The

Asian Geographic - - Culture -

Hindu devo­tee’s hands are pressed to­gether. His palms touch, close to his chest, and his fin­gers point up­wards. His brightly-coloured tur­ban is in stark con­trast to his thick white beard.

“Na­maste,” he says with a slight bow. Lit­er­ally trans­lated, the word means “I bow to the di­vine in you.” A re­spect­ful greet­ing, na­maste, or na­maskar, com­bined with the word­less hand ges­ture, con­veys the same mean­ing of ac­knowl­edge­ment for a loved one, a guest or a stranger, re­gard­less of the speaker’s lan­guage, cul­ture or re­li­gion. Amidst the pot­pourri of more than 1,500 lan­guages spo­ken in In­dia, na­maste is a uni­ver­sal form of sa­lu­ta­tion, un­der­stood by all, and par­tic­u­larly so dur­ing the Kumbh Mela. The left-toright head wob­ble – would that be a yes or a no? – is an­other story!

It is a Sen­sory Over­load In­dia is not for the faint-hearted. It is sen­sory over­load; there are no grey ar­eas: ei­ther you’ll love to travel the coun­try or hate it well enough to take the first flight out. In­dia can break you with its poverty, lack of pri­vacy and dirt; iron­i­cally, Western trav­ellers claim to have found in­ner spir­i­tu­al­ity af­ter a two-week trip. The Kumbh Mela – the largest spir­i­tual gath­er­ing in the world, when Hin­dus gather en masse to bathe in a sa­cred river and cleanse them­selves of sin – is the ul­ti­mate test. First doc­u­mented by a Chi­nese trav­eller in the sev­enth cen­tury, the colour­ful celebration of the world’s old­est re­li­gion is held once ev­ery 12 years. The ex­act date of the fes­ti­val is deter­mined ac­cord­ing to a com­bi­na­tion of the zo­diac po­si­tions of Jupiter, the sun and the moon.

Hindu mythol­ogy de­scribes how the Lord Vishnu dropped the drink of im­mor­tal­ity over four lo­ca­tions as he was trans­port­ing it in a kumbha (pot), hence the name. The Mela (gath­er­ing) is cen­tred at the banks of a river where devo­tees bathe to cleanse them­selves of their sins. The main fes­ti­val site is, of course, lo­cated on the banks of a river: the Ganges at Harid­war; the con­flu­ence of the Ganges and Ya­muna and the in­vis­i­ble Saras­vati at Al­la­habad; the Saras­vati at Al­la­habad; the Go­davari at Nashik; and the Shipra at Uj­jain.

The Kumbh Mela is a melt­ing pot of the mil­lions of peo­ple that visit from the var­i­ous states who, de­spite speak­ing di­versely dif­fer­ent lan­guages, con­verge peace­fully in the name of re­li­gion. The event is widely known by its San­skrit name, Kumbha, the sa­cred lan­guage of Hin­duism and a cer­e­mo­nial lan­guage in pu­jas (prayers) and re­li­gious rit­u­als. San­skrit is the sa­cred lan­guage of Hin­duism and one of the old­est Indo-euro­pean lan­guages in the world. The lit­er­a­ture holds a deep tra­di­tion in drama, po­etry, re­li­gious and philo­soph­i­cal texts. As such, San­skrit hymns and chants are widely heard through­out the Kumbh Mela. Kumbha is also – fit­tingly – the sign of the Aquarius. Uj­jain The Kumbh Mela in Uj­jain can be traced back to the 18th cen­tury. The an­cient city, con­sid­ered one of the most sa­cred places in In­dia, sits along the eastern bank of the Kshipra River and is lo­cated in the state of Mad­hya Pradesh in cen­tral In­dia. It is as if time has stood still here. Vis­i­tors travel to In­dia on planes, trains and au­to­mo­biles, then trans­fer to more eclec­tic, old-world modes of trans­porta­tion: camels, horses, even ele­phants. The devo­tees are from all walks of life, from var­i­ous castes and re­li­gious or­ders – Hin­dus, Bud­dhists, Sikhs, even Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies – with one pur­pose: to bathe and be born again, freed into an eter­nal life with­out sin and suf­fer­ing. Be­tween 22 April and 21 May 2016, ap­prox­i­mately 75 mil­lion peo­ple vis­ited.

