Beseeching Mother Ganga's Blessings
....Following humankind's greatest festival to its source...
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(Hinduism Today's team covered the 2010 Kumbha Mela from two
perspectives. Correspondent Choodie Shivaram and photographer Dev Raj
Agarwal joined the festival separately. We alternate between their
Summoned to the Mela
By Choodie Shivaram, Haridwar
Hindus have absolute belief in the existence of bulava, a divine summons
to visit the most sacred places of worship. Without this call, it is
impossible for the visit to materialize. When I received an unexpected
call asking for my presence at the Kumbha Mela at Haridwar this year,
during the time of Maha Sivaratri no less, it felt like heaven
I never dreamt that I would ever be part of this great event. My
invitation had come from Sri Jayendra Puri Swamiji, the pontiff of
Kailasa Ashrama Mahasamsthana in Bangalore, who informed me that he was
being crowned mahamandaleshwar on February 15, 2010, during the Kumbha
Mela. I jumped at the chance to join his entourage, all other duties at
home or work obliterated from my thoughts, and proceeded to Haridwar,
foremost among seven holy places where the Melas take place.
This year's Kumbha Mela saw a prodigious attendace of more than 50
million devotees over the course of several weeks, densely populating
the area where the event takes place. Pilgrims came to seek blessings
from the sea of sadhus present and, later, to take a holy dip of their
own in the holy river which is itself a sacred entity, a Goddess. She is
reverently called Ganga Ma, "Mother Ganga."
I could barely wait to join millions of fellow Hindus at this most
sacred event. As we set out by road to this ancient site of pilgrimage
133 miles east of Delhi, we witnessed a swelling sea of devotees, all
single-mindedly on the move to meet their appointment with the Gods.
Pilgrims from all walks of life traveled long distances, withstanding
physical discomforts such as sleeping in the open air at near freezing
temperatures. They came by train, bus, car, truck, tractor, bullock
cart, bicycle and donkey. Many thousands traveled by foot, even without
shoes. We marveled at the endless procession of men, women and children
walking miles and miles, many with kavadis (offerings carried during the
pilgrimage as a form of penance) reverently perched on their shoulders.
What firm foundation, what absolute faith makes those devotees undergo
such hardships to reach Haridwar and partake in the Kumbha Mela despite
For many people, the Kumbha Mela is an event best watched on television.
Vast crowds and scarce comforts are deterrents, especially to those
coming all the way from the South of the subcontinent. Reports of
stampedes, pollution in the Ganga and some unseemly stories about the
pilgrimage discourage the faint-hearted. But for the millions who come,
as I would learn for myself, those challenges are insignificant.
As I approached Haridwar, I could hear devotional chants in energetic
unison, such as "Ganga Ma Ki Jai" or "Har Har Mahadev," enveloping the
roads. When we drew closer to the holy city, this incessant, divine
proclamation increased in decibels as the crowd of devotees grew denser.
In several camps, loudspeakers played music or encouraging sermons,
fanning the flames of faith's ardor. Huge billboards, posters and
banners of different ashrams and sadhus welcomed devotees. I reflected
that, for religious leaders seeking attention, the Kumbha Mela is a
great opportunity to garner visibility and publicity.
When I finally arrived in Haridwar, I was struck by the intense
spiritual vibrancy of the city. Devotion was evident everywhere, in the
charged tunes of bhajans and spiritual discourses and in the intense
ambience of piety that filled the air. I truly felt I had arrived at "Deva
Bhumi," the world of the devas. It felt like a spiritual tornado. I
could experience God everywhere.
In my mind, I could hear the echo of Mark Twain's words written after he
experienced Kumbha Mela in 1895, 115 years back: "It is wonderful, the
power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of
the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or
complaint upon such incredible journeys. It is done in love, or it is
done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is,
the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of
people, the cold whites."
Living at the Mela
By Dev Raj Agarwal, Haridwar
Haridwar during the Mela is a beehive, teeming with activity all around.
