Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Big Dip – Kumbh Mela, Haridwar 2010

Approximately every three years or so, when the planets are aligned in a specific way, the Kumbh Mela festival is celebrated, and Hindu devotees from all over India make a pilgrimage to one of four holy sites to bathe in the Ganga (Ganges) river. The sites are determined by how the planets are aligned, and this year, the location is at Haridwar, and the festival is celebrated from Jan 14 to Apr 28, with eleven specific dates chosen as the holiest and most fruitful days to bathe in the river.

The origin the Kumbh dates back to a time when a fierce and bitter battle between the Devtas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) churned the primordial seas and a Kalasha (pot containing the nectar of immortality) was recovered. To prevent the Asuras from claiming the Kalasha, the Devtas hid this pot in twelve locations. Four of these locations are believed to be on earth, namely - Haridwar, Prayag, Ujjain and Nasik, while the rest are thought to be in heaven. During the struggle over the Kalasha, it is believed that some drops of nectar fell onto these four earthly locations, who each plays host to the Kumbh festival approximately once every twelve years.

So when in Rome...or should I say Haridwar, I worked up the courage (with a lot of encouragement from my friend Bron) to do what the locals do, and bathe in the river. Hindus believe that bathing in the Holy Ganga during the Kumbh cleanses the bather of all sin and evils, and grants them salvation. Figuring that I could probably use some good Karma and a break from my recent spate of bug-in-my-food episodes, I strip down to my underwear, and wade into the Ganga, drawing looks of amusement from a rowdy group of Indian guys who seem more interested in taking pictures with me, than of their own chance at attaining salvation.

Located in the Himalayan foothills, the waters of the Ganga at Haridwar is a lot cleaner, and refreshingly cool, in contrast to the suffocating humidity in the air. It is estimated that over 10 million devotees will bathe in the Ganga at Haridwar over the course of the festival.

Being that this was one of the eleven holiest days to bathe in the river (March 24), the banks were filled with the religious making their dip. At around 4pm, a special ceremony involving Nada Sadhus (Holy men, regarded as saints by Hindus who leave their families and abandon everything – including clothes - to devote their lives to God) was performed. Their Guru, dressed in nothing but a bright silver chastity belt made offerings of fruit, flowers and milk to the Mother Ganga. Stark naked, with long dreadlocks and covered in gray ash, the Sadhus wait patiently on the waters edge, observing the ceremony. All of a sudden, with a bang of drums and the clash of cymbals, all the Sadhus jump into the river together, frantically splashing around, kicking off their ceremonial afternoon bath to cheers from the crowd and a rain of marigold confetti.

After the bathing, the festivities continues as the crowd surges toward the main street. Lead by a troop of traditional Indian drummers, the naked Sadhus entertain the crowd in a parade down the main thoroughfare. To the beat of drums and loud music blaring from loud speakers fixed atop a car, they prance around, doing handstands and cartwheels, and mock displays of sword fights. The crowd is enjoying it, chanting, clapping, and dancing on the streets.

Moving through the sea of people, I am unusually calm. I am being pushed on all sides, but I just move with the flow, smiling, laughing and cheering with the crowd. Maybe I am getting used to the craziness that come with all Indian cities; maybe the refreshing dip in the Ganga lifted my mood; or maybe there is some truth to the powers of the Ganga after all – I feel lighter, happier, as if all the anger and impatience in me has been washed away.


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