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.”

No comments:

Post a Comment