The city is packed with people, policemen in khaki-and-blue uniforms,
pilgrims with heavy loads of baggage on their heads, unbearably loud
speakers from all directions, busy restaurants and food corners, crowded
bus stands and railway stations--everywhere you get the impression that
there is no room left for anything more. Yet, the stream of devotees
keeps coming. Everytime I decided to cover one part of the mela, I ended
up disappointed, unable to finish even half of that area. There is so
much to see.
One balmy afternoon, for example, I see a long row of sadhus moving
unannounced, holding kamandalus in their hands--those oblong pots
usually made from gourds, used to store water or sometimes for begging,
traditionally a sadhu's only possession. Their chests are tightly tied
with a network of black or brown ropes and colored cloth pinned to the
ends of the ropes, swinging around the knees. They are performing a
ritual called bhiksha, an ages-old custom, when representatives of the
several akharas walk around and gather alms in the form of flour from
all camps. They have to keep walking, without stopping and looking back.
Other sadhus wait outside their camps and pour some wheat flour in the
kamandalus as their biksha-gathering brothers pass by.
Both devotees and journalists actually move to Haridwar for some time
during the Kumbha Mela, often staying for months. People cook, sleep,
study and do business in the camps; some die and some are born.
One can buy fresh milk, curds, butter, bread and vegetables from small
shops inside the camp city. Hundreds of men and women are kept busy
cleaning the streets all around. The common pilgrims seem to be more
health conscious now. Very rarely did I see pilgrims drinking water from
the taps in the camp city and elsewhere. Instead, most depended on
bottles of mineral water and sweet beverages, sold everywhere at a
Considering the temporary but exponential boom in the population of the
area, organization is essential. This year's was the first Kumbha Mela
under the administration of the new Uttarakhand state, carved out of
Himalayan and adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh on November 9, 2000,
to become the 27th state of the Republic of India. The authorities were
visibly strict in the running of the mela, perhaps intent on making a
positive first impression.
As I walk through the sandy roads of Neeldhara camp, I can't help but
think that the organizers did a good job. I am pleased to see the neatly
constructed halls of various social and religious organizations. The
festival covers over 52 square miles, divided in 35 sectors. Buses are
busy ferrying pilgrims to and from distant camps. There are rows of
fresh water taps and toilets in many places, newly constructed for the
visitors. Official statistics tally 4,000 toilets, 32 police stations, 6
base hospitals and 35 fire stations. The Indian Space Research
Organisation even took satellite pictures of the crowds with the hope of
improving the conduct of the festival in the future.
Most of the policemen were from Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. The
official staff included 20,000 policemen coming from 17 different police
forces, which sounds like a lot until you remember that 50 million
people attended the festival. Not all of them at the same time, but on
April 14, the last Shahi Snan, an estimated 15 million people gathered
at Haridwar. I met a young police officer from Himachal who said he felt
a little tense in such a difficult assignment, but at the same time
happy to be able to visit the Kumbha Mela. It was common to see police
personnel in their off hours becoming simple pilgrims, both men and
women, taking a dip in the Ganga and performing various pujas.
The mela felt clean and safe. But if the basics are dutifully covered,
the gathering still lacks simple amenities such as an information booth.
Almost everybody who lands here looks lost, looking for information or
hoping for a map, to no avail. Even those who have been here for weeks
have little knowledge to offer, and just a rare few can point the way.
"Camp layout maps should be displayed around," suggested a group of
elderly men and women from Saurashtra, tired of walking in circles.
The renunciates themselves seem to be ahead in hosting and
communication. Ashrams, akharas and sadhus now have their e-mails. And,
of course, almost everyone now has a mobile phone, so they can always
call a missing companion, be he a family member or a fellow swami, and
ask the inevitable question: "Where are you?"
