Feb 28, 2013

Kumbh Mela 4 of 5 - Juna Akhara

I hope to convey with this reader’s hands something of the beauty of his voice. His rhythmic cadences rocked that afternoon in Juna Akhara. Across the way from the reading, Anil , a Phd. Candidate in Hindi culture, identified the chant for me. When I asked about staying in the camp the night before the next bathing day, Anil arranged that with the baba he was studying with, Swami Thana Pati.

Thana Pati is 28 years old. He became a swami after 11 years of training. This portrait was taken as an assistant was helping him dress at about 4AM on February 15th for the procession to the bathing areas. On the afternoon of the 14th when I arrived to spend the night the Swami asked me (through a translator) not to take pictures until 4am the next morning so that “everyone will be relaxed.” Later the swami made two exceptions to his request for no photos before 4AM the next morning.

The first exemption was for the beauty of the sunset—seen here behind the naked sadhu next door.

A second exception was made for the evening prayers of the swami and his devotees.

The next morning Swami Thana Pati blesses a young naga baba just before we went to the meeting place for the 7AM procession. (Pictures I took earlier that morning of the 4AM procession were used in the first Kumbh post to illustrate the mythic origins of the mela.)

After the procession the devotees took turns washing the swamis feet. They caught the water that they poured over his feet in a bowl. Some of them drank every drop of that wash water. 

Swami Thana Pati seemed to me to be a very level-headed fellow with a sincere and warm smile. He is one of the relatively few babas at the camp that do not smoke dope. Other than his passion for collecting foreign currency, I don’t know that he has any materialist ambitions. It might just be my cultural differences coming out, but, still, I do think all humans ought to come with warning label that says, “Worshipping me may be hazardous to my health.”

The February 15th 2nd procession begins

I like this candid portrait because it fits so well with the dark night of the soul of Christianity. Despite all the smiling babas this darkness exists in Indian spirituality as well. As Simone Weil put it: 

“The world must be regarded as containing something of a void in order that it may have need of God.” 

Thanks to Jackie Clements for sending me this picture of me and my Pentaxes. The attached DA15mm prime lens on the camera I’m holding was used to take most of my Kumbh Mela pictures.

A mother with children as shaved and ash covered as herself takes a bath alongside the naga babas as her kids wait.

A naga baba with a modesty garland poses after reapplying ashes after his bath.

The rarely seen double dick-stick trick is one example of a great deal of horse play that goes on before and after the procession. There are mock fights with wooden shafts and a lot of sword waving.

Pilgrims that must have been waiting here most of the night to get this prime spot just behind the barricades.

Feb 27, 2013

Kumbh Mela 3 of 5 - pilgrims’ procession

Pilgrims on the way to the bathing ghats

“Science… has… examined everything heavenly that has been bequeathed to us in sacred books, and, after hard analysis, the learned ones of this world have absolutely nothing left of what was once holy. But they have examined parts and missed the whole, and their blindness is even worthy of wonder. Meanwhile the whole stands before their eyes as immovably as ever,… does it not live even now in the movements of individual souls and in the movements of the popular masses?…”

— Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Kharamozov.

I, myself, can’t stop asking questions like:

“What about all these miracles? Do you think these naga babas can levitate, appear in two places at once, and so on?”

Last night my dinner companion, an Australian about to take a three month course in Tantra yoga, answered:

“Well, since I have levitated spontaneously several times, I don’t see any reason to believe the naga babas can’t do it. Gravitation is based on a circular spiral energy [and she made a clockwise spiral motion with her hand], all you have to do is reverse the spiral [and she made a counter-clockwise motion with the same hand.]” 

Devotees bathing just after the naga babas

My favorite response to this subject of everyday miracles came at the dinner after the events described in the previous post. Someone asked me if I saw the naga baba go to sleep. I answered:

“No, but, he only sleeps two hours a night.”


“Dude, I didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“Try sleeping two hours tonight. No one can live on two hours sleep a night.” 

This guy’s Western rationalist zeal made me feel for a moment wonderfully unlearned and unlike those the Dostoevsky quote criticizes as having ‘missed the whole.’ I’d find it so easy to believe that the deep meditative states called samadhi that naga babas and yogis reach can provide a way for them to cut back on their sleep.

However, last night’s dinner companion went on to explain that samadhi is a progressive departure from the body that leads to the acquisition of siddhi or magical powers such as the ability to disappear or appear in two places at once. I felt, once again, a little left behind.

