story & photos by William Howell
Eons before archeology, deep in the mythos of Mother India, the goddess that is the River Ganges requested the saints of Bharata to restore her waters to purity. Since then, such melas every third year have drawn saints, sadhus and sannyasins to bathe at four time-honoured sites in northern India. This year was the Maha (Great) Kumbha Mela, occurring only every 144 years. Always “the world’s most massive act of faith,” this January 14-February 25 was the largest gathering of people ever on the planet: 100,000,000! Extra trains, buses and planes brought pilgrims to Allahabad, where the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers converge at the Prayag. For the main snan (sacred bath), 30 million souls hoping to be purified gathered on February 10.
Brahmi and I were at “the Kumbh” an entire month, invited by our Ashram to help provide a free medical camp (general medicine, orthopedics, homeopathy, ayurveda, emergency medicine and eye clinic, even providing eyeglasses). In 20 days we saw 8000 patients (some who’d likely never seen a doctor), ages 3 to 95, our open-air “waiting room” filled with every degree of orange, red, yellow, pink and ochre (sun colors) from tatters to silks . . . if they wore clothes at all. We smiled when an ash-covered Naga Baba received eye drops. Twice a day we also fed saints/sadhus Gujarati snacks and great chai and coffee. Late afternoons were for satsang and spontaneous meditation. Dinner, always vegetarian, came late . . . then a 2.5 km. walk back to our guesthouse for welcome sleep.
We’d seen cities and hill stations, evergreen heights of Dharamsala, jungles of Mount Girnar and palm-swaying coasts of Kerala . . . but we’d never touched the throb of India as in the Kumbh, a vast tent city (20 square miles) all on sandbar. The government had set out roads (boulevards, avenues, side-lanes) defined by steel planks, plumbed all 15 sectors and provided free electricity. On these desolate streets rose flashy entry gates with swirling lights, decorations and posters on edifices of bamboo and tacked cloth. It’s a huge chance for bearded and beaded spiritual leaders to attract new followers, though how capable any of these “gurus” were is hard to say.
Our ashram’s offering, all designed by Maiyashri (enlightened consort to “Bapu”, the one who’s taken us to India every year since 1997), was unlike any other in the Mela. No whirling extravaganza, our entrance was a field of silverized pink roses on lavendar cloth. Employing elegant white tents with gold stars housing burgundy sofas with matching rugs—more 5-star hotel than tent city—we had 8 small medical pavilions, 2 large tents merged for our ashram (meditation, satsang, gatherings of saints), a tent for Maiya and another for Bapu (who came for 9 days). She (and our 20-person crew) had come solely to serve, our posters advertising “Free Medical Clinic” and “Sahaj Siddha Yoga” in Hindi and English.
In speaking with sadhus and film makers, with Europeans and Orientals, with poor folk and assertive photographers, with old and young, Brahmi and I met some stalwart souls, though most were just looking. Who could not be curious amid this most vivid display of humanity? On Kali Road, just outside our door, elephants, camels and every type of conveyance, from handcarts to BMWs, went dreamily by, including silver chariots drawn by festooned horses carrying saints to see the Shankaracharya, head of all of India’s ascetics. Our favorite “show” was the daily parade of 30 new renunciates (all decked ashen-faced in their weirdest finery) who marched by our camp at 3:15, shouting Ahalakh! over and over, their begging bowls out . . . and often led by a young boy dressed as Krishna (he’d been rented out by his poor family so the lad could have decent schooling).
Yet the Kumbh was a course in profound disillusionment. The spiritual politics—really just politics—was eye-opening, and beyond our encampment we found little authentic spiritual draw. Many sadhus just do the lifestyle; they like to be considered “holy” and sport “the look”—silver beard to the ankles, cocked dreads coiled twice the size of their head, hair the length of a bridal train if untwined. Yet what made up for it all were the faces. O the faces! Hardened, wrinkled, sweet, dark, painted, noble, harsh, inviting, imposing—all of humanity lined up while I recorded their names in our medical-camp book: simple ones (like “Ram” and “Shiv Giri”), entitled ones (like “Mahant Swami Shri Rhadekrishananda Saraswati Maharaj”) and arrogant ones (like “Avatar” or “Bhagavan”). Women sadhus (maybe 5% of the renunciate population) were often gorgeously wreathed with wrinkles. One carried a brown blanket in a pouch on her back (it was actually her hair, carded like a bolt of cloth)! We definitely delighted in interacting with some saints, eyes bright with acknowledgment, even in a brief moment of passing. And, of course, our highlight was Bapu’s arrival—to be in his simplicity, power and humble radiance.
We always felt safe, even when walking “home” at night. Our concern were coldfronts down from Kashmir and morning fogs capturing the smoke from all-night dhuni fires, plus the ever-present dust. Leaving the best air in America for the worst air in India, we predictably got bronchitis (as did countless others). The Mela did prove dangerous for those involved in railway station stampedes, or two fires near our camp, or a crashed busload of pilgrims driving to the Prayag.
The Kumbh is no freak show, though strange-looking dudes abound (and we were shown a floating rock, a cow with five legs). It’s not Mardi Gras, despite rivers of people hoping for a sacred glance, a blessing, a marigold from the procession of “floats” to the Prayag. Nor is it Vegas, despite flashy entrances lining every road and who knows how many betting their souls on a spiritual leader who, hopefully, is true. We must agree with Maiyashri, who, in response to a film director’s question about rising spirituality, responded, “. . . Nowadays spirituality is a mess,” which suggests that anything can be found in the spiritual marketplace, and that people seem to exercise little discrimination. She later called the Kumbh “a volcano of spiritual energy,” seeing with her “astral eyes” the mandals (patterned celestial worlds) of the spiritual traditions represented there. Yet to experience the politics behind the Mela, we cringed for Maiyashri, one of few women in this male domain, being at its mercy. Yet to all eruptions, she merely replied, “It’s the Kumbh!”
I did bathe in the Prayag twice, fearful of melted Himalayan waters on February mornings when breath was visible. But the river, once I entered, had been warmed to coolness by millions of bodies. And to behold them spread out like a sea! Then to be in the thick of that humanity, often not knowing how motion was possible! My experience, both times, was more joyful, actually glorious, than I can explain. Something of the goddness nature of these rivers must have been communicated, for afterwards my body felt peaceful, deeply at ease.
We marveled at the Kumbh’s fabulous temporality, even temples 64’ square and 40’ high. Like a sandpainting pains-takingly completed that Tibetan monks then sweep away, monsoon-like storms erased the Kumbh earlier than planned in a month that never sees rain. To see dozens of people taking shelter under a lorry, anywhere they could find. Yet it was the Kumbh! Barely getting out of Allahabad (we’d pondered trains, but heard how one man, 1st-class ticket in hand, resorted to a taxi at scalping prices because 30,000 people on the railway platform prevented his reaching his train). We made it out by bus, then barely got out of Delhi—that the Lord was “at our side”, we’ve no doubt.
The Kumbh was awesome, fantastic, overwhelming, ancient, strange, spectacular—any of 1,000 adjectives will all be accurate. So what remains? A lifetime experience unique in all humanity, profound and wild, disconcerting and deified, unforgettable, unrepeatable . . . now tucked into the vast corridors of time. We could say, “We’ve seen it all!” which wouldn’t be true. But it’ll not stop informing us.
One day the walkway up to our guesthouse got paved (during our time at camp). Returning that night, we stode up not-quite-dry cement. Somewhere on Allahabad’s Ganges shore our footprints stand as evidence of our month-long continuing mystery in the timeless Maha Kumbha Mela.