City of Tents: Pilgrimage to the Maha Kumbha Mela
Seventy million people poured onto the Allahabad floodplain in January 2001. A pilgrim explains why, and what it was like to be among them.
By Linda Johnsen
An ancient legend from India tells us that when the planet Jupiter, the Sun, and the Moon transit into a special astrological configuration, heaven touches down on earth. The planets’ illuminating powers focus at one remarkable site: the confluence of three sacred rivers at Allahabad in north-central India. In January 2001, five hundred yoga students from the Western world flew into New Delhi and took the eight-hour train ride to Allahabad to see if the legend could possibly be true.
We came from New York and San Francisco, Milwaukee and Toronto, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia. Virtually everywhere Yoga International is distributed, readers accepted the magazine’s invitation to come to Allahabad and see the truth for ourselves. Yoga students from Indonesia and Malaysia joined us at our stopover in Singapore. Finally late Saturday, January 6, tour buses loaded with eager but exhausted travelers began pulling into the Himalayan Institute campus at Allahabad, “the City of God,” which skirts the Ganges some 65 miles west of Varanasi.
The legend claims that a celestial man with fantastic healing powers carries a pot of divine nectar. You can actually see him if you look past the dimly lit region of the night sky called Pisces to the brighter constellation Aquarius, which we in the West also envisage as a man carrying a jar. Many thousands of years ago this heavenly physician accidentally spilled the contents of his pot, most of which poured onto the Earth at Allahabad. The Indian name for Aquarius is Kumbha (“the pot”), so the festival (mela) celebrated where the ambrosia spilled is called the Kumbha Mela.
About every twelve years the astrological configuration signaling the festival at Allahabad recurs, and the Mela—the largest gathering of saints and sages at one place on Earth—spontaneously organizes itself. According to the yogis, this is a critical time to accelerate one’s spiritual practice, for during this auspicious period the celestial forces support and amplify spiritual efforts. But January 2001 was even more remarkable: this was the grandest of all the festivals, the Maha (great) Kumbha Mela, which happens only once every 144 years (12 x the 12-year cycle). The Indian army, which helps to host the event, was nervously expecting some 80 million pilgrims. Our contingent—the largest number of Westerners ever to arrive at a Kumbha Mela as one group—was barely a drop in the ocean of visitors who poured onto the Allahabad floodplain.
Standing on a bridge spanning the Ganges River at Allahabad, the full magnitude of the Kumbha Mela becomes evident. During the winter the river recedes, leaving a vast, dry embankment. For as far as the eye can see, literally from horizon to horizon, this land temporarily salvaged from the water is transformed into a sort of spiritual county fair, albeit one that dwarfs New York, Tokyo, or Mexico City in population. Gray tents and makeshift ashrams cover the floodplain for miles, a tent city that materializes for one magical month and then vanishes so completely that spring leaves no evidence it ever existed.
As we pilgrims first clamber off our buses at the Himalayan Institute campus, I glance upward to find Jupiter exactly at the midheaven. The Sanskrit name for Jupiter is “Guru.” Tonight the planet that represents the spiritual preceptor blesses us from the very center of the Indian sky, an extraordinarily auspicious beginning for our yoga adventure.
River of Wisdom
The ancient Indian name for Allahabad is Prayag, which means “juncture,” referring to the juncture of three holy rivers: the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the Sarasvati. But it won’t take even the most casual tourist long to notice that one of the rivers is missing. According to geologists the Sarasvati dried up some four thousand years ago following a series of cataclysms. The fact that its presence was once a defining component of the Kumbha Mela gives us a sense of how ancient this festival must be.
But as the Sun starts to rise, we Western pilgrims begin to understand what the Sarasvati signifies today. Sarasvati means “the flow of wisdom,” and each morning as we get up for prayers and meditation we find a river of sadhus, orange-robed renunciates and yogis, streaming past our campus on their way up the Ganges from their secluded retreats to the crowded Kumbha Mela grounds. Thousands of them pass by, a living river of wisdom and blessing power.
There are some extraordinary sights at the Kumbha Mela, such as ascetics who have held their arms in the air continuously for so long their fingernails have grown into their clenched fists, and old babas who have lain under a blanket on the ground for so long their legs have withered away. The fierceness of their determination to realize God, their willingness to torture their bodies in the effort to subdue their desires and intensify their concentration, blazes fiercely in their eyes.
But perhaps nothing startled us Westerners so much as the sight of sadhus walking on water—walking straight down the middle of the Ganges on their way to the Mela.
Small handmade boats glide past our campus, and India’s famous freshwater dolphins can also be glimpsed slipping above the water for a breath of air. But yogis striding purposefully over the surface smack in the middle of the river are a surprising sight under any conditions!
In reality, there is a sandbar near the center of the river, which, because it is almost completely submerged, is nearly impossible to see from the riverbank. When the waters ebb low, it’s possible for yogis to hike along the bar, right down the center of the Ganges.