The main tem­ple of rev­er­ence in Uj­jain is the Ma­hakalesh­war Jy­otir­linga, sit­u­ated on the side of the Ru­dra Sa­gar Lake. It is one of the most fa­mous Hindu tem­ples ded­i­cated to Lord Shiva, and is said to be one of twelve jy­otir­lingams that is the most sa­cred abode of Lord Shiva. The Ram Ghat – one of the most pop­u­lar – is lo­cated close to the Har­sid­dhi Tem­ple in Uj­jain. In­dian as­tronomers have cal­cu­lated that the Tropic of Cancer passes through the city of Uj­jain, mak­ing it the Green­wich of In­dia.

The Peo­ples The largest crowd-pullers at the Kumbh Mela are the sad­hus or the holy men of In­dia. The root word sadh in San­skrit means ‘to reach one’s goal’; the same word is used in the sad­hana, or spir­i­tual prac­tice. Be­com­ing a sadhu is the fourth stage in a Hindu’s life, and the prac­tice is also open to women ( sadvi). Com­ing from a va­ri­ety of castes, the holy peo­ple of In­dia prac­tise a no­madic life and their spir­i­tual dis­ci­pline in­volves self-de­nial: re­nounc­ing the world for med­i­ta­tion and con­tem­pla­tion.

Liv­ing apart from so­ci­ety – in Hindu tem­ples, ashrams, forests and caves – the sad­hus fo­cus on their yo­gic and spir­i­tual be­liefs. Some of them thrive in large com­munes while oth­ers choose a more reclu­sive life­style. They rely on do­na­tions from peo­ple to sur­vive. It is a dif­fi­cult path and sad­hus are con­sid­ered legally dead unto them­selves and to In­dia. Re­gard­less, it is be­lieved that their de­vo­tion is good karma and ben­e­fi­cial to In­dian so­ci­ety.

The nanga (naked) sad­hus, with their thick dread­locks and ash-cov­ered skin, claim to be in the com­pany of ghosts. They cer­tainly look the part. In­dia has an in­fi­nite amount of rit­u­als and tra­di­tions that can lead one to God. Their choice to live in ceme­ter­ies as part of their holy path is, how­ever, macabre. Some are thought to pos­sess spe­cial pow­ers.

[Kumbh Mela] is widely known by its San­skrit name, Kumbha, the sa­cred lan­guage of Hin­duism right far rig ht bot­tom

The fas­ci­na­tion with the Lord Shiva ex­plains their heavy use of cha­ras (cannabis), who was thought to have a deep affin­ity for the plant.

Most devo­tees at the event are draped in brightly-coloured fab­rics, though marigold is pre­dom­i­nant, and beads of dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes, of­ten mixed with sil­ver, adorn their necks and wrists. Tents of var­i­ous hues fill the hori­zon. Fra­grant food stalls serve only veg­e­tar­ian cui­sine so that no­body is of­fended. The smell of musky in­cense mixed with ganja (mar­i­juana) fills the air. The stairs lead­ing down to the body of wa­ter are full of peo­ple pa­tiently wait­ing their turn in the river. The nanga sad­hus flock to bathe, prov­ing that one can de­tach from worldly things. The out­come is an over­whelm­ing, un­ex­pected and ex­tra­or­di­nary vis­ual feast.

Ev­ery 144 years, a Maha (great) Kumbh Mela oc­curs. It is said that in 2013, more than 120 mil­lion pil­grims at­tended the Maha Kumbh Mela in Al­la­habad within a span of two months. The gath­er­ing was so huge that it was vis­i­ble from space!

What­ever the rea­sons for the pil­grim­age, the Kumbh Mela has proven for cen­turies that it em­bod­ies the In­dian spirit. From this whirl­wind of ac­tiv­i­ties and swirl of lan­guages and cul­tures, faith – to­gether with the time­less jour­ney to­wards for­give­ness and re­demp­tion – is the one fac­tor that unites peo­ple. ag

[I]n 2013, more than 120 mil­lion pil­grims at­tended the Maha Kumbh Mela in Al­la­habad within a span of two months. The gath­er­ing was so huge, it was vis­i­ble from space! GUN­THER DEICHMANN SHIRIN BHAN­DARI

ethirpaarp pai ganini nadanam palam tho­laipesi

Ben­galuru Madu­rai

Aintu

There are a to­tal of 12 vow­els, in­clud­ing five long and five short vow­els, and the two let­ters,‘ai’ and ‘au’, to avoid breaks and pauses in speech. Pro­nun­ci­a­tion of words is cru­cial – fail­ure to em­pha­sise the long and short vow­els may re­sult in dif­fer­ent mean­ings. Wel­come! (to greet some­one) ( Vaazhga!) How are you? (Ep­pati irukkinga?) Can I help you? (Unakku ud­ha­vat­tumaa?) Thanks (Romba Nan­dri)

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