(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
The Kumbh Mela is an ancient pilgrimage festival that happens once every three years, rotating across four locations in India. The largest of these riverside fairs happens every 12 years in Allahabad at the confluence of two rivers, Ganga and Yamuna. On its opening day in Jan 2013, I was among its estimated ten million visitors. During the 6-8 weeks it lasts, tens of millions come to bathe in these rivers — as a meritorious act to cleanse body and soul — making it the largest gathering of humanity on the planet. On the festival's most auspicious day in 2013, an estimated thirty million pilgrims came. The Kumbh Mela is also a meeting place for ascetics, sadhus, sants, gurus, yogis, sannyasis, bairagis, virakts, fakes, misfits, and crooks of various sects of Hinduism, who camp out in tents on the riverbank, lecture and debate, smoke ganja and drink milky-syrupy chai, and are visited by pilgrims seeking spiritual renewal. The sprawling floodplain resounds with devotional movie songs and bhajans, some strikingly melodious and familiar to me from childhood.
The Mahabharata mentions Prayag as a site of pilgrimage, but the first historical record occurs in the account of seventh century CE Chinese traveler Xuanzang, who wrote about Prayag and its ageless, month-long festival at the confluence of two rivers. As the eleventh century traveler Al-Beruni noted, "pilgrimages are not obligatory to the Hindus but facultative and meritorious." Indeed the idea of pilgrimage is commonplace in human cultures. Rivers, lakes, streams, springs, wells and other bodies of water too have been revered around the world. The writer Hilaire Belloc saw pilgrimage as "a nobler kind of travel ... an expedition to some venerated place to which a vivid memory of sacred things experienced, or a long and wonderful history of human experience in divine matters, or a personal attraction affecting the soul impels one. ... a pilgrimage may be made to the tomb of Descartes, in Paris, or it may be a little walk uphill to a neighbouring and beloved grave, or a modern travel, even in luxury, on the impulse to see something that greatly calls one."
This documentary film looks at the Kumbh Mela from many angles, focusing on one of its key pillars: the militant-monastic orders called akharas, whose members, including the naked ash-smeared Naga ascetics, see themselves as part of an ancient lineage of defenders and propagators of Sanātana Dharma. There are seven major and many minor akharas, some over a thousand years old, predating Islam in South Asia. Highly political and hierarchical organizations, the akharas compete for numbers and prestige, and have often in the past fought deadly battles with each other over matters of money and power — the akharas are hardly the happy family that their media-savvy spokesmen claim they are. Some are more liberal than others. Many akharas, I learned, choose their leaders through internal elections every third year at the Kumbh Mela, though I'm not sure when this custom began. Who are their members, how do they live, what do they believe? Such questions may have only partial answers but above all in this short documentary, I've tried to demystify the event, its history, and its participants.