The First Royal Bath
By Dev Raj Agarwal, Haridwar
On this year's Kumbha Mela, the first Shahi Snan (Royal Bath) coincided
with the great night of Siva--an auspicious occasion matching a blessed
astrological configuration. The first and most important Shahi Snan is
when sadhus parade to the river by the thousands and jump into the holy
February 12, 2010, is overcast and cold. In the barricaded sidewalks of
the streets, thousands are en route to Har ki Pauri, the central ghat on
the banks of the Ganga. Many pilgrims are annoyed, blocked from reaching
Haridwar's most famous ghats during the bathing of the sadhus. Most of
them do not dare to open their mouths in front of an army of police and
paramilitary soldiers. In this superbly organized Kumbha Mela, there is
a hint of military discipline, with ambivalent results.
As we pass through the camp of Juna Akhara, where thousands of sadhus
are gathered, the loud chanting of "Har Har Mahadeva" is almost
deafening, saturating the air with strong vibrations. A group of naga
sadhus dances in frenzy, while some others display yogic postures in
front of cameras. This was one of the most exotic spectacles I have ever
seen. The whole scene is dominated by the grey and brown of the
ash-smeared bodies and the deep, warm yellow of the marigold garlands. A
large group of sadhvis watch from a corner. Soon, all mahamandaleshwars
and senior sages come out and accept the greetings from the crowd of
nagas, taking their seats in the procession. The already loud voices
reach a roar when one of the sadhus lifts the Juna Akhara's giant flag
and four others shoulder the silver palanquin with the akhara's Deity:
the time has come for the Shahi Yatra.
At the Har ki Pauri, where pressmen and photographers are battling for
elbow room, the Juna Akhara's naga sadhus line up along the river and
jump into the water as soon as the symbolic bath of the Deities is
finished. Then follow the mahamandaleshwars, sadhus and, finally, the
devotees, thousands of people from the streets who have somehow sneaked
into the Shahis during the procession and now feel privileged to take a
bath along with these divine souls! I am entranced by the power and the
devotion of this great spectacle. Until late in the evening, the akharas
bathe, one after the other, first the Saiva akharas, then the Vaishnavas.
Eventually, everyone, sadhu or householder, poor or rich, famous or
anonymous, gets their holy dip. Many Hindus make vows to take a bath in
the Ganga after the marriage of their daughters, or to seek blessings
for the salvation of departed relatives. Their resolve is often tested
with severe challenges, and many are overwhelmed with emotions as they
finish the cathartic, soul-cleansing bath. A dip in the Ganga during the
Kumbha Mela, tradition says, washes away the karma of many births.
The First Royal Bath
(By Choodie Shivaram, Haridwar)
I didn't sleep all night. The thought of a dip in the Ganga at 4am on
Mahasivaratri inspired me to overcome the freezing weather, at five
degrees Celsius, and jovially lead a group to the river. I told the
other women that if they felt the water was too cold, they could just
sprinkle some water on their heads, so they agreed to come.
Reciting the Ganga Lahiri mantra, we inched into the cold water,
shivering and shrieking, chattering "Jai Ganga" and "Aum Namah Shivaya."
And then the magic overtook me. I kept taking dip after dip, not just
for me but on behalf of my parents, guru, children, relatives, friends
and well-wishers. And at the exact moment when I offered arghya
(ablution) on behalf of my parents--my father died recently--the temple
bells of a Siva temple on the Ghat rang out loud. It was as though He
acknowledged my prayers.
Later in the day, at 1:30 pm, I followed the Mahanirvani sadhus, from a
distance, on their way to the river. The procession was beyond anything
I ever imagined. Hundreds of thousands of sadhus and saints,
representatives and devotees, hundreds of chariots formed an unending
stream of people that went on for three miles, strongly protected by
Through the narrow lanes of Haridwar, thousands watched expectantly,
hands folded in reverence as the julus (procession) passed by. From the
roof tops, flowers showered on the sadhus. We were on the inside of the
police line, with lay members of the Mahanirvani Akhara. With us was an
elderly sadhvi from Bengaluru, braving the heat, the rush, the dust and
the crowd. Those who had experience with similar situations had formed a
ring of protection around us, keeping our mind away from the ghosts of
We finally arrived at the ghat. The Ganga was just there, the sadhus
were there, I could see and almost touch them. This was, of course, the
Royal Bath, and only the sadhus are supposed to be in the water.