The Internal Experience
So much about yoga that appears miraculous to us—the yogis’ ability to control their heart rate, brain waves, and body temperature, the apparent ability of some of them to read our thoughts—occurs because these spiritual adepts know the terrain of consciousness, a vast inner landscape barely accessible to most of us. They are intimately familiar with submerged levels of consciousness, psychic sandbars beneath the stream of ordinary awareness, which the rest of us can hardly imagine.
We can record the Mela events going on around us with our video cameras, but the main event—the experience of heaven grazing the earth—happens in the inner realms. Reporters from news services around the world focus on the enormous crowds and exotic sadhus, but it is the internal experience of the Kumbha Mela that I find truly staggering. Normally when I sit for meditation it takes several minutes—at the very least—of watching my breath and listening to my mantra before my mind begins to quiet down. But here at the Mela, in spite of the festival racket that reverberates around us twenty-four hours a day, the moment I close my eyes I slip effortlessly into some of the deepest states of meditation I’ve ever experienced. It’s as if nature itself is meditating—as if the rivers and the trees and the very earth I’m sitting on are in samadhi—and I’m swept instantly into an amazing state of intensely lucid tranquility.
I don’t know if it’s because there are tens of millions of people here meditating together, or if it’s due to the presence of thousands of great saints, or if heaven really is pouring a pot of higher awareness onto this very spot, but I feel as if I’m immersed in an ocean of higher consciousness that’s continuously buoying me above myself. I don’t feel it just when I sit meditating in the sacred grove of enormous trees planted here by a famous jivanmukta, an enlightened sadhu named Bhole Baba, who did his ascetic practices here decades ago. I feel it all the time, even while I’m talking with other pilgrims, eating dinner, or drifting off to sleep. According to the local people, the Himalayan Institute campus where we’re staying has been used by yogis from the dawn of history as a spiritual retreat—in fact Patanjali, the codifier of the Yoga Sutra, is said to have had his ashram nearby. It’s almost as if those great sages are still here, as if their awareness continues to exist, beyond time and space yet somehow still focused at this place—and they’re including me in their meditation.
I had arrived with a laundry list of personal problems I wanted to pray about at this sacred site. But the moment I sit for meditation my mind shuts down. Trying to think, framing words in my mind, feels like pulling a heavy bucket up from a deep well. Without my making any effort my center of awareness has shifted gears—I feel myself continuously settling into a place deeper in myself than I can ordinarily go, a space beyond words, images, and desires. When mountaineers climb the Himalayas the air becomes increasingly rarefied the higher they go. It feels as if the thick fog that shuts us off from higher consciousness has become attenuated here, as if a portal has opened and I can almost step into a higher world. Others in our group report that they feel the same. It’s an amazing experience, subtle yet dramatic in its intensity.
Saints, Sages, Boddhisattvas
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, who has organized our pilgrimage, has invited some of the greatest saints at the Kumbha Mela to visit us, and some of the leading figures in Hinduism and in the Indian government stop by as well. The Dalai Lama, who is representing Buddhism at this primarily Hindu affair, graciously accepts Panditji’s invitation to meet with us, though because of security concerns (sadly, the Dalai Lama has many dangerous political enemies) he is unable to visit us at our campus. Instead our group meets him at a site in the Mela which the Indian government feels is more secure. His effort to reach out to Hindus—and the Hindus’ warm response—holds out hope for mutual respect and increased understanding between the world’s religions. Pandit Tigunait tells us the next day how profoundly he was impressed by the Dalai Lama’s deep humility. This, Panditji says, is a sign of true spiritual greatness.
I’m especially curious about the maha mandaleshwaras—heads of enormous religious institutions in India, who visit us by the dozen. They’re equally curious about us—are we the type of Westerners they see too many of, who disparage their religion and laugh at their quaint orange robes? The maha mandaleshwaras turn out to be wonderful, genuinely spiritually motivated people who beam their blessings at us with openhearted goodwill. Some of them speak excellent English and teach us about the inner significance of the Kumbha Mela and about the living silence from which the Veda (the most sacred Hindu scripture) emerged.
Apparently we pass their test also. We hear later that the maha mandaleshwaras were impressed that we sat cross-legged in respectful attention during their long programs. They had not expected so many Westerners to sit in a stable posture with full concentration for hours at a time. This, they say, is a good sign: it shows that we in the West are making excellent progress in yoga.
Even the maha mandaleshwaras, however, defer to the greatest of the spiritual masters, the enlightened yogis who grace the Maha Kumbha Mela with their presence. One of them—Tapasvi Kaliyana Baba—visits our campus often to answer our questions. While we sit shivering in our parkas even though we’re wrapped in extra wool blankets (this is the coldest January in recent years), Tapasviji sits half naked on the stage, completely relaxed and comfortable. Everyone comes running when they hear that he is on the premises. Even if he didn’t speak at all, we would still come—sitting in his presence is like basking in sunlight. Something beyond words happens in his presence, as if some portion of his illumined inner state transmits itself to everyone around him. No wonder the maha mandaleshwaras bow before him!