A pilgrim shows the water he has bottled at the confluence of the three sacred rivers. I met an Austrian couple who took liters of Ganges water home. Back in Austria they have a special cup that lets one drop a minute fall over their Shiva lingua. It is, they say, even without the Ganges drops, an amazingly powerful stone.

After their sacred bath the sadhus reapply ashes from bags they filled up before the procession from last night’s fire.

I arrived at the sadhus camp the night before to avoid the maddening millions. However, to return to the tourist camp I had to fight my way through unbelievable crowds. Thirty-nine people died this day in a stampede at the railway station and there were reports that ten died in stampedes at the Mela. 

Finally, I made it to the last bridge out of the Mela and was able to look back at the multitude.

Feb 26, 2013

Kumbh Mela 2 of 5 - Anita’s story

Room with a view #4

I slept (or rather tried to sleep) on February ninth, the night before the main bathing day,  right here in front of Shoee Onkargiri Naga Baba’s tent in Panchayati Akhara besides three Spaniards I’d met at the tourist camp. In this photo taken by Raul, just as we were getting up, you see from left to right  Anita, myself and Sonia. Inches from the front of the covered porch on which we recline devotees decorated the tractor floats for the procession (seen in the first photo).

Here Onkargiri Naga Baba uses a Lonely Planet Hindi/English phrasebook to communicate with the women. 

On the long walk to the sadhu camp Anita, thinking that her spiritual path might lead through Onkargiri Naga Baba’s camp, said to me:

“When he looks at you, you feel he is all love.”

The previous day through a translator Onkargiri had told her:

“You have a power. You are one in one million. I choose you to be my student.”

“No sex, no marriage. You and me connect like Parvati and ???.”

[the Spaniards aren't clear about the word represented by ???, if it is a name for Shiva as the context suggests it may be a reference to the asceticism and temperance that Parvati was famous for before her marriage to Shiva. However, they remember a word sounding more like “Sanka”].

The translator added on his own behalf:

“I’m coming from Bangladesh to be his student. He is famous around the world. People come from all over the world and are turned down.’

The power of Onkargiri’s offer is hard to overestimate. Devotees and pilgrims worship the naga babas almost as if they were gods.

Onkargiri Naga Baba symbolically covers his eyes, nose, mouth and ears in the belief that if you control these and the other 3 openings to the body, your third eye, your connection to God, opens. A sadhu is one who renounces earthly things to achieve moksha or release from the suffering of endless reincarnations. In the west this is usually referred to as self-realization.

Onkargiri looking in Anita’s direction.

Continuing with the translated words of the sadhu to Anita when she was with Sonia and Raul:

 “Next Kumbh Mela [12 years from now] you will be baba and people from everywhere will come to be blessed by you. You will be queen.”

“You will be able to disappear and appear in two places at one time.”

“This is good life. You will have money. You will have freedom after finishing training.”

The Indian woman you see on the other side of the fire pit in the second picture said, “They renounce everything, but after they become babas they are more free.”

It was clear to Sonia, Raul and me that Onkargiri Naga Baba had a crush on Anita. When I had lain down to sleep between Anita and Sonia so that Anita could stay up and talk to Onkargiri, I had to get my iPod out to shut out the sweet awkward lines he was continuing to squeeze out of the Lonely Planet Hindi/English phrase book. I listened instead to Krishna Das sing: 

There are some things I may not know
There are some places, dear Lord, I may not go.
But there’s one thing of which I’m sure
My God is real for I can feel him in my soul

Hare Ram, Ram, Ram, Sita Ram, Ram, Ram, 
Hare Ram, Ram, Ram, Sita Ram, Ram, Ram, [etc.]

— quoting now from, God is Real / Hare Ram, the one chant on my playlist that is partly in English

It’s almost 4 am and a naga baba Onkargiri calls Vikimg (big brother) because he helped make him a sadhu gets some help dressing for the procession to the Sangam. 

The following pictures are from the pre-dawn rally inside the naga baba camp that took place just before the procession began.

Vikimg is connected. He told Anita, Sonia and Raul that he has an iphone, a laptop, a twitter account and 2,000 Facebook followers. He gave Anita a DVD that was made about him.


The final change in Anita’s opinion about Onkargiri and his friends came after the procession. An orange robed assistant to the naga baba asked for Anita’s phone and started typing into it. He held the phone away from her so she couldn’t see what he was doing. (She thinks he tried to call himself to get her phone number, but the phones weren’t working.) When he gave it back she got what she regarded as a sexual touch as he traced his finger down her palm. Anita looked at all the other babas and their assistants and saw them give him a knowing smile—they were all OK with it.