But it was a miracle when a policewoman told us the elderly sadhvi could
take a dip, with help from my husband and myself. We not only joined in
the julus but could take the holy bath immediately after her. This was
the high point of our life. It was euphoric. Nothing else existed. We
had merged with God.
When I left Bengaluru for this pilgrimage, many among our friends and
family warned about stampedes, risk of disease, lack of facilities,
pollution--the list was long. I was unmindful of it all. Nothing could
shake my faith in Ganga, in Siva, in our customs and traditions. No one
could deter me, not even the freezing temperatures.
Arriving back home, no one would believe we had such a smooth experience
of the Shahi Snan. I was struck by a magnificent spiritual force that
must be experienced to be known.
Spectacle and Spirit
By Dev Raj Agarwal, Haridwar
After a long wait of twelve years, the Kumbha Mela has returned to
Haridwar. Its arrival changes the face of the city, an otherwise sleepy
town that suddenly comes to life.
To attend a Kumbha Mela is a priceless opportunity. As a photographer, I
find myself counting the days between these holy gatherings. More than
the chance to take a sacred bath, it is also time to see the vast surge
of humanity in different colors, a look into our diversified culture.
When the time for the festival comes, thousands of holy men, ascetics,
sadhus and nagas converge towards a holy city to be a part of the
largest temporary family humankind has ever assembled.
But it is the pilgrims, so often ignored by the media, that bring the
festival to life. There are distinctly two types of pilgrims here. The
wealthier (or middle-class) come with a plan, joining the camp of a
religious organization they know and staying in their accommodations,
sometimes for weeks. They come to learn, to perform selfless service
and, most of all, to spend some time near their guru. The majority of
pilgrims are poor, humble, scarcely educated, the uninvited lot who
travel to Haridwar on a shoestring budget. Their itinerary depends on
how much they can spend, often just enough for a day trip or couple
days' stay. They are the spirit of the festival and the actual
custodians of this age-old extravaganza. They arrive at a bus or
railroad station and head straightaway for the bath, perform their
austerities, then spend time visiting camps for the darshan of all the
saints, ashrams, markets and holy gatherings they manage to find. They
often flock around the big tents (called pandals) to hear words of
wisdom from the many gurus. By night, they leave in a hurry, feeling
blessed and energized with unseen boons they take home to share with
their villages and extended families. The Kumbha Mela is a festival for
The festival actually began on January 14, 2010, on the day of Makar
Sankranti. That was a cold and grey morning. When I arrived at the ghats
by sunrise, just a few pilgrims were there, huddled around fires along
the river. Little happens that early: most camps were still deserted,
without the swamis and naga sadhus. Nevertheless, media staff from
around the world were already camping in Haridwar, visibly excited with
It is only in February that the renunciates and their akharas arrive in
full force. It is a solemn occasion, a religious ritual of great
significance. The symbolic declaration of an akhara's arrival, called
the peshwai, is a major point of the Kumbha Mela. All the akharas try
hard to make their own peshwai a grand show and exhibit their importance
and prowess in a large parade. Displaying their akhara's heritage
through colorful processions, the renunciates march through busy streets
with the akhara's flags held high, ash-smeared naga sadhus in the lead,
followed by mahamandaleshwars and mahants in their gold and silver-laden
chariots, with elephants and music adding verve to the show. After its
peshwai, each battalion of sadhus establishes itself at the camp of its
particular akhara, spread over a vast area. Colloquies, religious rites
and deep philosophical conversations may then commence.
It is only after the peshwais that the common pilgrim fully realizes
what it means to be at a Kumbha Mela. Sadhus are everywhere. Most
pilgrims, usually busy with everyday life and mundane issues, bask in
the opportunity to have darshan of all these great men whose sole
objective is salvation. Anyone interested in Hinduism can learn much
during the Kumbha Mela, and make his own life much simpler, just by
seeing how renunciates solve the most complex issues in the simplest of
ways. Their bhashyas, or teachings, condense countless years of wisdom
into simple yet powerful statements, which many are willing to give
freely to those who approach.