Dr. Andrew Weil, one of the leading exponents of natural medicine in America, drops by too. He tells us that after hearing about the Maha Kumbha Mela, he had to come to see it for himself. It’s amazing, he reports, to see so many happy people, millions and millions who’ve come together in a community of spirit. It’s incredible to actually witness so many human beings gathered in one small location without incidents of violence or religious antagonism. Weil admits he has a difficult time imagining an event of this magnitude occurring so peacefully back home.
Washing Sins Away
Who are all these people? They stand in line through the night with ten thousand fellow pilgrims ahead of them and another ten thousand behind them, waiting for the auspicious moment near daybreak when everyone will begin pushing forward to bathe in the confluence of the sacred rivers. From before the beginning of written history, people have believed that bathing here at this special moment will wash away their sins.
I’m not sure it’s true that anyone can really wash off their bad karma with water, but surely they can do it with faith. It’s humbling to come from the West—where so many of us are so cynical—and see the depth of devotion in these people. You don’t travel hundred of miles, part way perhaps on India’s nightmare rail system, and the rest of the way by foot—risking freezing to death during the frigid January nights or being crushed to death as the immense crowd surges forward—unless you’re absolutely serious about spiritual life.
At a more civilized hour of the morning some of us Westerners begin our own trek along the Ganges from our campsite to the Mela grounds. We see the astonishment in the natives’ faces when they catch a glimpse of ours; Indians are not used to European or Malaysian or African faces at the Kumbha Mela. Then their huge smiles erupt and that innate sense of hospitality for which Indians are justly famous leaps to the fore: “Welcome to our country! You are most welcome here!”
Little children four and five years old, so poor they’re dressed in rags and running barefoot in the middle of winter, come racing up to us to practice their English. “Hello! Hello!” one little boy sputters, waving his hand as he’d seen Westerners do. “Goodbye!” he offers too, the one other word of English at his command. These children—little paupers who own nothing—are so full of joy that my heart splits in two. We in America think of India as a land of poverty, but there is no poverty of spirit here.
We pause to watch the Indian women taking their sacred baths. As one after another emerges from the river in a soaking wet sari (there are no bathing suits in India), other women discreetly surround them while they slip out of their sopping clothes and change into something dry. Then one woman takes one end of the sari, and another takes the other end, and the two of them hold the yards and yards of unfurled material up to the wind to dry. There are thousands of women standing along the riverbank holding up their brightly colored saris like enormous flags.
This morning the Ganges is incredibly polluted because it’s carrying away the sins of millions of souls. And, purified by the force of sincerity and devotion, the women wrap up their dried saris and begin the long journey home.
Twists and Turns in Space and Time
Meanwhile events of a different nature are occurring in our tent. My husband’s pocket-size statue of the Hindu deity Ganesh vanishes without a trace—then shows up a few hours later exactly where he left it. Things keep disappearing—bottles of homeopathic medicine, a wallet, a badge—and later mysteriously reappear. I begin wondering if I’m hallucinating, but then people in other tents start reporting the same phenomenon.
I spend one afternoon sitting on my cot writing in my notebook. My husband sits down next to me and asks, “What’s this?” He picks up a pair of socks lying next to me that—I swear—was not there a moment ago. It turns out they belong to our tent mate—but he was keeping them in a suitcase stored outside the main compartment and has no idea how they teleported through a tent flap to the opposite side of the room.
We purchased four extra army-issue wool blankets to throw over our sleeping bags at night, but when we count them before we leave, there are five. We ask our tent mates if we have inadvertently taken one of theirs. They had bought five blankets, but when they count them now, there are six. Two extra wool blankets have simply materialized!
I had heard of phenomena like this occurring in folk cultures, but had never for a moment imagined such tales might be true. I don’t really know what was going on at the campus at Allahabad, but I occasionally had the eerie sense that some mysterious force was teasing us, trying to surprise us out of our complacent materialistic view of reality, reminding us that there are twists and turns in space and time of which we in the West are not at all aware.
The Pot of Nectar
The divine appears in every imaginable form at this festival, from colorful statues of the elephant-headed Ganesh to the river Ganges itself. But in the ashram where we stop for dinner, the speaker reminds us that even though God permeates all forms, ultimately the divine is beyond all form. We must travel into the formless silence between the syllables of thought in our minds, to find the living presence of eternal being within ourselves, he explains. Tonight tens of millions of other devotees are seated here with us, on the bare ground in one or another of the innumerable ashram tents, listening to a spiritual preceptor, chanting the names of God, and sharing a delicious free meal of dal, chapatis, and rice pudding.
Here at the Maha Kumbha Mela, at the confluence of heaven and earth, we are experiencing the pouring out of divine nectar into our lives. The Vedic sages always understood heaven as a metaphor for higher consciousness: the real source of healing, blessing and enlightening power streaming out of the celestial pot is our own higher self. Here in Allahabad, the City of God, my inner being has never felt closer.
Linda Johnsen, MA, is the author of Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India, The Living Goddess, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism.