The Kumbh Mela is one of the largest peaceful gathering on this earth. It happens every three years in rotation across four cities of India- Haridwar, Nasik, Ujjain and Prayagraj (formerly known as Allahabad). This year the gathering is on confluence of the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna at Prayagraj. It is being held from January 14 to March 04, 2019.
According to the Hindu legends the mela (fair) is ageless. In the ancient times the Gods and the Demons churned the sea (Samudra Manthan) to get Amrit (immortal nectar). It was to be eventually shared between the two. The churning process also produced ratnas (gems) which were shared as promised. But when Amrit was found, Gods managed to take it all away. In the ensuing flight and fight, four drops of nectar fell at the four places mentioned above and that is where the Kumbh Mela is held. It is said that the planetary positions are similar to the sea churning when the Kumbh is held.
Kumbh is a gathering of saints and sadhus, who stay by confluence in temporary tents. They deliberate on the matters of public interest including politics. Common people come to seek the blessings of the saints. It is believed that by taking a dip in the Holy confluence you can wash away the sins! There are certain auspicious dates known as ‘Shahi Snan’ (special bathing days) when about 30 to 40 million people take the dip within a single day.
Within this gathering, there are naga sadhus. They smear ash over their bodies and shed clothes! And they are totally comfortable with their nakedness. They adorn the body with garlands etc, and they can be openly seen smoking pot. An aura of mystic and mystery surrounds them.
If you do a quick search on the internet the common opinion that naga sadhus live in caves in the Himalayas. They can be seen only at Kumbh. No one sees them coming or leaving the Kumbh Mela!
I had an opportunity to see the naga sadhus at Kumbh. We were in a mixed group of Indian and foreign media. Accompanying us were two guides Satish and Rakshit (from Experience Varanasi).
The sadhus organize their stay in groups known as Akharas. The two biggest Naga Akharas this year at Kumbh are Mahaparinirvani Akhara and Panchdashnam Juna Akhara. An Akhara is a large area where many tents belonging to the same group are pitched. We managed to walk past by the Juna Akhara. Anyone who goes to Kumbh wants to interact with naga sadhus and click pictures.
Being social media professionals, we were big on clicking pictures, but we were not sure what was the correct way to go about it! The naga sadhus were not too happy if you did not put some money before taking the picture. This led to some confusion among us. Were they not ascetics who have renounced everything? Why was money involved. A few in our group tried to picture a group without their permission and they were chased away by a trident wielding sadhu!
We had an impromptu gathering around our wise guides. They said we should stick together and the guides would negotiate the access for us. What followed was something like this- one of the guides would stand with folded hands and ask the sadhus for permission. Seeing that we had foreigners in our group, the sadhus asked if we would give dollars! Our guides were leaving Singapore Dollars in the offering! Then we could click photos.
Now this confused the hell out of me! I decided to run my dilemma through Kunal. His take was that though the sadhus have no family they still have a belly to feed. The money offered will go towards the basic things. I also feel as we were in a big group, we were attracting attention. If we were walking in ones and twos no one would mind. However, if you wish to go close or want a selfie, I think a token amount of money is expected.
I have lived in India all my life I do not necessarily buy outlandish explanations. To me all the naga sadhus living in the high caves of Himalayas fell in that category! Once again, I decided to check with Kunal as I was interested in his take on it.
He said two of the biggest Naga Akharas at this Kumbh are Mahaparinirvani Akhara and Panchdashnam Juna Akhara. They are from Varanasi! So, not all of them live in Himalayas! But when the sadhus live near the society, they wear clothes. Hence, we don’t ‘see’ them! They take their Naga Avatar at Kumbh hence we see them! We don’t see them coming and going because once again they wear clothes when they travel!
When internet throws a sensation, there is nothing like checking it with a local! What I have experienced and explained about naga sadhus and Kumbh is but just at the surface. I am sure there are many layers to this phenomenon, that I was not even able to touch in my short visit. But I am glad I went! It is quite an experience to see so many people from all walks of life come together united in their faith!