Westerners, too, find their place in the celebration. Actually, we now
see more Westerners attending than ever before. Most are here following
a specific saint and staying for extended periods, taking diksha,
performing seva and listening to the teachings, hoping to transform
themselves and bring a little of the wisdom of the East to the madness
of their lives in the West.
And if the Kumbha Mela now has people coming from abroad to join the
faithful, an interesting inversion is happening: the media corps that
covers the event is increasingly Indian. In the old days, only
photographers from Europe and America would come, enticed and mesmerized
by the visual spectacle. Illiterate in Hinduism, those reporters
understood little of what happened. They focused on the sadhus'
nakedness, on the massive crowds and the sheer grandeur of it all. Today
it is common to see the Indian media covering the event as it is: the
greatest religious festival on Earth. Their audience is more domestic
than international. India, it seems, is now proud of the Kumbha Melas
and has claimed them as her own.
Modern media plays a wide role in contemporary melas. Nagas are no
longer camera shy and hostile to pressmen and photographers who approach
them. They are happy to be photographed. Some of them inquire how much
money the photographer is going to make from selling their pictures and
politely ask for some--it's an opportunity as good as any to ask for
alms, it seems.
The media have been wholeheartedly embraced by the festival. Many
temporary camps of sadhus have television sets. Newspapers are delivered
to the camps early in the morning, and saints and nagas curiously and
hastily scan the pages, hoping to find their own pictures somewhere.
A Unique Conclave
By Choodie Shivaram, Haridwar
I was overwhelmed by the magnitude and diversity of the Kumbha Mela. In
a whirlwind of events that defy description, everything seems to happen
at once, everywhere, both inside and outside of you. We, pilgrims, feel
like we are an integral part of it. The power of the event certainly
comes from the presence of the holy Ganga, ever-flowing and ever-giving;
from the many pujas that never seem to stop; and also the date's special
astrology. But, more than anything else, the mela's spiritual might is
due to the presence of sadhus, swamis, glorious akharas and anonymous
saints, fruit of their worship and tapas.
Not all the monks of the mela are naked sadhus. The religious orders
present include thousands of robed swamis, brahmacharis, guru and sages.
Pandits of all kinds gather at the banks of the Ganga, mixing freely in
the most orderly chaos there can be. Pervading it all is a profound
sense of tolerance.
But the most fascinating are the monks who amble, covered in ash,
through the ghats of Haridwar. My first encounter with the naga sadhus
happened at Maya Puri, an area housing hundreds of naga camps.
Maya Puri is named after a temple dedicated to Shakti, which is
metaphysically said to contain Her heart and navel. Sadhus and saints
visiting Haridwar invariably stop at the temple and pay obeisance; She
is the city's protector, and it is at Her feet that most sadhus take
Walking through the naga camp is an indescribable experience. The
interiors are well kept and orderly. The one I visited had carpets, a
shrine for pujas and a havana kunda where the holy fire is perennially
lit, perhaps helping keep the place warm.
Sitting in small circles, renunciates gather to discuss matters of the
soul. Perfectly dressed scholars and unabashedly bare sadhus dismiss all
external appearances and engage in lively exchanges for hours, into the
night and until daybreak. This is not a place ruled by the tick of the
clock or the ding of coins. Religion and spirituality are all that
In the minds of most of us, Indian urban dwellers or Westerners, the
Kumbha Mela is misconstrued as nothing but a religious event that brings
together a plethora of naked, ash-smeared naga sadhus known for their
extraordinary feats. The sensationalizing visual media makes an issue
out of their nakedness. These naga sadhus are portrayed as unkempt,
ash-smeared, bare-bodied, herb-smoking, aggressive men. What a different
feeling I had when I finally met them in person.
