It’s been well over a full month since I experienced the Hindu festival, The Maha Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, India. The following quote is for Arvind, Renu, their family, Kelley, and all the other amazing people with whom I shared the pilgrimage:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
– Maya Angelou –
I’ve been wanting to write about this incredible exclamation point in my India experience, but I needed some time to digest the experience. What I remember most is how I felt.
About 10 months before going to India, Arvind helped Kelley and me book a shared deluxe tent for two nights in Allahabad for the great Hindu festival, The Maha Kumbha Mela. This festival takes place once every 12 years and it is the world’s largest religious and spiritual gathering. This year was extraordinary because the festival was the 12th cycle of 12 years which, of course, only happens every 144 years. This particular festival marked a new millennium of peace. During the 55 days of the Maha Kumbh Mela, there are several very auspicious days when millions of people come to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges, also known as Ganga-ji. I was fortunate enough to experience the festival on February 25, 2013.
According to Hindu mythology, Amrit, which means “nectar of immortality”, was kept in a kumbha, an overflowing water pot representing a body full of divine wisdom. The kumbha fell to earth as gods and demons fought over it! Allahabad, the holy pilgrimage site of the Maha Kumbha Mela, is one of the four places where drops of “amrit” fell. The festival takes place over 55 days, but there are only a few extremely auspicious dates on which it is most desirable to take the holy dip at the confluence of three rivers! The confluence where the bathers go is where the Ganga (Ganges River) and the Yamuna River come together. The Yamuna River is the same river that flows next to the Taj Mahal in Agra. At the confluence point, there is yet a third river. It is a symbolic river called the Saraswati. The mythical Saraswati River symbolizes Wisdom. Ganga symbolizes Purity and the Yamuna River symbolizes Devotion. When Hindus immerse themselves into these three rivers at the exact point of confluence, at an auspicious date on the 12 year cycle, they are cleansed of all worldly sins and filled with wisdom to understand the divine that pervades all of life. Those who take the holy dip are filled with purity, wisdom, and devotion.
Months prior to going, I nearly choked when I found out the price of the shared deluxe tents would cost US $150 per person per night. I mean, deluxe or not, we were talking about tents! But then I thought that perhaps these tents would resemble some fancy safari tents. And besides, I thought that with so many millions of people gathered, it would be extremely important and worth the price to have a really good luxurious, safe, and comfortable place to sleep. Kelley and I booked two nights for the Deluxe Kumba Tents.
I later found out that Arvind and Renu would be coming with us or, rather, Kelley and I would be going with them. They would take care of us. I was relieved! They would make sure we didn’t get lost in the crowd of millions. They’d make sure we’d be safe. I truly believed this, but even so, I would get a little panicky thinking about the crowds. I had never been in a crowd of millions of people. How do you move in such a crowd? How can you see what is ahead of you? I fretted about other the certain details, like toilets. What would I do if I had to suddenly use the toilet in a crowd of millions? Worse yet, what did others do?
Two weeks before going to the festival, while still on the Rajasthan Tour with Daily Yoga, I read the worst possible news:
A railroad station crush left 36 people dead among tens of millions of Hindu pilgrims flocking the banks of the Ganges River. The stampede occurred about 7 p.m. after someone fell from a platform bridge in Allahabad, the scene of this year’s Kumbh Mela festival. A spokesperson from the railway said the station was overcrowded with pilgrims, but denied reports that the bridge had collapsed.
An estimated 40 million people came to Allahabad, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, on Sunday to bathe at the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers and the mythical Saraswati River. It’s the most significant Hindu pilgrimage, occurring every 12 years.
40 million people in one day? A stampede? People crushed? A possible collapse, though denied, in a structure like a footbridge? Images and scenes of the stampede were insidiously sneaking into my dreams. I tried to keep myself composed, but my mind was reeling and I started secretly devising various excuses NOT to go to the Maha Kumbha Mela!
After the Rajasthani Tour ended, I stayed on in Delhi where I met up with my long time friend Anita and her family. We had such a great reunion, but my mind kept going back to the Maha Kumbha Mela. My flight back to Varanasi to meet up with Arvind, Renu, and Kelley was fast approaching and I still had some trepidation about the whole pilgrimage. One evening, after a fabulous dinner, Anita’s father and his friend accompanied me back to my hotel. I have great respect for Anita’s father and so I decided to bare my fears and seek his advice:
“I don’t know what to do. On the one hand, I feel so fortunate to be alive for this 144 year Maha Kumbh Mela cycle, to be in India at this time, to be able to attend the festival under the protection and guidance of Arvind and Renu, but I am also frightened by it. What do you think I should do?”
