the cycle of death and rebirth and union with the divine.

"We believe this in India," said Ruchita, a young woman staying with her extended family at one of the festival's temporary ashrams. "Coming from the water, we get peace and purity."

Who will tell her about the rivers of Living Water?

 

Matt Jones

Millions of Hindus stream to the waters of the sacred Shipra River during the Kumbh Mela festival, hoping for spiritual solace and a glimpse of eternity.

Matt Jones

High-caste Brahmins watch as millions of ordinary Indians stream into the holy city of Ujjain during the Kumbh Mela festival.

Matt Jones

A woman pours out a water offering as her mother watches from the banks of the sacred river Shipra in India. Pilgrims make the trek to the holy city of Ujjain every twelve years to commemorate the Kumbh Mela, a legendary battle between gods and demons over an urn containing the nectar of immortality. The "nectar" had been recovered from the churning of the ocean.

Matt Jones

Hindu legend states that during a battle between gods and demons thousands of years ago, drops of nectar from a holy urn spilled on Ujjain and three other sites. The four drops became the sacred Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari and Shipra rivers. Ujjain is regarded as the "eternal city" which Hindu pilgrims and sages have been visiting since at least 600 B.C.