The nagas are lost in their own world, oblivious to attention and
publicity. Where do they come from, where do they go? The answers they
give are vague. I spoke to many naga sannyasins. Some superior force
blinded me to their nakedness. Maybe still hesitant about their fearsome
appearance, I asked, "Why are people scared of you? Are you as dangerous
as people believe?" The answer was calm and composed: "This is a wrong
opinion. We consider ourselves a part of Siva, Lord Shankara. We take
cudgels only when there is a need to protect dharma. We are harmless
Seeming at once benign and menacing, naga sadhus are a mystery even to
faithful Hindus. People believe that having their darshan brings good
luck and alleviates problems. My friend Geetha Limbavalli, who had
accompanied me from Bengaluru, firmly believed that her business woes
would be solved by seeking blessings from one of the ash-smeared saints.
These mendicants follow strange and severe austerities. We came across
two nagas referred to as khade babas, who have been standing for decades
and rest their bodies by shifting their weight to ropes hanging from the
ceiling, even for sleeping. Another sadhu has kept his right hand held
straight up for 27 years, his nails now long and intertwined, grotesque
and exotic. "We do it for God," they all say in one way or another,
exuding an inner contentment beyond our understanding.
All naga sadhus I spoke to were calm and perfectly mannered. One of them
assured me, in a long colloquy, that he has abstained from solid food
for decades. He explained, "I do not do this for anyone or for any gain.
I do it for myself, for the God within me. Lord Shankara is within us,
why do you seek Him outside? Look within!" In the neat but simple camp,
devoid of the luxuries of modern life, his statement rang wise and true.
As I took my leave, the naga asked me to garland him by placing a
rudraksha mala around his neck. With an unanticipated feeling of
devotion, chanting "Om Namah Shivaya," I garlanded him, and I felt
The Making of a New Mahamandaleshwar
By Choodie Shivaram, Haridwar
Nevermind that I was floored by the kaleidoscopic experiences at the
Kumbha Mela: the main reason for my travel was to witness the coronation
of Jayendra Puri Swamiji of Kailash Ashram, Bengaluru, as a
mahamandaleshwar of the Niranjani Akhara.
Being part of his entourage, I was invited to stay at Jagadguru Ashram,
where Swamiji studied during his initial years of sannyasa. The ashram
is near the banks of Ganga in Kankhal, not quite two miles south of
Haridwar. Kankhal houses the famous temple of Daksheshwar, the place
where king Daksha, Sati's father, performed the yagna without inviting
Lord Shiva and where Sati (an incarnation of Parvati) immolated herself
by entering the holy fire--or so the Puranic story goes. Jagadguru
Ashram is now headed by Swami Raja Rajeshwar Ashram Maharaj, a
contemporary of Jayendra Puri Swamiji and also a disciple of Swami's Sri
Vidya teacher, Prakash Anandji Maharaj.
The morning of the coronation of Jayendra Puri Swamiji, February 15,
2010, began with a navagraha homa at Jagadguru Ashram. We then walked
the streets of the holy city in procession, arriving at the Niranjani
Akhara camp for the coronation. Senior dignitaries and even
mahamandaleshwars of other akharas joined us, in accordance with
established practice, a custom that strengthens the amicable ties
between the akharas.
The coronation is a dignified and essential ceremony in the mechanism of
the akharas, but the celebration differs. Ordination into certain orders
is austere and unpretentious, while others glare with pomp and ceremony.
"It also depends on who is getting initiated and how he intends to mark
his ascension," says Mehanth Ravinder Puri of the Mahanirvani Akhara.
The sannyasin aspiring to be a mahamandaleshwar will also have to spend
a considerable amount of money towards the ceremony. He must bear the
expenses towards the arrangements, feeding of sadhus and nagas, travel
arrangements of guests and sadhus.
The event began with an introduction of Jayendra Puri Swami and what
made him eligible. The coronation ritual is, surprisingly, a simple
process. Swamiji sat on the dais facing the mahamandaleshwars.