Mr. Saini was quiet for a moment before he spoke. His gentle face, which reminds me so much of my own father’s face, looked so peaceful as he said, “Oh, it will be very special. Arvind will take care of you. You will have a wonderful experience. When you go to the Sanga (the confluence of the three rivers), simply put your feet in the water. You don’t have to go all the way in. You can go up to mid legs. You can put a little water on your head and sprinkle some over your body to bless yourself while you say a prayer. You will be safe.”
That was it! I was ready for the Maha Kumbha Mela!
A few days later, I flew back to Varanasi where I was met by Arvind and Kelley. We spent some time at Arvind and Renu’s home with the family. Soon it was time for our drive to Allahabad. We all packed tiny bundles for our two-night stay in the holy city of Allahabad. Arvind’s family bid us farewell as we left for our pilgrimage. It felt so incredibly special already. I was deeply moved by Arvind’s mother as she gave me her blessing by placing her hand on the top of my head and rested it there for a profound moment in time. Her simple gesture of hand on my head calmed me, strengthened my spirit, comforted me, made me feel deeply loved, and brought me back to my father who also used to do the same thing when he walked past me as I was studying at the table as a child. And I knew this was the start of an experience I would carry in my heart forever.
The distance between Varanasi and Allahabad is 75 miles (121 Km). Under normal circumstances, it takes 1 hour and 45 minutes to drive that distance. The traffic was dense because, you guessed it, everyone else was going to Allahabad, too! It took us 6 hours to cover the distance. Our driver, Pindu, was very skilled and graceful at dodging the many motorbikes, trucks, vendors, cows, and pilgrims walking along the roadside with bundles balanced on their heads. We passed many bucolic villages along the way and green fields dotted with the yellow flowers of the mustard plant. Every so often, our driver stopped and bought roadside munchies like salted roasted lentils and chick peas served in newspaper cones and sprinkled with lime and chilies. Everywhere I looked, people were joyful.
At some point, Arvind said, “Our pilgrimage has already begun! This IS the Maha Kumbha Mela.” I was doing it! I felt so happy!
When we got closer to Allahabad, we had to get out of the car and start walking, joining other pilgrims. Some pilgrims were barefoot, many had shoes on. Most everyone had a bundle on their heads. Everyone was headed to their tents or to an ashram where free meals are served and a mat to sleep on is provided to millions, or to the actual bathing point where they would be blessed by the waters at the confluence. There was definitely a festive ambiance. Everyone was smiling. We walked and walked and walked along with the moving mass of humanity. We walked along a paved road meant for cars, now being softly tread by the feet of millions. The road ran along the Ganges. Across the river, we could see a mirror image of another sea of people. There was a vibrational quality in the air and a humming sound all around us. That was when I realized the humming was the sound of 10 million pilgrims and that I was fully a part of this great experience. Kelley and I looked at each other, wordless and delighted!
We passed many tents and finally Arvind led us to our Kumbha Tents. I am not sure how Arvind ever found it, but he did! It was getting late, so we were led to our tents. To our dismay, our tents were not the luxurious tents of our imagination. I was paying $150 a night for a tent that sat right on the ground, had mosquitoes, had a dribble of cold running water, a bed made of plywood with clean but stained sheets, and a toilet crammed up against a wall so that you had to side-straddle it to sit and stare at an open gap in the tent where the world could see you doing your thing (or they’d see your backside if you turned the other way). I have a high level of tolerance for various situations and could deal with this one. This tent was shelter, after all. It was a step up from the myriads of make-shift tent cities we had passed along the way. However, I kept thinking about Arvind and Renu in the tent next to us. $150 per person is a small fortune for an Indian family of modest means. Arvind and Renu were putting out a total of $600 for two nights to stay in a humble tent, to describe it generously. This didn’t sit well with me. I fell asleep with these thoughts whirling in my head.
Similar thoughts were whirling in Arvind’s head, too, and the next morning, Arvind had a word with the owner of the Kumbha Tents. We all got an upgrade! Our new tents were set up on stilts and stood proudly above ground. Our new tents were much roomier (roomy enough to do yoga!), airier, insect-free, had crispy clean white linens, had a toilet one could actually properly sit on, provided privacy due to lack of gaping holes, had running water, a real sink, a real floor, a front porch for meditating, and a comfortable bed. We were thrilled!
