What makes one go to the Kumbh? How did it happen for me? I sometimes ask myself. There was no epiphany, no mysterious voice of God in my dreams, no one in my friend’s circle was discussing it, let alone planning to go for it, it wasn’t on my bucket list and, to top it all, I am not even religious. Then, what got me to this fascinating madness of a wonderland called the Kumbh? Why did I find myself at Prayagraaj last month, partaking in what is the largest congregation of humans? Was it because it happens in India? My interest in Hindu Mythology? Or a lust for the unpredictable? Maybe a heady mix of all three — maybe none of the above.
When I travel, I try not to overdose on research as I like to unravel my own myths without the trailers telling me what to do. But everything you read, everything you dig, everything they tell about Kumbh — multiply that by a hundred. Think Ganpati celebrations in Mumbai — fifty thousand times amplified, and instead of dunking giant Ganeshas at the end, we are dunking ourselves at the Kumbh.
The real numbers, as we know, are even more staggering — a makeshift city spread over 2500 hectares on the banks of the Ganga and Jamuna, built to accommodate 120 million people over 7 weeks who use 1,22,000 specially set up toilets backed by a mammoth temporary sanitation system. It is a sea of humanity as far as one can see in all directions, a mass of faithful, drunk on unadulterated adoration of the almighty — supreme, and very saffron.
The Kumbh during the Shahi Snan or Holy Dip dates — is another phenomena altogether. Two days before the auspicious Snan — they start shutting the Kumbh city — no vehicles are allowed — you can only walk if you need to come in. This is back breaking, because distances are so long that it could take you hours to walk from one place to another. I have lived in crowded cities like Mumbai and Delhi, but nothing prepared me for the volume of humanity that was everywhere. It was overwhelming to say the least; something that at first sight would unnerve anyone.
Among the sea of saffron clad and naked sadhus are the ordinary faithful by the millions, single and with families, old people who can barely walk and young who march purposefully, women balancing kids with both arms and a large bag on their heads, strutting in sarees, multi-tasking as usual. The place is a labyrinth of temporary tents and every square metre gets occupied.
The energy of the place throbs with the purity of purpose — that holy dip at the Sangam and the mission of Mukti. Religious or not, you will feel the power, and the contagious energy grips you without your knowing. The commitment to God and the celebration of God is unreal.
Then there are the sadhus — the Nagas, the Aghoris, the regulars, the crazies, the camera shy, the always high, the jhoole wala, the pankhe wala, the paakhandies and most importantly, the social media savvy “selfie” sadhus. Similar to dating app experiences — you encounter all sorts at the Kumbh too. Whatever the type, they are mostly quite chilled out. A couple could be grouchy — a few couldn’t care less — some seriously fascinating and the rest are as easy as you would be with them. Most were happy to chat up with a chillum for company, and some would ask for money for a blanket. I felt completely at ease with them and asked all sorts of questions they didn’t seem to mind, or maybe they were just happy and high. They were as intrigued about me as I was about them.
The Shahi Snan day was the D-Day, the auspicious day of the holy bath of the saints from various akhadas, and their sadhus. They walk to the Sangam in a procession with each akhada chief in an akhada rath at the head of their respective groups. It is systematic and well organized. The walk is long, colourful and dusty, set against the background of glorious chants, beating of the dhols, impromptu dancing and countless selfies.
The crowd is eclectic, the vibe is electric, and it gets turned up by many notches as you get closer to the river. The chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Jai Siya Ram’ reverberate louder and louder and suddenly, there are a gazillion more people and you could suddenly be lost in a matter of seconds. Ten metres from the Sangam is when I felt the Kumbh that everyone talks about. You cannot move; you are in the middle of everything, yet nowhere — there is absolutely no turning back and the swarm of humans, both sinners and saints, only grows.
Everyone was holding their breath, their belongings and on to their faith, waiting for the Naga sadhus to finish their ritual dip before the rest of us could take the holy dubki. One wrong move, one panic attack from any corner, and there would be a stampede very few would survive. The sheer restlessness of the crowd eager to get into the water was palpable, and at many levels, scary. That is when I questioned my sanity and literally looked up to the 4 PM sky and said, “God, you got me here, so now you get me out of here in one piece!” And, from nowhere, I heard the loud cries of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and everyone rushed towards the water.
It was the cue for me to move forward as well. There was an onslaught of sorts, people were slipping, others were holding on to each other. The water was emerald green — absolutely clean, clear and freezing. I was shivering as my feet touched the biting cold water. But a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. I held on to the arms of a couple next to me and took the mandatory three dips, the shivers notwithstanding.
I could still feel the immense relief that overwhelmed me once the dip was done. It was the relief of having survived the whole ritual, of having made in and out of the water without being injured or hurt. I had seen the intense energy of the Kumbh up close and personal and for a moment, I felt there is nothing I could not do, now that I have done this. I felt invincible and ecstatic.
In the short time that I was there, I lived with complete strangers in an akhada, I did seva, visited the Kinnar akhada, saw Kumbh by night with its Las Vegaslike lights, hitchhiked with sadhus on tractors and bikes, shared chillums with them while listening to their stories, chatted with folks very different from my world, obliged any and everybody wanting a selfie with me (many thought I was a foreigner), did a trippy boat ride on the Ganga at night, danced to the sounds of kirtans, and most of all, stepped out of my comfort zone and went with the crazy flow of the Kumbh euphoria.
People ask me if the experience has been transformative in any way. Whether it was ‘life-changing’. I am not sure. Has it opened up a new perspective to life? Definitely. Has it brought about a sense of acute fearlessness in my spirit since I took this trip alone? Hell yeah. But if you ask me what is my ONE key take away from Kumbh, after all the dhool and dhyan, the gurus and gyaan, the religion and the rituals, the consciousness and the chaos, the Nagas and their sagas, the bliss and the babas, the ganja and the drama, I would say Seva.
Despite the economic inequality, the social disparity, and whatever anyone’s raison d’être for being at the Kumbh and all of the clichés surrounding it, the thing that hit home for me was the sense of service, the selflessness, the generosity and the spirit of accommodation. People were welcoming at every akhada, blessings were showered purposefully and freely, and food was served with immense love and humility. Not once did I get a dirty vibe of any sort. It was humbling in every way. Observing and understanding Seva was the one thing everyone I met was really tripping on.
There is a quote by someone famous: ‘never too rich and never too thin’. I returned from Kumbh both – richer and thinner. What more does one need?