The greatest show on earth

Maha Kumbh, which ended on March 10, is pricier than Olympics. It comes once in 12 years. But here millions of Indians and thousands of foreigners come without invitation for their little salvation. SUJOY DHAR lives the lifetime experience around the most auspicious bathing day to peep into the minds of the pilgrims whose sheer number makes it the biggest congregation of humans on earth.

The greatest show on earth

At Maha Kumbh, which finally came to an end on March 10, male nudity does not sell at a premium. It is a common sight thanks to the “grandstanding” of the Naga sadhus. It is rather venerated and almost all go near bare at some point with a vengeance to take a lifetime plunge at the grand confluence of rivers that is visibly murky but draws people like butterflies to a candle flame. It is the lure of salvation from the cycle of birth.

At Maha Kumbh, no one comes to find peace in seclusion. It is discovered amid the unending surge of humans seeking piety. At Maha Kumbh a Westerner does not carry the burden of a white man in the land of snake charmers. He rather learns from the Indian philosophy of renunciation and tolerance.

Olympics is held every four year. But Maha Kumbh acts pricey. It comes but once in 12 years and so it is an experience to be  lived with humbleness and go with the flow.

Call of Kumbh

At the international media camp at Maha Kumbh, Valeria Feroli, an auburn haired Italian woman, sits relaxed and glowing on the morning of Feb 10. Oozing the charm of  la donna (meaning beautiful woman in Italian) with her hairs left uncombed after the bath, hazel eyed Valeria sips her coffee after taking holy dip twice on a day when more than 30 million others took the bath.

Valeria kept awake all night with countless others to catch the glimpse of Hindu holy men’s procession to the bath. They included the hordes of Naga sadhus hollering Har Har Mahadeb  and saffron clad monks blowing conch in collective frenzy. They marched in procession dancing and yelling to the Sangam for the Mauni Amavasya snan, which is also called Shahi Snan or the royal bathing.

Undeterred by the fear of stampede, Valeri soaked in the nightlong Maha Kumbh fiesta that is a leveller of nationality and religion. But she was not alone. This Kumbh over 40,000 foreigners are officially part of the grand carnival till mid February.

“I took two baths and it is overwhelming, the experience is something that cannot be described in words,” she says proudly, divulging that magnetic pull to the Kumbh that makes her one with the god-fearing Hindu village women who arrive there seeking that abstract figment called punya (virtue).

At an akhara (camp of the sadhus from various sects), an elderly American lady, Michelle, speaks about her tryst with Hinduism, Indian culture and mysticism and the pursuit of Kriya Yoga.

“I was only 14 when I chanced upon a book by Paramahansa Yogananda [she meant the ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ considered life changing for many]. Since then I knew I have to come here. My family was Christian but I got drawn to the Hindu culture and philosophy,” says Michelle.

Paramahansa Yogananda (Jan 5, 1893 to March 7, 1952)  was an Indian yogi  who initiated to many westerners the power of meditation and teachings of Kriya Yoga with many inspired by just reading his book, Autobiography of a Yogi.

Today as Michelle moves around Maha Kumbh with her benign grace and love for Indian spirituality, she says she learns just more and more from her visits. “I have done my duty to my family. I have two sons and four grand children and I did all I could for them. I first came to India 12 years ago stepping in Kolkata from Thailand and then after visiting the Kali Temple of Kolkata I came to Kumbh. Here I am again after 12 years and it is faith that drew me here. I come to beg,” says the woman. “I come here to study, to study siddhi yoga, kriya yoga and more,” she explains.

It is an endless stream of humans, with many  of the women just carrying their household for the days on their heads in neatly packed bundles of clothes and bare essentials.

In another akharas of a rather stoic looking sadhu, another French woman was spotted sitting quietly with just one wish- to make a godaan (gifting a cow to the holy man). With the seer not showing too keenness to accept one, the woman requested this correspondent to ask what she can do to make him accept a cow.

“Do I send it from Paris by air?” she asked at one point of time. The holy man smiled and asked her to hold patience.

By her side was squatting a bunch of Americans and Frenchmen. One of them is a doctor from Paris. “I am moved. I am moved by what I see and feel here,” says Olivier Duhamel from Paris. The senior doctor says: “I discovered spirituality in real sense here. I learnt to see inside and I want my family back in Paris to know what it means to be at Kumbh,” he says.

A visit to Maha Kumbh makes one realise why Indian spirituality had drawn some of the biggest names from Western world at various times.

Mamata Yadav of Katni in Madhya Pradesh is one such pilgrim. She huddles with daughter Lakshmi Yadav and husband Damodar Yadav in a camp of devotees listening intently to the “pearls of pious wisdom” showered by a woman preacher from a microphone.

“We came all the way for the darKumbh it is the camp of an organized community of sadhus that go by its own specific tradition and practice. The sects of sadhus are Dashnami Sanyasis or Naga Sanyasis (naked sadhus who worship Lord Shiva), Bairaagi (worshipper of Vishnu) and Udaseen.

The Harvard Team

Maha Kumbh this time did not attract only the pious and those looking for Indian mysticism. In fact, a multidisciplinary team of over 50 faculty, staff and student researchers from Harvard University came this time to document and analyze the processes involved in the successful functioning of the Kumbh Mela, that draws millions.

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