The Kumbha Tents were placed in such a way so as to resemble a kumbha, a water pot. All the elements were represented within the tent grounds. A flag in the middle of the kumbha symbolized wind. And a fire at the foot of the flag burned at night. The property was on a river bed and the river could be seen from our new upgraded tents. The vibrational hum was even louder on February 25, one of the most auspicious days for taking a holy dip in the confluence of the three rivers. We took all of our meals right on our tent property. There was a tiny kitchen that pumped out unbelievably tasty all-vegetarian meals. While taking our meals, we met very interesting people staying at the same tent complex and we enjoyed talking to them.
Kelley and I felt the festive quality in the air. I could feel a collective strength coming from the millions of pilgrims. I couldn’t stop staring at Renu who was exuding such radiance. My whole body felt vibrant. The hum of 10 million people had now entered my bloodstream and my subconscious mind. I know this sounds strange, but I felt like I had become a child of the cosmos. And as that child, I was being taken care of. My mind was clear. I was water. I was Yamuna. Ganga-ji, my spiritual mother, had given birth to me. I was Saraswati! I had no words to describe the poignancy of this spiritual gathering where I found I had merged with my spiritual family. I was no longer this person known as Fran. I simply was…a flowing divine river, a consecrated fire, pure air and prana, the rich, generous, and delicate earth. A Great Mediation itself had taken over and I simply WAS.
Awash in the feelings of what I described above, Arvind and Renu led Kelley and me to the water’s edge. There we waited for a boat along with thousands of others. Time became timelessness. I have no idea how long we waited, but it seemed that the boat materialized and we floated along with other boats to the Sanga. There were few words exchanged amongst us. There was pure happiness. I have never experienced anything like this.
Calmness, peacefulness, and clarity washed over me. We floated along many other boats filled with people who were going to take the holy dip or who had already taken the holy dip. At some point, Arvind showed us how to climb over many boats to get to the a small walkway (engineered to hold many many people) and how to go into the water to receive our blessings. Kelley and I walked among the boats. Cheerful beautiful people held our hands to help steady us as we made our way across the floating boats to the confluence point. The water was shallow and it was easy to take the dip to mid calves. Others walked out further and submerged their whole bodies into the holy water. I listened to the exquisite sound of humming, chanting, laughter, happiness of 10 million people, my beautiful human family! I prayed for Mother Ganga for World Peace and I asked her to protect Arvind and Renu, the very people who had protected and guided me on this journey. I have never felt so overwhelmed with peace as I did at that very moment. 10 million people gathered and we all felt like ONE. This was one of the most peaceful and loving experiences I have ever had in my life.
The rest of the day, we walked around, flowing along like the Rivers. We had become Sanga and the confluence points were now inside of us. And yes, there were portable toilets everywhere. Arvind had bought us bottles of purified water which we carried so we didn’t get dehydrated. There was a strong police presence (and not a single gun) to make sure everyone was safe. There were large loudspeakers which every so often called out in Hindi, “Will the mother of…. the wife of… the brother of Krishna Singh please come to Point 19 to find each other?” Arvind explained that when people got lost, the loudspeakers made announcements and helped you find your lost ones. It is bound to happen and the city was prepared. There were 12 foot bridges, engineered to hold the weight of millions, constructed just for the festival. There were twin parallel heavy corrugated steel sheets carefully nailed across every pathway and walkway, so that people didn’t slip and could walk in an organized manner which made the pilgrims look like two rows of rivers flowing alongside each other, each flowing in opposite directions. There were sweepers keeping the grounds clean and I was amazed at how little garbage I saw. Sometimes I would see a neat pile of garbage which had been swept to a heap and was ready to be hauled away. I was most touched to see the millions of people receiving free meals, served on a banana leaf, handed out by volunteers working for various ashrams. Those same ashrams had set up huge tents where a sea of woven mats would serve as free beds for the night.
We walked back to our deluxe tents as the sun was setting. We were treated to an orange sunset. And not long after sunset, the full moon rose.
If you made it this far into this blog entry, I congratulate you! I hope that by reading this, you vicariously experienced your own Maha Kumbha Mela! I hope you enjoy the slide show below with photos I took from the Maha Kumbha Mela! Must see on BIG SCREEN and turn up your speakers.
|Digital slideshow made with Smilebox|