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A dip into spiritualism
Author: Pooja Bedi

Publication: Mid-Day
Date: August 17, 2003
URL: http://www.mid-day.com/smd/go/2003/august/61266.htm  

It is virtually impossible to recount in words the

experience of a lifetime. I wonder what led me there. I tend to see a spiritual dimension in every thing that touches my life and I wonder if my anchoring Denise Johnson’s documentary film on the Kumbh Mela, titled Vision of Faith, was part of a greater universal master plan, a calling, or was it just the opportunist in me that jumped at the thought of an organised holy dip that would absolve me of all my past sins?

Whilst I do believe that organised religions have so much to offer us, I also accept that we are ultimately responsible for our own souls. And this sounded too easy. Jump in, you’re forgiven. Jump out. I mulled over it till I realised it couldn’t hurt. Best case scenario, I get a clean, fresh, new spiritual start. Worst case scenario, I come back with a cold and am still left with the daunting task of undoing all my bad karma with good karma. In both scenarios, I come back with money in the bank.

So there I was, at 4 am, at the tank in Trimbakeshwar, waiting to film the first group of ‘akhadas’.

There had been much infighting as to who should have priority to bathe at certain times and dates, and the 10 Shaivite Akhadas had come to an agreement. Accordingly, we were handed neatly printed time tables by the police with a meticulous schedule of details.

The first group scheduled at 4.15 am comprised three akhadas. The Juna Akhada, which has the highest number of sadhus and mahants and over 50,000 naga (naked) babas all over the country, the Avahan Akhada, and the Panch Agni Akhada, which is the only Brahmin Akhada. The trio is referred to as big brother, middle brother and small brother.

As the time neared, there was growing excitement. The beautiful carved stone corridors were packed with police, officials and press.

The Kushavaratah (tank) was resplendent in the moonlight. The tranquil waters of the Godavari, albeit muddy, beckoned with a mysterious luminosity. In the distance we heard the beating of the drums and chanting, and as they got closer, a reverent hush descended over all those gathered.  

And then it happened. Thousands of naga babas, sadhus dressed in orange, and their mahants burst into the courtyard, amidst loud trumpets, brandishing swords and their silver Chaddi Mubaraks which are associated with their akhada, chanting Har Har Mahadev, and swarmed the four sides of the holy water.

It was an electrifying, unparalleled moment. The magnificence of this visual, the colour, the intensity of their religious fervour and the soaring energy they exuded made my hair stand on end. It left me speechless and spellbound.

The senior most mahant entered with the Bhala. Each Akhada has its own Bhala, which is given its own Bhala name and is carried in an unusual and particular style. It is considered the “real God”.

In keeping with tradition, puja of the Bhala and deity, is followed by the puja of the Acharya Mahamandaleshwar or the Mahamandaleshwar. Once the prayers were over, the president gave the signal. With cries and roars, thousands leapt into the holy waters. I was mesmerised watching them.

Some swam while others waded and dipped. The Naga babas walked about unabashedly. Maybe it was the religious zeal they came cloaked with, but nothing about their stark “in your face” nudity seemed to bother or unduly excite anyone. This country is amazing. One can really get away with so much in the name of religion.

I must add that there was extreme order in the disorder. Through all the noise, commotion and apparent pandemonium, there was heavy and effective policing. Shrill police whistles kept the steady stream of devout bathers in constant motion, ensuring everyone got in and out in due time.

They even helped escort and hold the old and infirm while they took a dip.
And then all was calm once again. The three akhadas headed to the Trimbakeshwar temple for further prayers and their offerings in the Kushavartah were cleaned out to make way for the next akhada grouping.

The Niranjani Akhada, known as the most learned akhada with the maximum number of Sanskrit scholars, bathed next with the Sagar Anand Akhada.

I was told that this is the first time that groups one and two have bathed separately. Previously, all five akhadas bathed together.  

Group two arrived in pretty much the same style. This time it was enthralling too, but the impact that the first group had on us was hard to beat. And then I spotted “Dukanji”. I had the pleasure of meeting this curious, rather entertaining individual earlier in the day.

