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Experiencing The Kumbh Mela

Sonal Jhaveri

On boat - pilgrims waiting to take a dip at the Sangam (confluence  of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers)

The camp - we stayed in one of the tents. The camps are constructed on the bed of the Ganges, once it starts drying up after the end of the monsoons. This one belonged to a friend - there are others that are much more primitive, while many many people just sleep on a piece of cloth or on a blanket on the sand. And then there are a few luxury tents that are up on a hill and are like 5* or even 7* hotels - so you see the full gamut.
At an ashram where they feed about 3000 poor people, three times a day throughout the Mela. We helped out with serving food for a bit. The number of people waiting to get the food is mind- boggling. The ashram also gives each person Rs 100 with the meal - that's about 1.5 dollars. These kinds of mass efforts, and especially the enormous need for basic food among people, really humbled me.
Feeding the poor.

They give puris, two vegetables, daal, rice, bhajias, and two kinds of deserts per meal. A simple yet nutritious diet. Served from buckets.

Groups of pilgrims that belong to the same sect gather to pray or listen to lectures.
Much of the pilgrims’ time is spent praying and chanting, listening to lectures, or watching performances from the Hindu religious epic Ramayan.

Walking on the bed of the Ganges. This was the first day of the festival, so we still had lots of space to walk. The sand is extremely fine. With almost no pebbles.
The Shahi Snaan procession is led by cavalry, followed by foot soldiers, then paramilitary. Lots of police presence. The police receive special training in crowd control and in not getting angry or violent with pilgrims. They were all extremely helpful.
Then the main procession starts. Each Akhada (there are 13 akhadas in Hinduism) is given about 45 minutes , after which the next one gets started. The procession crosses the river on one of about 12 pontoon bridges that are put together across the Ganges.  just for the mela, then are dismantled.

You cannot get a feel (from the still photos) of the sound that is all around - everyone is singing, many are dancing, not only those in the procession, but also the pilgrims who are watching the procession. There is an amazing amount of joy, fervor, energy. Chants of  “Har har Mahadev” (Hail to Shiva) all around.
Many naked sadhus, some with swords, others carrying tridents. the temperature is about 4-8 centigrade and the wind is icy and piercing.
They keep warm with their energy. They cross the bridge then run into the icy waters of the Ganges!!

The paramilitary are there just for show - they would not have been very effective in managing any kind of riot.  But their presence in uniform is a deterrent, I suppose.
The procession is peppered by many “floats” - some are quite elaborate. The important members of the akhadas are seated in these highly decorated trucks/vehicles, pulled by tractors.

Some of the participants have iPads and are filming us watching them!!
The entire procession for each akhada may be more than a mile long.

Meantime, on the river bank, people may be watching the procession, or doing their own thing. This cluster of people had built an open fire in the midst of everything and everyone - to light their cheroots. The pollution was unbelievable, mostly from open fires...
And this man was putting on his make-up for the day.
Pilgrims watching the procession. While the men wandered all over on their own or in groups, the women almost always were found in clusters, sometimes with children in tow.
There is an increasing presence of transgenders at the Mela. This is one who earned some money by doing a sort of provocative dance. I read in the papers that someone has started a 'transgender akhada'.
Flowers are sold everywhere - people will buy these as an offering to the Ganges. The flowers collect on the shores and mess up the water. Unfortunately many garlands also have plastic spacers between the flowers that tend to clog the waters permanently - consider that 90 to 120 million people attend the Kumbh Mela, over a period of 5-7 weeks .  Although people talk a lot about wanting to clean up the Ganges, they will nevertheless place flowers and coconuts and incense into the water. At least this year I did not see flowers in bowls made of aluminum foil! The government tries to limit use of non-biodegradable materials, but the numbers of people are so high that enforcing such regulations fast becomes a nightmare. Most people - even highly educated ones - say their own use of materials into the waters will not make any difference - but of course it does!

This man had only one leg but went into the water, dipped, prayed, and pulled himself out - all on his crutches. The faith people have in the power of the Ganges is quite fantastic.

The boatman in the background will take you to the actual confluence site of the rivers. The boats and oars are very primitive and boat traffic is extremely heavy. The left side of my brain kept telling me that this was an accident waiting to happen - but the boatmen were very experienced and really knew how to navigate among dozens of other equally dilapidated boats. We had to jump from one boat to another and then to a third, in order to disembark - all were very rickety; but there were lots of helping hands. All you needed was faith that you would make it - and all of a sudden you were on land!!
People watching the procession.
The plastic containers being sold below are filled with Ganga-jal, or water from the Ganges. People bring the water back home and use in purification rituals.
Sheela, my cousin’s wife, was traveling with us. At one point she wanted to give money to some poor urchins but got completely mobbed - almost in a flash - as soon as she brought her cash out of her pocket.
Altogether, however, it was a magical experience - and I am so happy I was able to attend it for the second time in my life.

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