The Arrival On the 26th January 2019, my father and I took a morning flight to Prayagraj (erstwhile Allahabad) and reached there at to find a city painted with a multitude of colours. I was astonished to see paintings of Lord Shiva that adorned every wall in the city and each wall seemed to tell a different part of the story behind the Kumbh Mela. From the moment we stepped out of the airport, Prayagraj presented itself as something I had never experienced before. Just outside the airport, taxi drivers sat in a huddle and sang bhajans about Lord Ram, Shiva and Krishna, they seemed completely oblivious to my presence as I walked past them with wonder in my eyes. The sky was a shade of blue that reflected the skin colour of Lord Shiva which made me think that even nature had prepared for the largest religious gathering. The roads were packed with devotees pouring in from all parts of the country and the world.
So, devoted to the idea of God, people were able to overcome the fear of physical pain. Their devotion gave them the power to withstand severe cold weather and take a dip in the icy cold Ganges at nine degrees temperature. In fact, the Mela abounded in people who woke up every day of the Kumbh to immerse themselves in the holy Ganges before the first rays of dawn filtered through the clouds. People who woke up before the crack of dawn to go to the Ghats these were not only people of low economic status but wealthy, young, old, women and men. They derived their hope from washing away their sins to start off their day.
On my first visit to the Ghats, I noticed an old woman, bent with age, who came to the Ghats in a thin sari, shivering in the cold, she leapt into the water with her eyes gleaming with happiness. Surprisingly she came out with greater happiness in her eyes, knowing that she had accomplished her life-long “Aastha” (wish) for her soul to achieve liberation. She then changed out of the soaking wet sari into a seemingly thinner sari and walk back to her settlement, smiling from ear to ear despite the droplets of cold water that covered her body. It baffled me how people’s beliefs were strong enough to drive them to expand their physical boundaries as I stood at the Ghats wearing two jackets, a woollen cap and gloves but still shivering. Looking at the grey-brown waters of the Ganges, I wondered, maybe the river is so murky because it carries the sins of all those who take a dip in it? Otherwise where do the sins people wash away, go?
The Akshayavat was opened for the first time in Kumbh 2019. It is a sacred banyan tree in Allahabad and it is believed that if one wishes something before the sacred tree, it is bound to come true. Having heard a lot about the tree, my father and I decided to pay it a visit. As we walked closer and closer to the Allahabad Fort (within which lies the tree), we saw a line of people waiting to enter the fort that never seemed to end. Devotees had been standing in line for hours to see a tree with a myth around it. Where do people get the patience to wait so happily?
It all seemed confusing to me until I stood before the tree and wished for something. The feeling was almost euphoric and the positive aura of the tree made me believe that the wish I made would come true. I felt a oneness with nature as I closed my eyes and concentrated on my thoughts. While walking to the tree, my mind was full of buzzing thoughts and ideas but there was an aura around the tree that I could feel, it instantly cleared my thoughts and a feeling of peace flooded over me. The absurdity of the experience made me realize the power of beliefs. Despite the fact that I had initially doubted the wish-granting ability of the tree, I walked out of the fort with a smile because I had been proven wrong by forces, to this date, I cannot explain.
There was music being played constantly in the Kumbh speakers, it could be heard in the Akhadas, the bridges and the throughout the Kumbh Nagri. Even before dawn brought the first rays of light, the speakers would begin playing devotional music. The music was played at all times as if the organisers were trying to remind the devotees to remain focused on their goals. Walking around the entire Mela made me wonder- what makes the Kumbh Mela so attractive to people? Is it the sight of the Naga sadhus? The dipping in the Ganga? the temples? or the sheer mystery and wonder that revolves around the idea? Could it be the promise of being closer to god? or even attaining Nirvana perhaps?
The atmosphere in the Kumbh Mela is unlike any other religious gathering due to the sheer number of people that attend the Mela every time it happens. It gave me the opportunity to not only see but meet and converse with people of different ages and coming from diverse walks of life. It gives the Mela a feeling of oneness as everyone who attends the Mela comes for similar purposes and bows their heads before the power of God. It made me want to learn more about our history and culture and also introspect and think about my own beliefs and the reasons behind it.
I left the Kumbh Mela with a burning question - If religion provides a feeling of companionship, of hope and of oneness with god then why isn’t everyone religious? And what stops people like me from believing in such rituals and performing such actions when by doing them one is supposed to attain ‘Nirvana” and be forever sinless?
As my father and I were walking back from visiting the Allahabad Fort and the Hanuman Temple we passed by a number of people crowded around the river bank. It was adorned with large podiums upon which men dressed in orange, yellow and maroon were setting up prayer lamps for the scheduled ‘Ganga Aarti’. Since it was Republic Day, before the Aarti began the singers sang some patriotic songs that the crowd seemed to really enjoy. The men dressed in orange, yellow and maroon stepped up on the podiums and lit their large prayer lamps, but before they began, a man dressed in a white Kurta and Dhoti went around the crowd and put a Tika on everyone’s heads. I was expecting the blood red Tika that is used in most ceremonies but was surprised to see a paste that looked white-ish, with such questions buzzing in my mind my attention was drawn away from the Aarti that was about to begin until I felt a harsh tap on my shoulder.
Shaken (literally) out of my daze, I looked up to see the same man asking me to bend under the ropes that separated the crowd and the organisers and join the Aarti! I walked slowly towards the podium as I felt a hundred eyes watching my every move. Was this a punishment? Had I done something wrong? My head wasn’t covered!! Realising that I immediately put the hood of my jacket over my head and greeted the men on the podium. My heart was beating a million times in one second as I wondered why I was the only one told to come up.
Every inch of my body heaved a sigh of relief when the man began calling other people from the crowd too. I smiled as my excited father waved from the crowd. I was given a small prayer lamp and was told to move it in a circular direction. The Aarti was in prayer of the river Ganga. The rhythm and of the music being played made me feel calm. It created an aura of positive energy in the area and touched me at a spiritual level. Upon realising the effect the Aarti had on me, I remembered what my mother always told me, “The first step of meditation is being truly calm, within the mind and in the body too.” Standing at the banks of the river Ganga with a prayer lamp in hand I wondered, why are spirituality and religion treated like two completely different things when in reality one cannot exist without the other.