16 January, 2010

Kumbh: What it means to take a holy dip

Raman Nanda, Global Post

The Kumbh festival along the sacred Ganges river means something different to each of the millions of pilgrims who attend.

Sixty million pilgrims can’t be wrong. But even so, I questioned the point of dousing myself with holy water from the Ganges that looked muddy and uninviting.

It was 2001, and I was living at the Mahakumbh grounds in the north Indian town of Prayag as part of the U.K.-based Channel 4 television team covering the year’s kumbh festival, which is an ancient Hindu gathering featuring holy bathing, prayer and devotional music along the banks of sacred rivers.

The Kumbh festival, which begins again this week, is held every third year. It rotates among four cities: Prayag (near modern day Allahabad), Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. This week, an estimated 30 million pilgrims - or three times the population of Los Angeles - will gather in Haridwar, for a “small” three-month kumbh. The duration of the festival, which has been called the largest gathering of humanity in the world, is dictated by planetary alignment and varies from one kumbh to the other.

The full or Purna Kumbh, which occurs every 12 years in Prayag at the confluence of Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers, attracted 60 million the last time it was held in 2001.

Then, a tent city stretched for miles. The food was strictly vegetarian. Alcohol was taboo. Marijuana, though not legal, wasn’t exactly frowned upon. You could smoke a joint with the myriad holy men scattered about. The whole affair had the relaxed ambience of a village festival attended by the poor of India.

Peering over the river’s edge, the water looked dirty. I could imagine it was freezing, though each and every pilgrim who emerged from the opaque waters had a glow of happiness and contentment. One is told that the Ganges, originating in the Himalayas and flowing all the way to the Bay of Bengal beyond Calcutta, is a sacred river.

Back at the Prayag campsite, I asked a priest about the ritual associated with this so-called holy dip.

I was told to stand in the river. Collect some water with joined palms and throw it back over my head as an offering to my ancestors, he said. The priest told me to think about my loved ones as I dunked my head beneath the water. It all seemed simple enough.

On one particularly auspicious January morning, I decided to join the stream of humanity headed for the river. Wedged between bodies on all sides, I was carried like a leaf atop the current to the river where I managed to find standing space in the ice-cold water.

I made the symbolic offering of Ganges water to my ancestors. I cupped water in my hands and threw it back over my head. Then, I dunked myself in the river wondering if my soul would be cleansed of sins.

I thought about my mother who had died many years ago. I had accompanied my father to Haridwar soon after her death to immerse her ashes in the Ganges. Warmth surged in my heart as I recalled my mother’s smiling face.

I took another dip, this time for my grandfather. I recalled how as a child I used to snuggle in his bed to hear his enthralling stories based in ancient Hindu scriptures that he blended with the rural landscape of the Punjab, which is now in Pakistan and is where he migrated from. His ashes too had been immersed in this river about 40 years ago. The water no longer felt cold or dirty.

More dips, and my thoughts turned to friends and loved ones: my father, children and wife. I thought about my very first crush. One day, my father will die and I’ll bring his ashes to this river, I thought. As my son will one day bring my ashes here. My teenage son too, it struck me, will die one day; his children will bring his ashes.

Every time I raised my head above water, I noticed hundreds of thousands taking dips. I felt like a speck in the story of the Earth. I wondered if everyone around me was thinking the same thing? I felt small, but not vulnerable. I was comfortable with thoughts of death. My body felt light.

The experience of being a part of a mass of humanity is surely a subjective one. Mark Twain, after attending the kumbh in 1895, said: “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. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination.”


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful read... Just that i could have done without his son's ashes being talked about