The royal religious procession begins in Jwalapur, a dusty town an hour outside Haridwar, where two million sadhus (Hindu holy men), ascetics, healers, mystics and saffron-clad monks have camped out overnight. The fifth royal bath, shahi snan, or ritual immersion into that holiest of Indian rivers, the Ganga, whose cold waters run through Haridwar, is taking place. This royal bath coincides with the auspicious Shivaratri, or Night of Shiva, on February 12, and marks the halfway point in this mammoth celebration and spectacle, which ends this year on April 28. I'm standing in line on the road to Haridwar to watch the saints go marching by; the crowd and procession is orderly, thanks to a large police presence, but the religious fervour is palpable. With me are Hindu men and women offering sweets, water, fruit and flowers to the sadhus.
They mutter prayers and prostrate themselves on the road, clasping their hands in a fervent namaste. Countless camera-toting Indian and foreign tourists squeeze through for better vantage points, their faces delirious, as if they cannot believe they are actually here. Occasionally, burqa-clad women emerge from within homes to throw flowers at the saints. "The Kumbh Mela is a symbol of our secular democracy in action," says Swami Avdeshananda, whose sprawling ashram (religious hermitage) is in the old Kankhal neighbourhood of Haridwar. "For example, most of the Hindu religious offerings used in the Kumbh are packaged by Muslim craftsmen, and the music bands have Muslim and Christian performers." The bands are actually the sideshow. They walk along with the saints but even their spirited drums and trumpets cannot drown out the chants of "Bum Bum Bole" and "Har Har Mahadev", words that refer to Lord Shiva, from whose matted locks, the legend has it, the river Ganga sprang forth.
The origin of the Kumbh - which means rounded pot in Sanskrit - dates back to the Vedic period some 4,000 years ago. According to Hindu mythology, the gods and asuras (demons) churned the Ocean of Milk for the nectar of immortality. When the holy pot bearing this nectar of immortality arrived, one of the gods took it before being chased by the asuras. The four places that the god rested the kumbh were Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nasik and it is in these places that the Kumbh Mela is now held on a rotational basis. Devotees believe that drops of the nectar of immortality fell from the pot at these places, which is why bathing in the river is so sacred. For a Hindu, it symbolises many things: the triumph of good over evil, a glimpse of immortality as well as being in the presence of countless revered sadhus.
Some call the Kumbh Mela the world's largest religious gathering, with an estimated 60 million people attending over the course of four months. As Mark Twain said in 1895, after attending the Kumbh, "It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining." The gathering has gone from strength to strength in how it is organised. Haridwar, for instance, has troops from the elite Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to help with law and order, a separate budget to fund the set up of a sprawling campsite for the visiting sadhus and feed them over the four months and a media centre especially for the event.
The time and place where the Kumbh Mela will be held depends on a specific astrological confluence. The Haridwar Kumbh happens when Jupiter enters Aquarius, the Sun enters Aries and the Moon enters Sagittarius. During this time, millions of Hindu ascetics, called naga babas, who spend their lives sans clothes, desire and food and drink, converge at the Kumbh Mela to engage in religious discourse. They live in makeshift campsites and take holy dips in the Ganga on 10 bathing dates. It is estimated that somewhere between five and six million people pass through on these bathing dates and today is one of those days. First in line in the procession are the mahants, or seers, who are at the top of this particular hierarchy. As they go by on grand golden chariots we throw yellow flowers at them.
After the mahants come the heads of the various religious orders or Akharas, Swami Avdeshananda among them. He rides by along with many of the religious heads, whose faces are plastered on billboards all over Haridwar. There is Pilot Baba (Baba means saint), so called because he used to be a military pilot. There is Somnath Baba, riding along with some western women, drawing stares from the crowd. "What is he doing with these foreign women?" people mutter. Next in line are the senior sadhus (a holy person, often referred to as a mahatma or given the prefix Sri before their name), riding by on horses, elephants and camels. Finally, the younger ones come walking by, and the true spectacle begins. The walking naga sadhus are, in the main, completely naked, their matted locks coiled on top of their heads. Gray ash is smeared all over their mostly lean and lithe bodies.
As the procession heats up, many of these naga babas engage in feats of skill and strength - stick and sword fighting, pulling chariots with their bare hands and lifting other sadhus on their shoulders. All these displays are to prove to their eager audience that they can and will protect Hinduism: the naga sadhus' declared purpose. They demonstrate their strength and skills all the way to the river, where, in a final act of purification, they immerse themselves en masse into its chilly depths. It would be hard to overstate the importance of the river Ganga to the Hindu Indian. For my mother, who accompanied me to the Kumbh, the high point of the visit was not the parade, prayers or blessings from the sadhus. It was immersing herself into the Ganga every morning while chanting "Ganga Mata Pavitra hai", or "Mother Ganga is pure". "Make me pure too," she would whisper to the river.
