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the-south-asian.com                         January  2001

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The Mahakumbh  2001 the story

Nalini Bakshi

    devotees_arrive_-_AFP.jpg (16054 bytes)  kumbh_-_arriving_in_cold_TOI_Gautam_Singh.jpg (29417 bytes)  kumbh_bath_jan_9_-_PTI.jpg (58561 bytes)
Pilgrims arriving day and night for the holy dip.
Photos L-R: AFP Photo; TOI Gautam Singh; PTI Photo

Seldom do 70 million people congregate over a period of few weeks to seek salvation – irrespective of their individual belief and creed or ethos. The Mahakumbh at Allahabad, which began on 9 January 2001, is perhaps the only spiritual event that gathers such mega numbers of humanity in one place in the true spirit of ‘ Jagat Kutumbkam’ – or one global family. It is a secular tradition shared by people of all faiths and cultures. It is considered by many to symbolise the soul of Indian culture and thought. For the period until 21 February 2001 Allahabad will turn into the most densely populated city in the world. The international media coverage of the Mahakumbh 2001 is unprecedented – so is the zeal and faith of the millions who arrive from all over the world.

Modern day Allahabad is the erstwhile city of Prayag, also referred to as Teerthraj Prayag – the holiest of the holy pilgrimages. Akbar, the Mughal Emperor named it Allahabad – ‘the city of Allah’ – the divine reference remained unchanged. Allahabad is also where three holy rivers meet – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the elusive and mythical Saraswati – supposedly a subterranean channel, invisible to the human eye. These sandy fluvial shores have hosted many Kumbh melas over the past centuries or even millenniums. The origins of the Kumbh and the status of sanctity granted to Prayag/Allahabad lie in Hindu mythology and date back to the creation of the universe and the victory of good over evil.

According to Puranic legends, the sage Durvasa [also known for his fierce temper] once visited Lord Indra in Heaven and gave him a garland of ‘eternal flowers’. Lord Indra casually passed on the garland to Airawat – the divine elephant – who had no clue about the significance of these flowers and promptly crushed the petals. Durvasa Rishi (sage) was angered by Lord Indra’s insensitive gesture and pronounced that he would lose all his riches and power. Seeing this as a good opportunity to take advantage of the curse, a demon king attacked Lord Indra and took away his riches. The Gods in Heaven felt weakened. Lord Vishnu [the preserver of the cosmos] then advised Lord Indra that in order to restrengthen himself, Lord Indra required Amrit or the divine nectar, which lay under the depths of the mighty ocean in a kumbh or a pitcher.

The kumbh [pitcher] of Amrit could be recovered only through the churning of the ocean – a supernatural effort was required to do that. The Gods motivated and lured the demons to help them churn the ocean. When the Amrit kumbh emerged from the ocean, the Gods and the demons rushed to claim it. But Lord Vishnu successfully handed over the kumbh [pitcher] to his mount Garuda who was instructed to take it to Heaven. On its way to Heaven, Garuda was stopped at four places by the demons and some of the divine nectar spilled at these four places – which are present day Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik – all in India. The spilled nectar sanctified all four places and Kumbh is held in turn in all four places. On its flight towards Heaven, Garuda ws guided by Lord Brihaspati [Jupiter], who was at the time transiting through the sky. The Sun, Saturn and the Moon also guarded the flight path of Garuda – a flight that took 12 days [12 human years]. Hence Kumbh is celebrated at the time of the same astronomical and planetary combination every twelve years. These planetary positions are said to sanctify and medicate the waters of the Ganges and turn it into nectar. It is believed that the planets and the heavenly bodies at the time of Kumbh, charge the waters of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna with positive healing effects. Hence the significance of holy dips, which are also believed to cleanse the pilgrim of all sins, granting him salvation from the recycle of births.

At Allahabad, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated in the Hindu month of Magha {January/February), when Jupiter is in the zodiac house of Aquarius and sun enters Aries. Aquarius is also known as Kumbh in Sanskrit. The Amavasya or the new moon of Magha is an especially auspicious day when millions bathe in the confluence of Ganges and Yamuna. This year Amavasya falls on 24 January, which will be the main bathing day.

The Kumbh Mela or festival has been celebrated forever. It has been mentioned in Vedic literature. Its earliest history is dated to ca 3500 BC. In more recent times, the Chinese traveller Huan Tsang recorded his visit to Prayag in the seventh century, at the time of Harsha Vardhana’s rule. In the eighth century, the philosopher Jagat Guru Shankaracharya grouped the ascetics into ten sects at Prayag and this informal assembly of yogis and ascetics "served as a kind of parliament of Hinduism for the discussion of religious doctrine and possible reform and has remained a major attraction for the pilgrim. Sadhus who stay naked the year round, ascetics who practice the most severe physical disciplines, hermits who leave their isolation for these pilgrimages, and true saints – gather in camps along the riverbank and are visited by pilgrims."

The pilgrims who arrive in Allahabad for the Kumbh festivities are there for the holy dips on specified days and they also spend time listening to different spiritual discourses and exchange of philosophies. In recent years, Allahabad has seen pilgrims from Europe, and the United States – who come with similar fervour and faith. Hollywood will be represented by Sharon Stone, Pierce Bosnan, Demi Moore and Richard Geere. Music world’s Madonna will be there to seek inspiration. British tour operator Cox & Kings confirmed the visit of many stars to the Mahakumbh but refused to reveal names on security grounds. ``We are bringing in more than 600 premium guests to the Kumbh from around the world,''

Spirituality is not the only quest – there is fun too. Magicians, sadhus performing superhuman feats, processions of different sects of sadhus on horses, elephants, and chariots – give the festival a surreal ambience – it beats the sets of any multi-starrer.


the best of kumbh photos


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