2013 marks the 144th major Kumbh Mela in India, which in Hindu astrology is a very exciting and auspicious occasion. The Kumbh Mela is well known as the oldest spiritual festival in the world, with reports of the first events taking place as early as 200 BC. Small Kumbh Mela’s are held every three years with the ‘major’ events taking place every 12 years. 2013 marks the 12th ‘major’ Kumbh Mela, which I am told is the most auspicious of them all.
The Kumbh Melas rotate between four holy cities and this year I am privileged to grace the city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh to witness this once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s hard to comprehend a space that can hold 100 million bodies over a period of eight weeks, yet the festival grounds somehow seem vast enough to do so. Split into 14 different sectors, the 20km site is more city than festival, and thousands of tents huddle together among man-made desert roads.
The Kumbh Mela site is entered via manmade pontoon bridges, which are an incredible sight in themselves. As we drive over these precarious yet striking bridges with cattle, tuk tuks, saints and sages, it’s a little difficult to know what to expect a the other side.
On our first day, we are taken to global Humanitarian leader Swami Avdheshanand’s camp. Here we are whisked past the huge public marquee to a private tent out the back where we are greeted by chandeliers, hand-painted walls and plush seating. Not quite what I was expecting – but a wonderful surprise. Swami Avdheshanand welcomes us like we are part of the family, and we are each presented with a mala (108 meditation beads) Prasad (food that has been blessed) and a flyer about his efforts and humanitarian goals.
SwamiJi (as he is affectionately called) glides across the tent with an ease and grace that I’ve not witnessed before. He has a presence that I can only describe as revered and at peace. Clearly he is a busy guy (TV cameras, reporters and important looking officials come in and out of the area) yet he never looks stressed or overwhelmed.
His mission is a simple one – to link spirituality with social responsibility. As founder of ‘Prabhu Premi Sangh’, a dynamic spiritual organisation devoted to the welfare of mankind, SwamiJi has been extensively engaged in diverse humanitarian efforts to uplift society.
After a short dharshan (spiritual talk), he insists that we go to his dining area for lunch (Prasad – blessed food) where he feeds thousands of other Swamis each day (100% free of charge). The title ‘Swami’ means renunciate – where one cuts off all ties (including family, job, home & all material possessions) in order to devote their life purely to the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. The Swamis wear orange robes as a symbol of their renunciation and so must find food and shelter at nearby ashrams.
It’s day two at the Mela, and today we are in search of another enlightened being – this time we are looking for the world famous Pilot Baba. He has known our hostess Seema since she was a little girl – yet we are informed that it’s difficult for large groups to enter his private resting chambers for security reasons.
We walk through Pilot Baba’s ornately designed camp, only to arrive at a small building with a large metal gate and a security guard. Locals queue up and one by one, are denied access. So it’s a surprise when a friend and myself are ushered straight through the gates (we later found out that this was because we were both coincidentally wearing orange scarves which is Pilot Baba’s favorite colour, and also the colour that his international staff wears).
Once inside, we are offered sweet, sticky chai, and the chance to wait for a moment with the man himself. A young Russian Sanyassi (devotee) takes a few minutes to tell us about his guru Pilot Baba.
We learn that Pilot Baba is well known for his successful Samadhi experiences. Samadhi is a deep state of consciousness attained through long periods of meditation. Pilot Baba and many other Yogis will test their ability to perform Samadhi by being buried underground for a period of days without any water, food or fresh oxygen. Pilot Baba’s personal record is 33 days underground in meditation.
Our sanyassi friend tells us that Pilot Baba took this concept a step further by practicing Samadhi underwater at the 2001 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. He recounts how the heat from Pilot Baba’s body was so hot that the water literally burned up around him, and how his body felt stone-cold to touch when he was finally pulled out of the water days later. As predicted (by himself), Pilot Baba opened his eyes at precisely 1:30pm four days after being submerged in the water. It is said that advanced Yogis have such control over their bodies that they can decide in advance when they will re-awaken from such challenges.
We share more Chai and Prasad with Pilot Baba (who I’ve since found out is 76 years old and only sleeps for half an hour each day) and manage to ask one quick question before he races off: “What advice do you have for people practicing Yoga in the West?”
Pilot Baba answers “In the West, you practice yoga with your bodies. When you think you are doing yoga – this is attachment. You are not doing yoga – your body is doing yoga. You must be aware – there is no point practicing asana if you are not aware.”
Day three and we are off to find the notorious Naga Babas. Wearing nothing but white sandalwood paste, the Naga Babas are a main attraction at the Kumbh Mela. Sandeep, our driver for the day takes a deep pride in sharing his knowledge of the ancient Naga Babas with us.
We are told that the Naga Babas live deep in the southern Indian forests and only come out into civilisation for the Kumbh Mela festivals. They are celibate and continuously smoke Marijuana for spiritual advancement. We are escorted into a Naga Baba camp in district 4 where we can see a number of young babas lazing around burning logs. Some are passed out (I assume from Marijuana intoxication) while others look fervently at the few female westerners who dare to pass them by.
As I walk past I catch the eyes of a nearby Naga Baba and I can only describe the feeling in the pit of my stomach as pure fear. Their eyes are like deep black pools of wilderness – an animalistic glint that I’ve not experienced before in a human being. There’s an air of complete savage about them – and something that leaves you feeling like you’ve just witnessed a ghost.
Day four and we are off for the main event – the devotional dip in the Ganges. According to Hindu philosophy, the Hindu Gods dropped immortal nectar at each Kumbh Mela site (Allahabad, Haridwar, Trimbakeshwar and Ujjain) and so Hindus believe that by taking a dip at any of these places you are able to literally wash away your sins. At Allahabad the sacred spot is where the three rivers meet – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.
We negotiate with a local fisherman to take us out on his boat and there is the usual haggling process. Once both parties are happy, we jump in and begin the slow ride out to the Sangam point where the three rivers meet. It’s a visually arresting site with flocks of birds floating overhead as the golden sun begins to set over the glistening waters.
If you haven’t visited India before you won’t have experienced the incredible Indian sunsets. I’ve never seen such a breath-taking site in any other country. They say it’s because of the immense levels of dust and dirt in India that you can stare directly at the sun without damaging your eyes – and believe me it’s almost worth it to have lungs filled with dust and dirt 24/7 just for a glimpse of the incredible burning sun.
We reach the Sangam point and it’s time for Puja (an offering ceremony). Here we are each given three coconuts and blessed by a local Hindu Brahman (holy man). Each coconut is offered into the Sangam point and we are then ready to take the sacred dip. Women must remain covered and so we go in clothed in sarongs. We are told to take 3 dips for ourselves and another dip for each family member.
The water is cold but surprisingly refreshing. It may be dirty but you really don’t care at this point – it’s all a part of the experience. If 100 million Hindus do it then it can’t be all that bad… can it?
To end our Kumbh Mela experience we head to the evening Aarti – a daily Puja ceremony in which fire lamps are offered. Seven holy men each stand on a platform and swirl large fire lit lamps above their heads in this elegant performance.
Afterwards, we take blessings from the fire in return for a donation. Myself and a few fellow Kumbh Mela adventurers start to dance to the closing music spontaneously, and of course, to show off our freshly painted henna hands and arms.
As the only westerners there we are quite the spectacle. Before we know it, the TV cameras have honed in and are capturing the western visitors and their improvised Indian style dance moves. For a moment we’re lost in the beauty of a festival where there may be millions of strangers present, yet time stands still as we share one common goal – to in some small way, better ourselves as people.