Kumbh Mela: A Week at the Largest Religious Gathering in the World

We pose before a particularly elaborate camp (with chandeliers!) and are invited inside to the meet Swami Vivekananda Giri. He invites us to stay as long as we want.

Being taken in by an ashram at the Kumbh is an honor, akin to being a guest in someone's home. During the Kumbh, ashrams don't charge for accommodations, like they usually do elsewhere. They offer free food to all guests and often to passersby outside ashram gates.

11 February 2013

I am sick all day from bad paan, a betel nut-based treat.

12 February 2013

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A man dressed as the Hindu god Hanuman mills about in the sangam near a procession of pilgrims. The sangam is much more crowded than this during major bathing days.

We drift into and out of camps and meet oddly decorated babas (holy men) and a guru from Bangladesh. Two of the babas have white and red sailboats painted all over their bodies. The guru tells us:

"Stop the clock,

ban the bomb,

milk the cow,

remember Ram!"

13 February 2013

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Pilgrims dressed in bright robes begin their journey home.

We are asked to attend a puja at 9 a.m. A puja is a religious ritual, performed as an offering to a particular god. In this case, the puja is for Durga, a goddess known for slaying the buffalo demon, Mahishasura. The puja is long and full contact. We get water in our hair, tilaks on our foreheads and oil rubbed on our hands. We throw rice on the Durga image and rice, sesame seeds, and ghee into the fire.

14 February 2013

We stop for a Coca Cola and run into Andrew, a friend from home. Every time a foreigner stops to buy Coke at that shop, the shopkeeper tells Andrew, who is staying nearby, that his friends are here. To humor the shopkeeper, Andrew always comes to look. This time, against mind-boggling odds, the shopkeeper is right.

15 February 2013

Another major bathing day. At 3:00 a.m., we awake, drink chai, and pack. A crowd forms in the ashram courtyard. Some disciples hold silver scepters. At 4:30 a.m., we and the chanting, shouting crowd walk out the main gate.

There are no chariots outside. We realize we must walk the four or five miles to the sangam.

We maintain a fast clip. Intermingling with other groups, our group breaks apart. We lose the front half of the ashram crowd. Soon we are lost, and the monk leading us doesn't know the rendezvous point.

We ask repeatedly for directions and end up on a road lined with naga baba camps. Naga babas are naked sadhus, or ascetics. They renounce material possessions, cover themselves in ash, and smoke charas (hashish).

Outside a tent we sit and drink chai. One naga baba wraps his penis around a pole. Two other naga babas stand on the pole, forming an inverted human pyramid. The first sadhu holds the pole: the other men's weight isn't actually on his penis, but he's in obvious pain. He smokes a pipe full of hash immediately afterward. A bizarre sight to see at dawn, this is actually a spiritual practice.

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A naga baba performs an ascetic practice with his penis as he walks down the road prior to the start of the procession.

We find and climb into our chariot. Like a parade float, it's covered with banners, crepe paper, and tinsel. A trailer drawn by a tractor, each chariot boasts an ornate, metal throne. When the gurus climb in, attendants cover their heads with decorated umbrellas.

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A guru sits in his tractor-drawn chariot surrounded by attendants awaiting the start of the bathing procession.

Our chariot holds half a dozen attendant ashram boys, the three of us and five older women. Another 20 disciples walk alongside.

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An ashram boy sits in the throne of the chariot before the arrival of the swami.

Every guru at the Kumbh seems to be in the procession. After all the tractors fire up, we start rolling. Huge crowds line the road. Riot police wearing armor and carrying tear gas keep the crowd in check. We roll on, waving like celebrities. The swami's attendants shout call-and-response cheers. Everyone is in top spirits.

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Part of our ashram group waits in the chariot for the arrival of the swami and the beginning of the procession.

We drive about a mile to the sangam. The tractors park and everyone dismounts. Thousands of people shed clothes and run to the river. We must grab our luggage; we'd never again find this tractor. When we turn around, our ashram group is gone. At the water's edge we search but never find them.

We bathe on our own. I strip to my boxers and run in, submerging three times in the traditional manner. Then I guard our luggage and clothes while my friends bathe. We dress and then elbow ourselves away from the sangam, across the Yamuna on a pontoon bridge, and out of the Kumbh.

Presented by

Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson is a writer based in Iowa. He is writing a book about myth and pilgrimage in India.

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