Punyanandgiri Swamiji, Acharya Mahamandaleshwar of the Niranjani Akhara,
sprinkled water and milk on him while mantras were chanted. "In earlier
days it was a complete abhishekam performed with milk, curd, honey, etc,
just as it is done in the temples to the Deities. Now the process is
simplified," later explained Mahant Triyambak Bharati.
By the conclusion of this modest abhishekam, Sri Jayendra Puri Swami had
been formally ordained as a mahamandaleshwar. He was led to seat among
the other mahamandaleshwars. Immediately the other mahamandaleshwars
honored the newly ordained mahamandaleshwar, welcoming him into their
fold. Tada astu--so be it!
It is only during Kumbha Mela that mahamandaleshwars are installed by
the akharas. It is the highest traditional honor conferred on a
sannyasin by an akhara, for his contribution to dharma and spiritual
attainment. Literally, "mahamandaleshwar" means "superior of great (or
numerous) monasteries." When and how the title was first created and
evolved is not known. "It is a development of recent times," says
Girshanand Swamiji of Mahanirvani Akhara. But some swamis disagree with
this view, saying it began in some form with Adi Shankara.
During this year's 42-day Kumbha Mela, akharas conferred
mahamandaleshwar titles on many sadhus: the Juna Akhara to over 30,
Niranjani to 17 and Maha Nirvani to 35. Though most of them are North
Indian, in recent decades South Indian swamis have also been ordained, a
process that unifies Hinduism across India. Women are also eligible.
Famous saint Swami Nrishingh Givji gave sannyas diksha to Santoshi
Mataji at the Kumbha in 1974, and that opened doors for women to join
the ranks of the akharas all the way to the top.
Being a mahamandaleshwar is a lifetime commitment. They are expected to
strictly abide by the disciplines laid down by their akhara. "A
mahamandaleshwar's life, karma and character should be in consonance
with his elevation," says septuagenarian Mahant Triyambak Bharati, of
the Niranjani Akhara. "His duty is to propagate and protect Sanatana
Dharma and spiritually elevate people. We confer this honor only after
thoroughly verifying the complete background of the sannyasin."
Harigiriji Maharaj, secretary of Juna Akhara, adds, "If a sannyasin
elevated to mahamandaleshwar falls from grace or engages in adharma, an
independent inquiry is held among the akhara's chiefs, and the title may
Even so, there seems to be a wide swath of styles among the
mahamandaleshwars. Some parade around Haridwar in gold-plated chariots,
or sit on gold and silver thrones balanced majestically atop elephants,
attracting criticism from the locals. Soham Baba, a mahamandaleshwar of
the Juna Akhara, recently made the cover of local newspapers after
commissioning jewelry worth millions of US dollars, and even my rickshaw
driver had something negative to say about that. When I asked one of
Soham Baba's fellow akhara members about it, he pointed to his own
tattered slippers. "I'm one of the akhara chiefs too, you know, his
equal in rank. There is no need for such show, they don't last long."
Indeed, the extravagant and the mundane did find their place in the
Kumbha Mela, sometimes in the person of those who have newfound fame
hanging heavy on their shoulders. Such flashiness neither befits a
renunciate, nor is it encouraged by the akharas. Yet, there seems to be
no conflict or reprehension: the true sadhus just wait, knowing that the
rotten branches soon fall from the tree.
My own faith in the system grew stronger as I interacted with senior
sadhus and akhara leaders. Certainly, conferring the title of
mahamandaleshwar to ascetics like Jayendra Puri Swami brings a positive
From the Source
By Dev Raj Agarwal, Gangotri
To close this report on the Kumbha Mela, Hinduism Today went where there
are no crowds and the pristine river is still called Bhagirathi, renamed
as Ganga only further downstream. The river is the ruling Goddess of a
large and picturesque mountain terrain in the Himalayas, where it
originates in the lap of snow-capped summits. The terminus of the long
glacier that gives birth to the river is called Gomukh, literally
meaning cow's mouth, situated at the base of the three Bhagirathi peaks
of the Uttarkashi district in Uttarakhand. It was there, a story from
time immemorial tells, that sage Bhagirath meditated for years to beg
Lord Siva for a river to flow from the heavens and cleanse the ashes of
King Sagar's 60,000 sons, who had been killed by a wrathful siddhar.
