Sadhoes & Yogi's van India
Intro Shiva & Shaivas Vishnu & Vaishnavas Sadhvis Tapas Shaiva
Tapas Vaishnava Kumbha Mela Foreign sadhus Notes & Biblio Old photos
Kumbha Mela
A Kumbha Mela is the temporary establishment of a heavenly city, the building of a collective dream, the manifestation of the fantasy of man's god-linked existence on earth. It is a tribal gathering of sadhus and pilgrims from all corners of India and, more recently, the world.
Kumbha Melas are undoubtedly the most important gatherings in the lives of sadhus. They are held in Allahabad, Ujjain, Hardwar and Nasik, in twelve year cycles, alternating in such a way that about every three years a Kumbha Mela takes place. The twelve year cycle is related to the movement of the planet Jupiter through the zodiac, and when Jupiter enters Aquarius (Kumbha), the occasion is most auspicious. However, to complicate matters, it is also connected with solar cycles, the sun entering Capricornus or Aries, so only an expert astrologer can fix the exact dates; but the final decision rests with the Naga Babas, particularly the Juna Akhara.
The choice of these four locations is based on a myth concerning a pot (kumbha) of divine ambrosia, over the possession of which a heavenly fight broke out. And out of the kumbha four drops of nectar were spilled and fell on earth, sanctifying those four places.
The Kumbha Melas attract an incredible number of people. Like a hundred thousand sadhus and tens of millions of citizens. It is an impressive demonstration of the unshakable faith of Hindus in the holy bath and the darshan of sadhus as means to wash away one’s sins and purify the soul.
The photo on the right was taken over a 100 years ago, probably at a Kumbha Mela. The tents were simpler then, but the sadhus looked pretty much the same.
In Oman J.C. "Sanyasis at a religious gathering"
I think (though this can never be proven) that Kumbha Melas evolved out of stone-age tribal gatherings (their timing regulated by the position of stars, planets and moon), that became "institutionalized", or received their present form (as a sadhu and people gathering) in the Harappan period. The latter would explain why the melas are only taking place in the north-western corner of India.
The Kumbha Mela lasts about a month and there are several important bathing days. The main event is the shahi snan, or ‘emperor’s bath’, when all Akharas form processions to go to the right spot along the river, wanting to be there at around the right time, when the divine planetary influences are most auspicious, to jump into the water. In the past, fights between rival sects took place because everybody wanted to be at the same spot at the same time, but during British rule orders of precedence were fixed, a little different for every mela so that all rival sects would be content.

And it is a good show, religious theatre. But not merely entertainment, it is meant to be a liberating experience for all. Millions of pilgrims mill through the sadhu camps, wanting to see as many Babas as possible, sitting at a dhuni for a while, making donations, receiving blessings and prasad, sharing in the spiritual, magical atmosphere. Quite a few citizens will find ‘their’ Guru, make the jump into the unknown and join the brotherhood of sadhus. It is the most auspicious time for making such a portentous decision.
A movie of the 1986 Kumbha Mela in Hardwar: Kings with straw mats, by Ira Cohen. 1 hour 15 minutes. Good images; the commentary is not always correct, and pronunciation of Hindi is faulty. But still, very informative.
Prayag (Allahabad) in 1989
The Melas in Allahabad are the most important.
Among sadhus this town is better known by its ancient name ‘Prayag’, the ‘place of sacrifice’. Since time immemorial it has been a famous place of pilgrimage (tirtha), situated at the confluence of the brown Ganga and blue Yamuna rivers and the ‘hidden’ mythical subterranean Sarasvati: hence it is called the 'triple braid' (triveni).
A 108 degree panoramic view of the mela grounds in Allahabad. Far away in the background, you can see the hazy contours of the fortress of Allahabad where the rivers Yamuna and Ganga (and the 'underground' Sarasvati) meet.
Left on the foreground, there are some temporary bridges over a branch of the Ganga, who flows from right to left. On the extreme right, you can see the highway bridge.
The whole area, from the foreground to the fortress, and from left to right and even extending several kilometers beyond the highway bridge to the right, is filled with tents.
In this enormous tent-city the sadhus, the holy men of India, are the stars of the show.
1,173 This triveni is a power-spot, a ‘cross-over’ point between heaven and earth, and thus the focal point for the multitudes of pilgrims and Babas.

This confluence, the sangam, is most holy and there one must bathe. The earth of this tirtha is so sacred that even a small portion is said to cleanse from all sin.

Women sometimes offer a braid of their hair to Ganga.
Two disciples staying with their guru, Siyam Balak Das (left), for the duration of the Kumbha Mela. They regard him not only as their teacher, but worship him as their god on earth.
A stay at a Kumbha Mela will be full of creature-discomforts, which in this context (a pilgrimage) provides the necessary austerities (no pain, no gain).