Anita concludes:

“I thought I was living with gods, now I think the gods are devils.”

The last thing Onkargiri said to Anita when she made it clear she was leaving:

“You give me some money.”

At the tourist camp where I spent most nights, the one westerner I met who was also here 12 years ago for the last Kumbh Mela, put it this way: “If you’re looking for spirituality, look to the pilgrims.”

Most of tomorrow’s post on the procession to the Sangam turns away from the sadhus to just do that.

Feb 25, 2013

Kumbh Mela 1 of 5 - preface

In Juna Akhara a naga baba hands out a sacred sweet blessing

Lost and alone, on my first morning at Kumbh Mela I walked the teeming avenues looking for Juna Akhara, the most talked-about naked sadhu camp, and wondering why I’d come half way around the world to choke on the dust kicked up by the cars and motorcycles that plow through the endless crowds. Then I noticed that orange-robed men were converging on a tent just to my right. I approached cautiously as I expected someone besides myself would soon be asking me what I thought I was doing. Instead I was asked:

“Have you had breakfast?”



I was led into an inner sanctum of the tent where some of the most beautiful western spiritual seekers I’d ever seen were gathered. Breakfast was being served by the orange robed man to her right who is handing out samosas and this heavenly mix of syrup and cake. 

When I asked someone where Juna Akarna was. I heard, “This is Juna Akhara.” 

I decided then that I would try to see the key events of Kumbh Mela from ‘inside the tent.’  Other photographers I met spent the special bathing days getting pushed by the Indian army or police and millions of pilgrims further and further behind the barricades, behind thousands of devotees, behind the tower for photographers with a press pass or behind the toilets. On the main bathing days the army sealed off the center of Kumbh Mela well before dawn. To get in one had to start on the long walk to the Sadhu camps by 2 in the morning. Many spent the hours of the night wandering as aimlessly as I had that morning. I spent the nights before the two biggest bathing days sleeping just outside the tents of naga babas of two different camps. Then I marched in the procession with them to the bathing ghats with the Indian army and police keeping the throngs out of our way. Most of these Kumbh Mela blog posts will be about those experiences. 

Alison Higgin’s silhouette is at the right of this snapshot of the sadhu party. She spent an entire week sleeping in the naga baba camp where this party was taking place. I’ll show better pictures of her at the conclusion of these Kumbh Mela posts if she sends in a promised summing up of her experience. 

I’ll conclude this introduction to my Kumbh Mela experience with a physical and a metaphysical overview. The next 3 pictures that show the layout of the festival were taken after a storm drove the crowds away and left some lovely clouds and reflecting pools. 

Above you can see eight of the eighteen pontoon bridges that spanned the Ganges River. On the right hand side of the image just below the line of trees at the horizon is the Yamuna River. The bend of land inside where the two rivers meet is the sangam. This confluence is the most sacred spot at the Mela. It’s where the naga babas bathe. Outside of the frame to the right there are 13 sadhu camps—6 camps for the naked sadhus and 7 for the clothed sadhus. To the left of the sangam, if you click on the picture to enlarge it, you can just barely make out a sliver of blue where the Ganges continues with the added strength of the Yamuna. I stayed most nights across that barely seen broadened Ganges—a few kilometers from the sangam.

Close-up of a pontoon bridge

The entrances to Juna Akhara after the deluge

Also in Juna Akhara, as a spiritual austerity Amarbharti has held is hand aloft and let his finger nails grow for decades. 

At the right, Lola Schnabel, an acclaimed New York artist and filmmaker, has come to the Mela to see a friend, the man at the center lighting Amarbharti’s Ganga pipe. He was her first love and heir to a great fortune that he turned his back on to pursue this difficult spiritual path in India. At their reunion he had to sit, as he does here, with his back to Lola.


Next photos taken at the start of the first procession to leave Juna Akhara for the sangam on February 15th illustrate the mythological origins for Kumbh Mela. (I marched in the second procession and I’ll show images from the whole of that walk later.) 

The Kumbh Mela myth is sometimes censored to conceal the wickedness of the gods. This is the uncensored version. However, it also includes transitions and conclusions of mine that you won’t find elsewhere. This is story telling, not testimony.

Long ago this planet was not just a place to visit, but a permanent residence for gods and demons. The demons were powerful while the gods were cursed. The gods, to put it plainly, were fearful lying cowards. No one knows why Brahma informed them that what they lacked, the elixir of immortality, could be theirs if they churned the milky ocean for a thousand years. Perhaps, believing the task far beyond their strength or will, the Creator was just handing out “busy work.” If so, Brahma, would be the last to underestimate the guile of the gods. Kumbh was the pitcher that the gods made to collect the sacred nectar.

