The stampede begins at 7pm. Thousands of passengers are gathered at the Allahabad Railway Station in northeast India, headed home after spending the day dipping themselves in the holy waters at Sangam, the mythical place where the Yamuna, Ganges and Sarawat rivers merge. It is the day of Mauni Amavasya, the most auspicious for such a dip during the month and half long festival of the Kumbh Mela. Thirty-six lives will be claimed.
I am one of the 30 million people who have journeyed to Sangam to participate in this sacred event. The Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage, takes place only once every twelve years and, over the course of the 2013 Kumbh, the numbers will swell to 110 million, the largest in recorded history. It is believed that a person who bathes in the river Ganges during the days of the Kumbh, when Jupiter, the Sun, and the Moon are in a particular alignment, will be blessed and purified.
It is not easy to sleep at the Kumbh. Vedic chants continuously buzz around my head and it is impossible to tell if the voices are far-off or nearby. More than the noise, there’s an energy in the air that lifts my spirit, making it hard for me to keep my eyes closed. I am still awake at 4am on February 10th, the day my travel group is scheduled to assemble. We will be crossing the Yamuna and have hired a rowboat for our journey. A sandbar derails our plans and the young boat rower has to turn around and take us back to where we had started. We are left with no choice but to do what most pilgrimages require and simply walk the distance.
Our small group of six ventures out on foot into the sea of millions. The sun has not yet risen and all the main roads are closed. A detour takes us over twenty miles away from our camp. All walks of life are walking with us. We are a single mass, and no one is solitary.
The stories I had heard about the Kumbh and figures I had imagined soon become a vivid reality. Elders in their 80’s and 90’s climb hills, hunched over, walking with their hand crafted wooden sticks, barefoot, alongside young women who carry babies in their arms and balance bags on their heads for endless hours and countless miles. The men lead their colorful groups with tree limbs high in the air. Families tie ropes around their wrists so not lose their loved ones. The pilgrims, full of compassion for one another, cannot see the finish line, but walk on, full of strength and powered by their beliefs. The smoky red sunrise finally warms the chilly air and brings into view the picturesque pontoon bridges that entwine the city of Allahabad. We are finally approaching the site for our holy dip.
I feel as if I am a part of a huddled mass of sheep. There is an affection amongst all these bodies that ushers in a sense of tranquility. I am in a spiritual state, higher than anything I have felt before. A devout state of vision and faith leads me into a peaceful and loving place within. I absorb the emotion with teary eyes, and a warm heart. I feel my body lifting, but I work to keep my awareness focused. There is no room to allow the consciousness to drift. Each second is a life’s choice. At the Kumbh, incidents can happen at tremendous speeds, leaving no room for turning back.
After crossing the first two bridges, my group and I spot a short cut. Thirsty for a warm chai, we are determined to break through the barricade blocking us from the festival grounds. While running from the police who chase us with sticks, I am reminded that we all have a little rebel in us. Thankfully, no harm is done. Our pilgrimage quickly takes a turn, as our senses are suddenly overloaded with sights, sounds, and scents. We switch gears along with the energy that is deepening around us. We are thrust into the vibrant thickness of gurus, worshippers, ashram leaders, devotees, photographers, yogis, and beggars. I am transfixed by the Sadhus, the ascetic holy men who have dedicated their lives to achieving “moksha,” liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
We arrive just in time to see the Nega Sadhus, with their naked, ash covered bodies, rush to the river for their dip in the sacred waters. They are the representatives of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and one of the Kumbh’s most memorable and magical sights. They come running with sticks, knives, and swords, some even charging on horseback, and it is necessary to move out of their way. The crowd roars, as this surreal wave of power surges towards the riverbank. People have traveled thousand of miles to witness this moment.
Time moves in slow motion as we watch the parade of tractors pulling floats with gurus wearing orange, yellow, and tangerine cloths. Their beautiful, dusty, long hair in buns, strands of beads dangling from heated necks. Marigolds are draped from the engine hoods and holy hands toss colored petals into the waving and bowing crowds.
The river horizon is now in view; the golden, holy dipping point to wash away all sins is finally near. We each have our individual journey and purpose for being here at this particular time. The scene of the bathing is surprisingly organized and respectfully calm. Some bathers splash only their arms, while other dunk their entire bodies. All say blessings with scattered flowers and floating candles.
It is time for a long overdue rest. We make our way to the tent of the friendly Swami Vishnu Das from Jaipur District, a group of Sadhus we have been invited to sit with. They welcome us with chai and fried corn vegetable balls, accompanied by smiles, nods, humor, and even some yoga asanas.
A moment of truth comes over me. I feel forever grateful for what I have in life and commit myself to always sharing this with others. The greatest lesson is that our time is short and precious, as our trusted leader Dandapani remindes me on this great spiritual adventure.
I was asked the other day if it was more of a culture shock going to the Kumbh Mela or coming back. “Most definitely coming back,” I reply.
—Originally written and published by Organic Spa Magazine. Photos by Angela Shore