By Aditya Sharma May 2010 The author visits the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar to marvel at the force of faith A sea of religious fervour With nearly 30 lakh pilgrims gathered to take shahi snaan on the auspicious day of amavasya at Har Ki Pauri at Haridwar on 16 March, a current of spiritual energy was perceptible in the air. Wherever the eye wandered, it encountered a throng of people from not just across the country, but the entire globe. Men and women in traditional dresses of varied colours dotted the roads and streets of the holy city. However, the colour saffron held sway. Not just the sadhus, many foreigners too were clad in saffron robes. The crowd comprised householders, sadhus who had renounced the world, curious foreigners photographing spirited devotees, and the flamboyant Naga sadhus lording it over at the Har Ki Pauri. With matted hair, long unkempt beard, ash-smeared bodies, and penetrating gaze, they were a remarkable sight. The Naga sadhus converge at Har ki Pauri The bazaars of Haridwar were chock-a-block with people, and an overwhelming variety of merchandise was displayed in the shops on either side of the roads. Excited women were buying conches, brassware used in prayers, mangalsutras, vermillion, incense sticks, posters, and figurines of various gods and goddesses. Their enthusiasm for these knick-knacks was worth watching.The foreign tourists looked even more excited. Perhaps they were too overwhelmed by the massive religious congregation around the banks of the sacred Ganges. They freely mingled with some of the devotees and held the Naga sadhus in awe. “I haven’t seen such a massive religious gathering in my life before. It is so thrilling to see people from across India taking a dip in the Ganges on the auspicious day of amavasya,” said a beaming Catherine from Switzerland.I was keen to figure out what drove lakhs of devotees to the Kumbh Mela. I happened to run into five family members from Gulbarga in Karnataka. Hoping to get a straight answer to my question, I queried the elderly lady sitting next to me in a shared three-wheeler. “What made you cover so many miles to take a dip in the Ganges?” Rather than an answer, I got a glare from her. Plus a counter question. “Tell me why do people go to temples? They can pray sitting in their homes, right?” A triumphal march toward salvation Suddenly I realised that confronting the religious beliefs of people would not help me understand why bathing in the Ganges on the auspicious day had such a huge significance. “Young man,” the lady from Gulbarga added, “We implicitly believe in our values, traditions and rituals passed on to us from one generation to the other. Bathing in the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela is considered very auspicious. I have just taken a dip in the Ganges and I am feeling an immense sense of satisfaction. This kind of feeling can’t be replaced by doing anything else.” The other family members were staring at me as if I had made the most stupid query, they could ever imagine. There were elaborate security arrangements for the gala event. Policemen were patrolling the roads and streets on their bikes, jeeps, and even horses! They were present on the ghats urging people to take a quick dip and make way for others as there were countless devotees patiently waiting for their turn. It was evening when I reached Har Ki Pauri. The last of the Naga sadhus from Juna Akhara were taking a dip in the Ganges. Until they had finished, ordinary mortals were not allowed to bathe at the sacred ghat. The current of the water was strong and the lights of the temples were radiantly reflected in the flowing water. My companion was a small businessman from Bareily. Hefty, dark, and authoritative, he was carrying an empty plastic can meant to store Gangajal, which he would carry back home. We got talking, and I was immediately struck by the dramatic gestures he made with his hands to emphasise his point of view and by his cocksure manner of speaking.I questioned, “Do you think it is worth taking so much trouble to take a dip in Ganges during the Kumbh Mela…” His piercing gaze prevented me from probing any further. I could feel I had touched a raw nerve. It was as if I had nullified all the hardships he had undertaken to come to have the Shahi Snan. “It’s all in the mind,” he declared, pointing his finger at his head, “The water of the Ganga can either be regarded as mere water or amrit (nectar). Similarly one can consider this day either as just another day or a day that comes once in 12 years.” Flailing his hands wildly, he exclaimed, “Do you know that the great warrior Arjun had to wait for 18 years to take a dip in the Ganges on this day? Blessed are the fortunate ones who come here and have a dip at Har Ki Pauri on the amavasya day.” His queer accent, and the dramatic flailing of his hands, hypnotised me. Next morning, I paid a visit to the Naga sadhus in their camp. A young disciple was being given the oath by his would-be-guru. No women, no meat, abstinence from alcohol, no escaping from the rigours of tapas, living naked and other strictures that he would have to religiously follow as a disciple were being listed to him by his guru.The hair on his head was being shaven and he looked about vacantly. Thereafter, the guru gave some presents to the five Naga sadhus, who were witnesses to the oath-taking ceremony. He then proceeded to tie a white langoti on his disciple and smeared his body with holy ash. Then he whispered a secret mantra in the ear of his disciple. For the next few years, the disciple would be living under the tutelage of his guru. Obeying every word that would emerge from his teacher’s mouth. My heart went out to the frail-looking disciple who would be renouncing enduring so many hardships at such a young age! I returned to Delhi marvelling at the astonishing force of faith. It drives one to renounce comforts; and to go to far-flung places of worship and pilgrimages, none more significant than a dip in the Ganges on the amavasya day during the Kumbh Mela.
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