Knowing that they would have a millennia to devise an ingenious plot to deny others a sip of the sacred sauce, the gods convinced the demons to help in exchange for an equal share. When the Kumbh was brimming with immortality the gods began their long-planned double-cross. A great fight ensued. The gods being the weaker party fled with the Kumbh. For 12 days the gods gulped the divine elixir as they galloped while the demons thirsted in pursuit. In human terms, the chase lasted 12 years. During that long pursuit the gods spilled only 4 drops of the immortal nectar with the biggest drop falling at the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges river. 

In the hearts of believers, a third mythical underground river, the Sarasvati, also rises up here to mix in its sacred waters. Every 12 years a mela (from the sanskrit word for assembly) is held where these great rivers come together because only then does the Sarasvati briefly return the spilled drop, the primordial nectar of the gods. Pilgrims get what might be a once in a lifetime chance to cleanse their karma in the sacred sauce that made the gods divine and the demons demonic.


I expect to conclude this blog by posting about the Mela each morning of this last week of February and I hope to have an additional post that offers an alternative perspective on the festival. There’s some things I’ll talk about tomorrow that I wish had not happened.  However, I didn’t come here to wander around taking exotic pictures, but to communicate honestly with my images and text a few telling vignettes. As Thoreau put it, “Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.”

Feb 4, 2013

The View from my Window #3

When I said in the last post that I wouldn’t have time to make another before Kumbh Mela, I hadn’t imagined that I’d arrive in Calcutta to find I’d been given another room with a view.

As I was washing myself, I looked out the bathroom window to find that at a sidewalk sink across the street several men were doing the same. The young man on the left is saying a prayer or giving thanks after his bath. …. I’ll try again tomorrow morning, but won’t be able to update the post because there’s no wi-fi anywhere near my hotel. It’s sort of stuck in 1937.

Regular readers know that I'm fond of inhabiting places in India that haven't changed since the time of the British Raj. As you can see above, my room at the Broadway Hotel has its original Bengali-red floor and dark wooden furniture. In the lobby the iron grill elevator is also unchanged for the past 75 years.

After my bath I had breakfast at a table by the window in the Broadway Hotel’s restaurant/bar. 

I leave for the great gathering, Kumbh Mela, the day after tomorrow!

Feb 2, 2013

Let’s do the numbers!

This is my last pre-Kumbh Mela post. I’m leaving Puri tomorrow for Kolkata. I’m leaving Kolkata for Kumbh Mela on February 6. Below I've done the numbers for the largest peaceful gatherings in human history. How will American crowds rank against Indian gatherings?

[Immediately above is one of the scores of photos I've taken in the fishing village for kids that want to have their picture taken. The boy who pleaded to have his picture taken is the one holding up (and I don’t know why) the number “2.” My first thought when reviewing it was, “too bad there’s 4 kids in the center instead of two. Then I realized that’s not 4, it’s 2 pairs! I saw the 3 other pairs in the picture and I thought ‘This is Two-riffic. It wasn’t until there were 2 in that garden that things started to get interesting. Two is the essential number for mankind…’

[However, as I began this “Numbers” post I looked at my 2-some pic again and found that my enthusiasm for it had diminished considerably. So, I decided to begin here with a pair of less dubious merit that was also taken in the fishing village.]

So, without further preface, let’s do the numbers for peaceful human gatherings

  • Largest gathering in history, 70 million, Kumbh Mela in 2001
  • Second largest gathering 18.5 million visited the shrine of Iman Hussein  during Arba’een in 2013
  • Largest Christian gathering, over 5 million to see Pope John Paul II in the Philippines in 1995
  • Largest political gathering is a tie, 5 million in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate Mubarak’s removal. 5 million in Tehran to welcome Ayatollah Khomeini on his return to Tehran
  • Largest concert - 4.2 million to hear Rod Stewart in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1996
  • Largest number of pilgrims at Mecca, 3.5 million in 2010
  • Largest anti-war rally is a tie. Rome and London, 3 million in each city protesting the U.S. Led invasion of Iraq on Feb. 15th 2003
  • Largest gathering in the USA, 3 million attend parade celebrating Boston Red Sox winning World Series in 2004.
  • Largest party, over 1 million at Love Parade, Essen, Germany in 2007
  • Most celebrated large peaceful gathering in the USA, Woodstock music festival, 450,000 near Bethel, New York in 1969.

[Source: all numbers based on estimates published on Wikipedia.)