Bound to their mortal remains, Sagar's sons had wandered ever since as
ghosts, waiting for a proper disposal ceremony. Pleased with Bhagirath's
selfless and dedicated effort, Lord Siva made the mighty waters of the
river gradually trickle down through His coiled hair, cleaning the
ashes, fertilizing the soil and bringing untold blessings to humankind.
Gomukh is a highly revered place to this day, often recommended by gurus
for meditation because of its strong vibration and wild, pure
atmosphere. It is situated 12,770 feet above sea level, and its
temperatures are low. Devoid of trees, its wide open valley is mostly
hidden behind the vertical wall of the glacier. To the east is the
magnificent meadow of Tapovan, from which rises a glorious Sivalinga
parvat (mountain). The water melting from the glacier results in no more
than a small stream that meanders silently through the rocks.
About half a mile downstream is a village called Bhagirathi, the river's
namesake. There one finds a few residential facilities and the Lal Baba
Ashram. This is the place to see the charm of a river that becomes the
lifeline of many millions during its journey to the sea, 2,510 km away.
There are innumerable snowy peaks all around, extending as far as the
eye can see. The fauna and the flora here are largely untouched. This is
a protected area, the 924-square-mile Gangotri National Park.
Many smaller streams of melted ice join the Bhagirathi as it runs down
to the next inhabited enclave, Gangotri, altitude 10,000 feet, the abode
of Goddess Ganga and a center of pilgrimage. During the warmer months,
pilgrims by the thousands come to Gangotri to take a holy dip in pure
Ganga jal and have a glimpse of the Goddess Ganga in the imposing local
As we descend from the altitudes of the river's cradle, the topography
changes. The icy peaks are replaced by large trees, mostly cedars.
Further down is a town called Mukhwa, reminder of a bygone era, where
rustic wooden houses overlook the wide valley. This is said to be
Goddess Ganga's winter abode: soon after Diwali, as snowy winters
approach, a ritual is performed to bring Her to the beautiful local
temple. Chanting mantras and singing folklore songs, local women lead
the procession from Gangotri to Mukhwa. Atop a silver palanquin sits the
Goddess, along with her consorts, Annapurna and Sarasvati. Bagpipers
from the army are a peculiar addition to the caravan, but no one here
seems to mind the cultural mismatch.
The journey takes a few days. One night the caravan halts at a small
place called Diyan. The local temple comes to life the next morning as
people from a nearby village rush to the tiny courtyard, carrying the
palanquins of their village Deities which will be recharged by the
presence of the Goddess. Similar celebrations and adorations accompany
the caravan on its journey. A short stop is made at another temple,
where Goddess Annapurna will stay. A large crowd is already waiting for
her. The other two Goddesses, Ganga and Sarasvati, will finally reach
Mukhwa, where a jubilant celebration awaits. There they remain until
The unsurpassed beauty of the valley of the Bhagirathi reaches its peak
around Mukhwa. Studded with thick forests of cedars and firs, the valley
widens up to a flat, level ground, humbling the river to a wide and
silent stream. After that, the Bhagirathi once again enters a narrow
valley, so far avoiding the perils of several hydroelectric dam projects
in the area, and reaches Deoprayag. There, empowered by its affluent
Alaknanda, the Bhagirathi becomes the Ganga, India's immortal river.
The next major spot along its banks is Rishikesh, an old seat of
learning in a warm deep valley. Rishikesh relieves Mother Ganga of all
the hardships of hilly terrain; there, the river becomes calm. Finally,
after cutting through dense subtropical forests known for a rich variety
of wildlife, the Ganga enters the plains of North India at Haridwar,
home to the 2010 Kumbha Mela.