Although my mother had visited Haridwar before, it was her first time at the Kumbh, which somehow made the Ganga more sacred to her. Like many older Hindus, my parents had made the prescribed pilgrimage to sacred Hindu towns like Varanasi, Allahabad, Rishikesh and Gaya to pay homage to their departed ancestors, but the Kumbh Mela was another matter altogether. Most Hindus I know, particularly those who live in the south of India, far away from the spots where the Kumbh is held, rarely attend the Kumbh, even though they long to. They are intimidated by the crowds and the accompanying inconveniences, like the lack of suitable accommodation. When I returned home after the festival, I got dozens of phone calls from relatives and friends, all of whom were thrilled and envious that I had attended. They wanted photos, detailed descriptions, links to the article I was writing. They wanted the Kumbh experience even though they were afraid to make the actual trek.
I had come to Haridwar determined not to bathe in the Ganga. I didn't buy into Hindu ideology and I was worried about contracting germs because I was sure the river would be polluted and dirty. I was wrong. The Ganga in Haridwar, which is relatively close to the river's head in the Gomukh glacier upriver in the Himalayas, is fast-flowing and playful, just like the long-haired tempestuous maiden she is depicted to be. She is always freezing cold. As the sun rises and the glaciers melt, the Ganga gets colder, which is why the faithful bathe before sunrise. Over breakfast at the Haveli Hari Ganga, Haridwar's best hotel, where I am staying, a British couple tell me that they had come with the same qualms. "But it is so clean," exclaims the retired man called Tony. His wife, Claire, adds, "When I immersed myself in the Ganga, I began crying. I don't know why. I mean, we aren't Hindu or anything. But I saw the faith of the people here, I suppose some of it rubbed off."
Also at my hotel, some 80 yogis from Europe and America have descended for 10 days to attend the Kumbh. I speak to a handsome Swede who is clad in saffron but has short platinum blonde hair. He tells me that the group are all teachers of the Sivananda yoga method. They plan to spend their mornings learning scriptures from a visiting guru who speaks English, and the afternoons visiting the campsites and talking to the sadhus. Har ki Pauri is the most sacred place in Haridwar and it is where the procession ends. It resembles a water tank with a strip of the Ganga running between two concrete platforms, interlinked by bridges. By late afternoon, I am positioned on a wooden platform that has been erected for press photographers. People are squeezed together as far as the eye can see. Finally, the first batch of sadhus arrive for their holy dip. With smiling faces, they run down the steps of the bathing ghat and jump into the Ganga.
I had expected pandemonium, masses of people running -helter-skelter down the steps. I feared stampedes. It wasn't an orderly march, but it wasn't a stampede either. The naga babas came lithely down the steps and immersed themselves into mother Ganga to the reverberating chant of "Ganga Mata Pavitra Hai". Cameras click furiously all around me. After the requisite three auspicious dips, the sadhus climb out and make their way back up in a streaming U-formation that never seems to stop. The river bank at Har ki Pauri is bordered by temples on either side (one to the river Ganga and the other to Shiva). Strange and wonderful things happen during the ritual immersion. One naked yogi stands in a corner, dancing in sheer delight. He demonstrates a series of virtuoso yoga poses before melting back into the crowd. Somnath Baba - he who rode with white women - appears wearing a fire-engine red loincloth. "Must be a present from his foreign devotees," titters someone and we all laugh.
People wait in serpentine lines to pour milk on the Shiva-ling idol in the temple. Monks with begging bowls march past, collecting donations from the waiting masses. As the sun sets, the lines of sadhus keep coming. Having had my fill of the mass immersion, I too melt into the crowd and walk along the river to my hotel's private bathing ghat. The Haveli Hari Ganga and its two sister properties have prime locations along the river, each with private access to the Ganga. As I wade into the Ganga's chilling depths, I ponder my predicament. You see, I am at the Kumbh to make peace with my faith. Although I grew up in a devout Hindu family, I am uneasy about religion for all the usual reasons.
The Kumbh, I figured, was a good way to watch the Hindu faith in action. It had everything: temples, sadhus, prayers, rituals, colour and especially the Ganga upon which is posited much of the Hindu faith. Jawaharlal Nehru explained it best: "The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilisation, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same." As I take my first dip into the river, the temple bells clang. Is it a sign? No, it's just the beginning of the daily evening aarthi or lamp-lighting. Soon, tiny boats made of leaves and flowers come floating by, each carrying a diya, a little twinkling oil lamp. Devotees send these lamps down the river to make their wishes come true. So many wishes, I think, so much pollution.
Swami Avdeshananda thinks that devotees shouldn't throw a single thing into the Ganga. "I just dip my flower into its waters and bring it back," he says. It is a progressive thought for someone steeped in ancient Hindu principles but then, Haridwar is a special place. The entire city is vegetarian. Drinking is not allowed and police can throw people into jail if they are caught with alcohol. But Haridwar too, like Hinduism, makes allowances. The naga babas eat and drink little beyond tea, but in their campsites they all smoke.
The day after the procession, I wake up early and take a walk along the Ganga. As always, men and women are immersing themselves into its waters, temple bells are clanging, roadside carts are selling tasty hot samosas, kachoris and jilebis, saffron-robed sadhus are walking the streets. It's just another day in the holy city. For information about the remaining baths this year, visit the Kumbh Mela's website. Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary (published by Random House). Available at www.amazon.com