Kumbh Mela--The Last Rites
It was late March and I was on a train again, headed for the Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of people for a spiritual, magical, or religious purpose on planet Earth. The train was packed to the hilt, and it was a small miracle that I had been able to secure a ticket the evening before. Unpleasantly hot even in the middle of the night, the train filled with sounds of rattling, snoring, and farts. I was on my way from Delhi via night train to Hardwar, a journey of only a little over 200 kilometers, which nevertheless took virtually all night. As I lay awake in the uppermost bunk in the shuffling train, having arrived in India the previous morning, I sensed something different from my past journeys here. Sometimes all the things one gathers and carries along with oneself can become a heavy load to bear. Perhaps this time I was here to let go of something, to cleanse myself of something.
As the train finally arrived, the bustling city of Hardwar looked surreal in the early morning twilight. Everywhere there were people, so many of them, and I had to step over sleeping bodies scattered on the ground to get anywhere. People from all over India, as well as from everywhere else in the world, kept arriving here in droves, train upon train, busload after busload, by vehicle or on foot. The roads were regularly closed to public traffic, which meant that you could not get into the city at all. Everywhere there were families, beggars, pilgrims, soldiers, and especially sadhus of all kinds. In the past sadhus were a relatively rare sight for me to behold, but now suddenly they were everywhere. They sat under trees and stared, with that haunting, otherworldly look that is characteristic to them. But all this was not really a surprise. The Kumbh Mela was after all a gathering of such magnitude that it was actually visible from space. And I, at heart a loner, who often felt crowded even in a room full of people, was now here in the midst of this raging, swarming mass of millions.
The origins of the Kumbh Mela festival are steeped in ancient history, going back to mythological events. Kumbh Mela is a composite of two words: kumbh from Sanskrit, meaning “pitcher,” and mela, meaning “fair” or “gathering.” The story goes that the gods and demons came together to churn the primordial ocean of milk for the greatest of treasures, amrit, the nectar of immortality, to be distributed to everyone afterward. However, one of the demons sneaked in line and stole the pitcher containing the amrit. Twelve days and nights (equal to twelve human years) the gods and demons fought over the pitcher. At one point Krishna flew away with the pot, accidentally spilling four drops from it that landed on earth. Those four places are now among the holiest in all of India--Prayag, Hardwar, Ujjain, and Nashik--and are the sites of the Kumbh Mela held every four years. At specific dates and times in these places, according to the position of the sun, moon, and stars, it is said that amrit appears. And on those dates everyone comes here to take a bath in the Ganga and to receive a drop of the amrit; millions and millions of people become pilgrims for those brief moments when the heavenly, death-conquering nectar is flowing, echoing a tradition from time immemorial.
In the middle of this storm of activity, amid the crowds and the hustle and bustle, there was a center of relative calm--the Juna Akhara. The Juna Akhara was the largest Akhara, or division, of the mystical, militant order of Naga Babas, reputedly founded in the prehistoric Treta age by Dattatreya, the naked one. They were finally organized into a proper order by Adi Shankara in the fifth century BCE in order to protect Sanatan Dharma, the Hindu religion--what the Naga Babas themselves view as the natural order of the universe. Centered around the Maya Devi temple, the Juna Akhara was a sprawling encampment of a literal army of Naga Babas--the naked ones, the wild, wandering mystics, the holy madmen of Shiva. Their encampments consisted of shacks built around the multitudes of dhunis (sacred fires) that were tended by an entourage of ghostly looking creatures. Stepping into the Akhara was like stepping into another time and another world--an extraordinary world, where all previous rules and rationality simply ceased to exist.
It was evening when I entered the Juna Akhara encampment for the first time. I approached the dhuni, surrounded by an entourage of Naga Babas, removed my shoes, and clasped my hands together, saying “Om Namo Narayan” to all those present. “OM NAMO NARAYAN!” came the booming chorus in response. I greeted, in the traditional way, first the dhuni and then the Babas presiding over it. The stern-looking Babas eyed me somewhat suspiciously as I paid my respects and received some water and ashes. I had brought some flowers, which I set decoratively at the sides of the dhuni, after which I sat down in silence. A few of the Babas finally nodded in smiling agreement.
My initial reaction to all of this of course, as I told Baba Rampuri a few days later, was a strong “What the fuck am I doing here?” It was all quite overwhelming and disorienting, suddenly bursting into this alien, foreign, fairytale world. Rampuri offered me an analogy for my situation. I was no longer my ordinary self, but a character, Adinath Puri, in a story written on the surface of the stars. The story was not a new one, but indeed the great story of all times: the story of the quest of the hero.