While Kumbh Mela occurs every 3 years in 4 different Indian locations, the Maha Mela is every 12 years near Allahabad, just over 100 kilometers from Varanasi. We hired a driver with the intent of visiting two temples along the way and used the Ganges as our guide.
First, we stopped in one of only four goddess temples in India, Viandhyanchal, in the village of Mirzapur. This “sleeping mountain” temple was intense. Wafting incense, bells ringing, drums pounding, people shouting and hitting stone walls amidst lots of pushing and shoving to see the female deity represented on the walls. Transcending the din, we planted ourselves on the ground amidst blackened marigolds, little kids poking our heads looking for money, and crowds knocking into us.
Next, we went to the smaller Astabhugi Durga temple not far from Viandhyanchal. It’s worth a visit as well, but the actual space is only 4' tall so you won’t spend much time here. Fine with me, as I was ready to get to Kumbh Mela.
We were fortunate enough to book rooms at the Maharishi Sadafaldeo Ashram, the closest accommodations to the Mela. The Ashram offers daily meditation and yoga classes, an evening spiritual session, and an Ayurvedic spa along with gracious grounds overlooking the Ganges.
The Ashram erected some upscale tents just down the road, which was a very popular location within walking distance of the Mela.
Not only were we closest to the Mela - but a short walk to the most auspicious bathing area, the Sangam.
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The Nature of Guru Devotion
You don’t need a guru to enjoy Kumbh Mela. I don’t have one, other than my occasional slavish devotion to my iPhone, and I was still intrigued by the devotional nature of this sacred festival. But, for those who are followers of a particular Hindu sage, this experience – especially getting considerable face-to-face time with their ultimate mentor – is as good as it gets on the earthly plane.
Trying to sort out who’s climbed the Hindu stature high enough to be considered a baba is often just a matter of looking at the quantity and quality of their followers. I found the guru parades - with marigold-attired tractors pulling the gregarious gurus - akin to a parade and picnic in small town America. Most of the more well-regarded and higher-ranking gurus chose not to use these public displays of boosterism.
For the higher babas, there’s a need for a security team as the devotees can get carried away with their demonstrative way of appreciating them. I spoke with one follower who told me that his devotional practice had helped him to get out of his “mind maze.”
Can you be a skeptic and enjoy Kumbh Mela? Absolutely. The experience is profound on many levels: the cultural anthropology of understanding this age-old festival and why it’s the largest in the world, the physical beauty of the people and the location at two rivers joining, and the expression of love that is intensely palpable. While I don’t understand Hindi, I do understand Love (at least on a good day).
When it comes to festivals, I tend to use a pair of Burning Man glasses - or goggles - and I now understand Burning Man to be a “pagan Kumbh Mela.”
The most obvious commonality is that these two festivals require a gargantuan effort to create a temporary tent village. The logistics and commitment of volunteers to create Burning Man for 60,000 people in the inhospitable high desert is mind-boggling. But, that’s child’s play compared to Kumbh Mela which, on the most auspicious bathing period, welcomes approximately 30 million people on one day alone.
Both festivals are visually spectacular and both have afternoon dust storms. They’re places where nude isn’t considered lewd. Burning Man has ample porta-potties, ice & water & morning mochas. But, at Kumbh Mela, unless you’re connected to a camp, you may be doing your bathroom duties partially publicly in a trench next to the beach.
Burning Man founder Larry Harvey didn’t have Kumbh Mela in mind when the he first burned an effigy on the beach in San Francisco. This blossomed into a festival dedicated to using art as a means of regenerating oneself, but the similarities are uncanny and say something about the commonality of enduring human ritual.
Burning Man and Kumbh Mela are cultural icons within their very different worlds, but they’ve both stood the test of time and the risks of outside influences. Both are on my Top 5 list of festivals you must visit in your lifetime - well, Kumbh Mela in one of your lifetimes!