The Nectar Pot of the Gods. Who can resist a festival with a name like this?
This is a festival with a temporary city on an imaginary river. The Kumbh Mela and the mystic Swariswati. There is a real sacred river too, the Ganges, or Ganga-ma, Mother Ganges. She’s a trans-boundary affair that rises in the Himalayas and ends in the Bay of Bengal, 1,678 miles later.
Where there is water in India there is faith. Rivers are sacred entities, the Mother Ganges a goddess who washes away sin, once a river of heaven flowing across the sky. The creation myth is beautiful and wrapped up from the beginning in the tradition of holy men.
This is its story: An ascetic had been meditating when the ancestors of a king called Bhagiratha disturbed his meditation, and in anger he burned them to ashes with his angry gaze.
Not able to be freed from this earth or gain salvation, the only way they could reach salvation was for the purifying Ganges to flow over the ashes and release them up to heaven. Lord Shiva protected the earth from the impact of the Ganges as she fell to Earth by catching up the river in his hair, and the myth goes that the Ganges followed Bhagiratha out across the plains and to the sea, where his forefathers ashes were purified and restored to paradise.
No wonder Hindus are obsessed with the Ganges. They believe that if they deposit the ashes of their loved ones in the Ganges, they will either ease the transition into the next life, or be freed from the cycle of birth and death. The Ganges offers a ticket out of this spiritual life through her exceptional powers of purification. A dip into the divine waters will purify Hindus, washing away a lifetime of sins. As a result of this, relatives will travel thousands of miles to deposit the ashes of loved ones to the Ganges, and firmly believe that a daily dip is the way forward.
Many cities on her length are considered holy. Varanasi, considered the most holy of the cities in the Ganges, where death is most auspicious. And Allahabad, where the Kumbh Mela takes place, the site of the most important Hindu festival in the religious calendar. Bathing in the Ganges is the main reason sadhus and pilgrims visit the Kumbh Mela, and bathing on the most auspicious day of the New Moon absolves sun and breaks the cycle of rebirth.
February 4th 2019 is the biggest bathing date, and the Sacred Rivers Tour 2019 will be at the festival for this big day in Allahabad. We’ll be there, in the thick of it, (based in our Deluxe Camping), trying not to get lost in this temporal, spiritual city. I’m both wildly excited and terrified. We’ve got a guide whilst we’re there which fills me with gladness as I have the sense of direction of a flea.
Integral to the Kumbh Mela are the sadhus. These are India’s Hindu holy men, who follow various Gods and belong to varying sects. Meditation, contemplation and yogic practice are common denominators. The sadhus come to discuss matters of faith, disseminate information about Hinduism (and their version of it), begin or end chapters of religious behaviour that enables the holy men to continue along their spiritual journey. And bathe.
Often difficult to tell apart by the layman, they seem exotic and other-wordly to non-Hindus. At sunrise on the key bathing dates the different sadhu groups, with increasing fervour, head down in procession to the river to bathe. It will be crowded. There will be jostling and shoving. We will have our guide and fixer with us to help us find our way and reach brilliant photographic spots that they have scouted for us. It will be one of the most memorable things we ever do. We’ll be up early, walk loads, and to bed late.
I have often seen sadhus wandering India but other than a hilarious run-in with a friendly gang of them in the Kangra Valley a few years ago, I’ve not spent any time photographing them. I’ve done a bit of reading and thought a useful list of sadhu information might be useful. Each sect has its own camp, often close to the pilgrims, to encourage teaching and interaction. The Kumbh Mela has a temporary tent city, a huge affair, set over 5000 acres. My sense of direction is rubbish on a good day. Did I mention this already?! Radios, anyone? Or do we trust in the universe to help us find our way back to the tented camp?
Marajuana and sadhus
Certain sects, in particular the Anghora’s, use weed to concentrate their minds on religious mantras, & help them carry out strenuous yogic practices. The marajuana releases religious ecstasies and heightened their religious experiences. It’s the Fourth Consciousness. Lord Shiva to the Naha Sadhus is the origin of all spirituality, and he was not just a God. Shiva was the original ascetic.
Descriptions of his wild hair, chillum smoking and lack of boundaries could describe many sadhus today. Shiva denounced the world, in a way that many sadhus choose to do to be closer to Shiva. It’s about freedom from earthly matters and possessions, freedom to be closer to finding the stillness of the soul.
There’s no doubt you’re going to run into weed at the Kumbh Mela. The sadhus smoke it from a chillum, fingers closed around the end of it, and inhale via their hands. I’ve seen hash cakes in large mountains at the Nihang festival, designed for the horses, and there’s no doubt that an exhaling sadhu wreathed in beguiling smoke makes for a great image. Just don’t inhale.
Here are a few links from the web that will give you some idea of the scale and scope of our photographic adventure.