My First Kumbh Mela
My first Kumbh. A World Series, World Cup match, or Mardi Gras pales in comparison. One million people spread out before my eyes. Walking, sitting on the sand, under canopies, in tents, listening to spiritual discourses, looking at babas, looking at trinkets, buying, bathing, and lost. A cool million, and the party hadn’t yet begun.
Like the River Ganga, the faithful and the curious continued to flow into the mela twenty-four hours a day.
As the sun was setting over this confluence of rivers called a sangam, I was carried by the current of people down a wide dirt path that spilled into an ocean of humanity. The activities of an entire universe took place under that ancient canopy. The sandy riverbed avenues that crisscross the mela were lined with sellers of everything from pots and pans to your fortune. Hawkers with miracle herbs, miracle stones, and miracle machines gathered gullible crowds around them. Fortune-telling birds assisted their masters offering consultation to pilgrims.
Most of the people belong to groups: families, villages, neighborhoods, followers of religious authorities, and gangs. Everyone carries huge bundles on their backs, shoulders, and heads, consisting of bedding and supplies for several weeks. Curious eyes peered out at me from heavy loads as I walked by.
Why do they all come? Why so many of them? It is said that the potency of the confluence of these three goddess/rivers is so great that regardless of one’s flaws and lack of spiritual achievement, bathing here where the blue water swirls with the white, bestows Supreme Knowledge and Liberation in this lifetime. This is true at any time but during the Kumbh Mela, multiply this times one hundred thousand and eight.
This sangam, this sacred geography of Allahabad-Prayag, which is also called Triveni, the Triple-Braided One, is also present in the human body in the form of the ajna chakra, the third eye, the subtle wheel of energy spinning between the eyebrows. This inner two-petaled lotus is where our Surya Nadi (corresponding to the Yamuna), the hot subtle nerve current, and our Chandra Nadi (corresponding to the Ganga), the cool subtle nerve current, meets the Sushumna (corresponding to the invisible Saraswati), the central subtle nerve current, which carries the Kundalini Shakti, cosmic energy.
The five chakras, or energy wheels, below the ajna chakra have the nature of the five elements while the ajna chakra is of a mental-intellectual nature. It is the command center, as ajna means command. It is the guru and the location of initiation. It is that station where Shiva and his consort Shakti (in her manifestation as Kundalini) meet, and our mental activity and its offspring, Time, begins its final dissolution into the Great Void. Chittavritti nirodhah, the stopping of mind fluctuations, is how the sage Patanjali. defines yoga. In the body, the ajna chakra is the port of embarkation for the spiritual journey. On the earth, it is the sangam at Allahbad-Prayag.
But the faithful also come to see the babas, the sadhus.
This was not the full Kumbh Mela for Brihaspati Jupiter had not yet arrived in the House of Vrisha the Bull, but was still half an ecliptic away. The sacrifice at Allahabad-Prayag is so powerful, that when Brihaspati Jupiter is exactly halfway there, a Half or Ardh Kumbh Mela is observed with the full program and sanctity of a Great or Maha Kumbh Mela. It is these two celestial positions of Brihaspati Jupiter, the Guru, that call the holy men and women, and the public to the Kumbh.
Otherwise, every year in Allahabad-Prayag, from the time Surya the Sun enters Makar the Crocodile’s House (usually on the 14th of January) until the second new moon after that, a Magh Mela takes place. This is the most auspicious time to make a sacrifice in Prayag. Any sacrifice.
At least half of the people on the sand avenues were as lost as I was. Whole villages were looking for the encampment of some baba no one had ever heard of. A camaraderie of the blind leading the blind.
As I managed to get closer to the vortex of the mela, the camps of holy men became more elaborate, their colossal bamboo archways draped in ochre, red, and yellow cloth, and swimming in small colored lights. The whining loud-speaker systems competed with one other and with the Mela Authority’s PA systems. Popular religious songs—filmi bhajans—sacred mantras, chanting devotees, religious discourses, and lost people announcements blended into a cacophony that is the soundtrack of the Kumbh Mela.
I was a drop in an ocean, now inseparable from the crowd, pulled by its tide.