Bathing in Sacred Waters

by Ruth Praskins

There is no corner of the world which stimulates the human senses with such rich vibrancy like India. She is a culture whose rituals fill the streets with warm sunset colors and smoky corridors.

Study Abroad in India
Bathing in Sacred Waters. Photo by Ruth Praskins

The air, thick with the smoke of ashes and incense, the dirt streets paved with the tread marks of devoted feet. The woman draped in Technicolor sarees, dripping the water of three holy bodies of water from the tightly wrapped fabric around their bodies. The men, bare to the bone but draped with a single loin cloth, ascetic devotees of the Hindu Lord Shiva, known as Sadhus, covered in orange powder and decorations, their long dreads dripping water as they meditate in the bright sun on the banks of the three rivers. The Nagas, practitioners of the Tantra, painted white with the ashes of dead bodies, a symbol of their renunciance from the physical world, chanting and enacting physical rituals different from the others. Tourists, Hindus, Nagas, Sadhus, women, children, and men, all gathered in one sacred space for the single intention to bathe in the converging waters of the Yamuna, Ganga, and mythical Saraswati rivers, a ritual to wipe the atman (Hindu soul body) clean from all past karmic imprints. Whether one believes in souls, deities, or past lives, this event leaves an undeniable imprint on the human experience.

February 14th, 2013 was the first of a fifty-five day span at the 144th Kumbh Mela, held on the sacred grounds of Allahabad, in the northern region of Uttar Pradesh, India.  The Kumbh Mela is the largest spiritual gathering ever recorded on this planet. Ma Kumbha, (Ma is used as a prefix in Hindi to denote respect, also meaning Mother) takes place once every twelve years, alternating between three different locations. Hindu tales tell the story of a battle between demons and gods over a pot of nectar, Amrit Kumbh: the nectar of immortality. It is told that Lord Vishnu retrieved the nectar from the demons by disguising himself as an enchantress, and passing the nectar along to his winged mount, Garuda. In the ensuing struggle with the demons, Garuda spilled a few drops of the precious nectar on Allahabad, Nasik, Haridwar, and Ujjain. These four locations are now the alternating hosts of Ma Kumbh Mela.     

This year over one hundred million people gathered, bathed, and camped on site in the span of fifty-five days. The overflow of bodies and camps created a maze of forty-foot orange, plastic, and glowing Hindu deities, tantric imagery, flashing lights, devotional chanting, and wild dust storms. However, among and between the moments of chaos and constant stimulation, well known to visitors of the Indian subcontinent, if one is open to it, exists a space of pure awareness and serendipity. A state of being which is elevated off of the dirt roads and into the very essence and being of the visitor. The paradox of perceived chaos reveals itself as a space to lose oneself in. There exists not enough time for the busy chatter of internal mentalities, Ma Kumbh Mela, so great in her presence, completely absorbs every facet of any human, birthing the visitor into a state of complete awareness. One ends up exactly where they are suppose to be, with hundreds of thousands of Hindu Guru’s camps to stumble into, conversations with other travelers, bathers and international visitors create an environment for self-reflection and mind-opening experiences. The experience of Ma Kumbh Mela is far more than the bathing ritual, it is in the community of nomads created by millions of people gathered in one space for a similar purpose, one far greater than any monetary purchase and entertainment factor. A space for self-reflection, amazement, and wonder. The world of the Kumbh Mela is anything but boring. With Sadhus presenting strange talents, temples of fluorescent lights and hundreds of ashrams to stumble into, one can find a multitude of activities to participate in, or just meander through the lost alleyways of temporary orange tents and vendors selling prayer beads and holy manuscripts.

Observing the mass bathing ritual at Ma Kumbh Mela creates space for the observer to challenge all personal judgments. Scientifically speaking, there are hundreds of thousands of foreign, and most likely extremely dangerous strains of bacteria in the waters, which when combined with a weak and foreign immune system could cause symptoms such as travelers diarrhea, Cholera, Dengue Fever and worse. So why would one risk death for a seemingly intangible reward? From the Hindu perspective, that fear is irrelevant. The stories tell of the sacred healing abilities of these waters at this event, and that is enough to push the human emotion of fear past its logical mind and into the realm of faith, faith in something larger than the Self. Thus, simply observing this event can cause a shift in the perception of a traveler, and open the mind to new worldviews. The great travel writer Pico Iyer describes the effects of travel on the human being, saying, “all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder,” (Why We Travel, 2000). Philosopher George Santanyana says “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.” The Kumbh Mela is the perfect destination for a traveller looking to expand their understanding of the human experience.               

The choice to bathe or not can be made at the banks of the sacred waters, and that personal choice to bathe and participate creates an experience of mass participation that no other event rivals. The power in ritual is overwhelming, especially on such a large scale. However if one chooses not to bathe, it does not hinder the experience, they may still walk up to the shores and contemplate the mass rituals occurring beforehand.  At the backbone of Hindu ideology is the concept of Dharma: one's life path and duty according to caste, and Karma: the principle that individual thoughts, actions, and dharma are all indicative of ones present situation, meaning that the way one lives their life in every present moment dictates everything about their future. Hinduism is an incredibly large umbrella term, one the Western world created to organize the rituals, thoughts, and behaviors of a foreign people into a linguistic category.

Ma Kumbh Mela is an extraordinarily auspicious event, which provides all Hindus with the opportunity to wash away all past Karma, and rebirth the soul-body unto a clean slate. In the eyes of a Hindu this is the opportunity of lifetimes, wherein they are actively able to step in and shift their Dharma. It would be impossible to understand the reasons for which over one hundred million people gather every twelve years at these four alternating locations, but the proof is in the ritual. It happens. And to be present at such an incredible event provides the space for travelers to challenge all personal presumptions about the relationship between life and death. The stench of devotion in the air is undeniable. Seeing hundreds of thousands of people push their way to the banks of the water, crying, laughing, elders on their knees, hands pressed between their chests, looking up as rays of sunshine illuminate their aged skin, this is a sight like no other. An experience like no other. An experience of lifetimes.