Carnival of the Soul

By Shah, Tahir | Newsweek, March 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Carnival of the Soul

Shah, Tahir, Newsweek

Byline: Tahir Shah

Join the swarm at the largest religious gathering in human history.

It's the noise that hits you first.

A penetrating, jarring frenzy of raw sound, conjured from a million whispers, muffled prayers, and heartfelt cries. Hanging like a veil in the chill nocturnal air, it cloaks the world beyond. And on its clandestine stage, India's grandest sacred rite takes form.

Through darkness tinged with mist and yellow light, a multitude of figures moves fast toward the water line. With naked bodies adorned in ash, and bearded faces spellbound, they proceed with chants and incantations down to the confluence of India's two holiest rivers. One by one, they wade into the cold gray current of the Sangam, the meeting point of the Ganges and Yamuna, in whose waters they are reborn.

As they emerge, cleansed of their sins and purified, another wave of naked sadhus materializes from the mist behind. Some are clutching tridents, others long, curved swords. Many wear crisscrossed ropes of orange marigolds around their necks, along with prayer beads from the hallowed rudraksha tree. Wave after wave, they immerse themselves in the sacred water before retreating back into the darkness.

A stone's throw from the hordes of naked holy men, a frail stockade fence runs far inland from the water's edge. On the other side of it lies an ocean of ordinary Indians, each of them charged with the same ambition--to strip off their clothes and immerse themselves in the sacred water. They've come from every region of the subcontinent, and from every corner of the world, lured by the auspicious moment of planetary alignment--that of Jupiter, the moon, and the sun.

A devotional festival for Hindus unlike any other, the Kumbh Mela (which translates as "Fair of the Urn") takes place once every four years, rotating between the cities of Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik, and Ujjain. It's at these points that a few drops of the Water of Immortality are said to have been sprinkled by the gods in ancient times.

A larger festival takes place every 12th year when the planetary alignments are all the more propitious. But, the current Mela is far more sacred still, a "Maha" ("Great") Kumbh Mela, taking place once every 144 years. The last time it occurred, Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House.

Having begun in mid-January, the festival continues for 55 days, until disbanding on March 10. In that time an entire tented city will have grown, lived, and thrived on the flood plain where the Ganges and the Yamuna converge. Much of the vast canvas encampment is constructed on soil that normally forms the actual riverbed. The receding waters add an extra dimension to the faithful, for whom the sacred location is without equal.

There are still no accurate numbers of how many souls have attended the 2013 Mela, but it's likely to reach the 100 million mark--making it the largest religious gathering on Earth in all human history. Although the entire festival is attended by the masses, the greatest numbers of pilgrims make their way down to the Sangam to bathe on specific auspicious days.

India is a land well used to large numbers, but even against its awe-inspiring backdrop, the Kumbh Mela is an experience that defies easy description. For centuries visitors have been challenged to record what they encountered there. The first known foreigner to have written his impressions of the festival was the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang (though some scholars have doubted whether he actually saw the Kumbh).

More recently, Mark Twain wrote of his visit to the festival of 1894 in Following the Equator. Of it, he said: "It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint on such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. …

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