But there will be joy and inspiration, a feeling of communality, that can only be had at such gatherings.

For a believer, it may even offer divine revelation.

Taking shape over several weeks, the heavenly city is built with the cheapest of materials: bamboo poles, sackclothing, cardboard, tarpaulins, etc.

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Amar Das, an Udasin baba, shakes his hair loose and smokes a cigarette before taking a bath in the Ganges at Allahabad, where it is joined by the sacred Yamuna and the 'hidden' mythical Saraswati; a very holy spot.
Ujjain in 1992
Ujjain is in May, and thus the 'hot' Kumbh. Dry as well. Good locations, though the farthest ends of the encampments are still at least 25 kms apart. But plenty of space. The Shipra is rather shallow, but extra water is pumped in.
Apart from Mahakala Mandir (which is built around a very 'powerful' jyotir li–ga) there are the Bartrihari caves (important especially for Nath baba's), the Datt Akhara (one of the most important Juna Naga establishments) and a popular Hanuman Mandir: Mangalnath.
Ujjain is also associated with Bhairom (or Bhairava), the Aghori manifestation of Shiva.
Sadhus during the procession through the city of Ujjain. With a shower of flowers the people welcome a procession of holy men and women into town.
 
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The initiation ceremonies of the Juna Akhara on the bank of the Shipra river at Ujjain. About three thousand new disciples took part, just for this Akhara – impressive evidence of the attraction sadhu-life still has today.
Upon joining a sect, an apprentice-sadhu must undergo an initiation-rite, which is regarded as a symbolic death — and a rebirth. He dies from his former, earthly life and is reborn into the divine life. The visible symbol of this rebirth is the shaven head of the novice, bald as a baby's.

After initiation, any talk or thought about the former life is discouraged; it is irrelevant now and age is reckoned from the new birthday.

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At initiation, these apprentice Naga babas had their head shaven as a most visible sign of their rebirth into the brotherhood of Sadhus, in this case the Juna Akhara.

The bond with the guru is now all important. He is the 'dispeller of darkness', the guide for piercing the Veil of Illusion. The guru is father, mother and teacher — and the disciple worships his guru as god incarnate; he will please him any way he can (in the ideal case, anyway).
And the best place and time to be initiated is at a Kumbha Mela.
For some sects it is the only occasion.

Haridwar in 1998
3944 Bengali Baba Ragunath Das. 3991
Shiv Giri, a khareshwari of one year's standing, belonging to the Juna Akhara, with visiting pilgrims and babas.
Prayag (Allahabad) in 2001
This Kumbh was a really big media event.
Hundreds of journalists, filmers and photographers from all over the world attended.
Whenever something spectacular (like the bathing processions) took place, they had to jostle for space and were getting into each other's way.
At almost every hour of the day, dozens of media people surrounded the more 'interesting' sadhus.
In contrast with their attitude at previous melas, the sadhus didn't seem to mind it too much.

After the first bathing day, however, a ban on filming and photographing on the riverbanks was proclaimed to protect the privacy of female pilgrims having their holy bath.

(It is a bit sad to realize that all this disturbing media activity will result in very few serious publications.)

Mr. Om Prakash Chandel (left), a man without legs or arms.

Dressed like a holy man he sits immobile all day and awaits the offerings of pilgrims.
Saraswati Giri, a Naga baba of the Juna Akhara, one of the few sadhus nowadays, who is n‰ked all the time (and not only at the Kumbh, as the other Naga babas). He has gone to Kailas.
4414 It was also the first Kumbh actively marketed (by the U.P. government as well as private travel agencies) to Indian and foreign tourists. And indeed, a thousand or so tourists did turn up.
So now sadhus have become tourist-attractions.
One wonders how this will effect future Kumbhs, as well as the sadhus.

Since tourism always seems to turn gold into lead, however, there is no reason to expect anything positive.

Another remarkable aspect of this Kumbh was the presence of a lot more 'non-tourist' foreigners than at previous Kumbhs (all in all numbering a thousand or two).

Pilgrims guided by their hometown Baba, carrying a kumbha with flowers (the birthgiving womb) on their head, on their way to make offerings to Ganga.

Foreign sadhus (some even with their own foreign chelas), foreign sadhu-like persons, foreign chelas of Indian sadhus, foreign followers of Indian sadhus, and foreign 'neo-hippies' with sadhu-like tendencies.

Does this herald the beginning of an international sadhu movement? Or is it only a temporary fashion?
Or does it herald the end of the sadhus "as we know (knew) them"?

(For more on foreign influences on sadhus, see notes.)

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Much more info and many photos in my book Contact Dolf Hartsuiker