The Maha Kumbha Mela
Allahabad, India – January, 2001
By Paul Dallaghan
An auspicious event. It happens only once every 144 years. Of the four sites Allahabad is the largest. It is held here every 12 years. On the occasion of the twelfth of these it becomes the Maha. But this is determined more by astrological alignments than a multiple of years. January 2001 saw the largest gathering of humans in one location for one particular event, ever. The total was over 70 million, with an average of 20 million on location at the heart of it at any one time. This was an incredible experience all of itself. From the rooftop where I slept I was able to capture some shots of a small part of the Mela. These photos show the sangam, the chief bathing spot, the confluence of the mighty rivers, flowing from the Himalayas, the Ganges and the Yamuna.
The photos are weak in comparison to being in it. Looking out from the rooftop it resembled a medieval battle scene. The wooden oared boats lining up in the water, millions of people on either side. Yet it was a battleground of peace and harmony. Being in it you just had to go with it. The people flowed in and eventually they flowed out. A constant river of pilgrims marching towards the river with their bags on their heads, losing flip-flops along the way. The majority were peasants from rural areas. This was a lifetime pilgrimage, to bathe in the waters on the auspicious dates. They slept out on the ground. At night the temperatures got down near freezing. I wrapped up in all my clothes and the one blanket I could find. The wind added to the experience. In the day the sun would shower down its gift of heat, on a very dry sand riverbank. But the people were alive, joyous, full of color. The women would stand drying their colorful saries in the sun. Somehow all the millions were fed.
Everyone was there for one reason – to bathe. Perhaps superstitious reasons brought them. Or maybe sincere faith, a strong belief in the Hindu religion. Whatever it was the energy was special. The place was filled with holy men, sadhus, babas. Who was deep in their practice and who was looking to make a quick rupee was open to question. Many came to put a dot on your forehead or pour milk in your hands and then expect a donation. The way of the world I guess. But within the maze of millions were sincere seekers and austere practitioners. Some were heads of acharyas and thus public figures. But more exciting was the hidden sage. Unfortunately for me they were a little too well hidden.
Two years previous I first heard of the Maha Kumbha Mela and just knew I had to be there. The inner voice spoke. I didn’t know what it was or really understand it until I was there. Yet something pulled me there and made getting there possible. To get to Allahabad was next to impossible at this time. The officials had closed the roads. But without any direct plan I just happened to make it. It was also the day all the main Babas and holy men were coming to speak at the Himalayan Institute camp. By shear coincidence I found myself there for the afternoon. Then off I headed down the river, at night, not knowing where I’d end up. Some stranger without a word of English decided to accompany me until I found a place to sleep. Once in the heart of it I wondered if I could ever get out. It felt like it would be like swimming against a powerful current. But then the current changes. I was there for the amount of time I needed to be. Decided by a higher source. The most auspicious day for bathing, January 24th, was the day for me to go in the river. Complete faith put me in the water with 20 million others. No thought for the state of the water, for that evaporated with the higher purpose of the visit. Intention is key. Letting go and going with the flow was the only way. India teaches you this. Somehow I was bobbed along and got a train reservation easier than in normal times. The platform had literally 5,000 people on it. Many had been waiting two days for their train. An elderly woman had just died on the platform and they were wheeling her off as I arrived. And within a couple of hours the train came. Thousands of peasants scrambled for seats, like a scene from a movie. Yet the car which had my bunk was almost empty. I spent 36 hours on that train but was blessed with the company of one old wise pilgrim and one young learned scholar. The trains were my guru for it was here I saw God’s work and learnt about myself and life.
Blessings to all those who made it and to those who did not.