Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Immortal Kumbh Mela # 1 - The Journey Begins..

(This is the first part of my travelogue in the series over the Purna Kumbh Mela - 2013, 'The Immortal Kumbh Mela'. The posts in this series will be in a continuous form.)

 A signboard giving directions to Nirvana (as per Hindu beliefs all your sins get washed away if you bathe in the Sangam during the Shahi Snan's in the Kumbh Mela)

The last week, beginning on Friday, was one of the most challenging yet rewarding days of my life as a traveler. I had embarked on a trip to visit the Purna Kumbh Mela in Prayag (Allahabad) and witness the Shahi Snan (Royal Bath), on the occasion of Mauni Amavasya, in which atleast 30 million devotees and ascetics were expected to take a holy dip as per ancient traditions.

Kumbh (Pitcher) Mela (Fair) is an ancient enduring and significant pilgrimage in which Hindu devotees and ascetics from all walks of life come together to take a holy dip in the Sangam (the confluence of the Rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythological Saraswati). The Purna Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years in Prayag (Allahabad) and is billed as the largest congregation of mankind on the planet.

While the Kumbh Mela is a huge and marvellous gathering of mankind.. the history behind it is equally colourful. It is said that 4 drops of 'the nectar of immortality' fell from its pitcher (Kumbh) when Lord Vishnu (in the form of Mohini-Murti) tried to snatch it away from the demons. Those four drops of nectar fell at Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. It is believed (by some) that 8 more drops of nectar were spilled in heaven as well.. which means that, mythologically, Kumbh Mela takes place every year (which means that 8 Melas take place in heaven while 4 take place on earth) with the main Kumbh Mela taking place (every 12 years) in Prayag (Allahabad). It is believed that gods and demi-gods also participate in the snans (holy dips in the Sangam) disguised as ascetics.

 Portrait of famous Chinese traveler and monk Xuan Zang
Picture Source - Wikipedia

The Kumbh Mela has been mentioned in Hindu Scriptures since time immemorial but the first traveler to document the Kumbh Mela was Chinese traveler Xuan Zang (who visited India between 629-645 A.D.) during the reign of King Harshavardhan.

A view of the Allahabad Railway Station from the outside (this picture was taken a day after the stampede occurred)

My journey started on Friday night, when I boarded the (12276) Allahabad Duronto Express. Considered one of the best trains for Allahabad (as it is a non stop train) departing from Delhi (at 22:40 hrs) and arrives at Allahabad in the morning (at 06:10 hrs).

The train arrived on time and the moment I stepped out on the platform I began to realise (this realisation kept going as I walked towards the Sangam) the gravity and importance attached to the Kumbh Mela in the Indian culture. Thousands of pilgrims were pouring out of the station and making their way towards the Sangam and join the millions of other pilgrims who had already arrived.

During the Kumbh Mela the Allahabad Railway Station is always teeming with pilgrims either making their way towards the fair or coming back from it

I came out of the station and started walking towards my hotel only to be asked to take a detour by a helpful policeman (pun intended) who was standing on duty. That detour ensured that I got lost and eventually I had to summon a cycle rickshaw to take me to the hotel.