He’s in the Guinness Book of World Records and the Limca Book of Records for his moustache dance, where he balances 10 candles on his moustache and dances with it. He also swallows live snakes and pulls them back out by their tails.

It was actually hard to miss him in the sea of devotees. He had on a two feet tall circular hat, and came in robed and wielding a sword that appeared to be 2 ft wide and 6 ft long with a curved tip. He proceeded to strike a theatrical pose at the corner while the prayers were performed.

He then strode around reveling in all the attention, and finally entered the waters with his oversized weapon and swam/waded around the tank with the sword sticking out of the waters like the fin of a shark.

He emerged and headed straight for the press stand and struck fearsome and dramatic poses for the benefit of the amused photographers. His theatrics had us all in peals of laughter. All said and done, he did create an impact, adding to the bizarre visuals that confronted us, and was extremely memorable.

Procession three comprised the Mahanirvani Akhada which, apart from their tribal development programmess, has an emphasis on education, culture, medication for the poor, and has various schools of Sanskrit all over India. They were the first to introduce the post of Mahamandaleshwari for women. They bathed together with the Atal Akhada which is known to be the oldest akhada. This group came in late and there was quite a stir when their tardiness was made known on the public loudspeaker.

As they gathered around the water, the announcer kept reminding them their dipping time was up and they should head to Trimbakeshwar temple as it was time for their puja. They stood around the tank, restless and relatively silent, and we were wondering whether they would dip or not, when they got the signal and jumped in. It was a lovely sight to watch them dip as dawn broke.

It was now 6 am and our timetable showed a two-hour bathing break.

However, I was told that this time was allotted to the rival three Vaishavite Akhadas, who would probably not show up, as they preferred to bathe at the Ramkund in Nasik.

A quick cup of tea later we returned to film the Bada Udasin Akhada. It is believed that the history of this akhada is timeless and that its creation dates back to the birth of the universe. Srichand Bhagwan is the founder who revived this akhada which has established over 50 temples of Vedas all over the world. Arunji, the editor of a Nasik daily, poetically summed it up for me, “Devotion, ‘bhakti’, was born in Gujarat, grew up in Maharashtra and matured in north India. That is why maximum number of sadhus are in north India and most of those who are sanyasis belong to this akhada.”

As they swarmed the place and readied for a dip, a couple of them struck up a conversation with me. On hearing that they were bhakts of Guru Nanak’s lineage I informed them that I was his 18th descendant, and they laughed and retorted, “Then you should join our akhada and dip with us”. 

Everyone was most thrilled and insisted I dip.

I had prepared myself to jump in after we had finished filming the last akhada, but this caught me completely off guard. I did a quick visual scan. Most of them had gotten out of the water and there were no naked babas at my end. With due respect to them, the thought of being surrounded by naked men in water didn’t quite hit the right spiritual notes for me.

I entered the cold water and when I was waist deep I let my legs give way below me and allowed the experience to take over. As I sank to the floor bottom, I felt this incredible energy envelope me. I was weightless, cocooned, safe and loved. I was in a limbo, suddenly painfully aware of my little life riddled with mortal fears and desires and human shortcomings and yet it seemed banal to ask for forgiveness. I was overwhelmed and humbled by the magnitude of what surrounded me. It seemed to last an eternity and I walked out elated, exhilarated, happy, and light.

Only to be told I had done it all wrong. I had to dip three times. A dip for each: the past, present and future. Ah well! At least I had settled my past accounts.

I watched the Naya Udasin Akhada in a haze, in a state of suspended bliss. I only remember being told that it was pre-determined in 1932 as to which side of the water they would perform their prayers.

The grand finale was the Nirmal Akhada, which is the youngest and richest akhada. It predominantly comprises Sikhs and Punjabis, and even allows Grihasthis (married sadhus) into their akhada.

It has been an indelible and heady trip… a complete riot and synergy of colour, sound, emotion, thoughts and visuals. I confess that I seem to have returned with my conscious and subconscious profoundly altered.

To quote Marianne Williamson: love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learned here. The spiritual journey is the relinquishment — or unlearning — of fear and the acceptance of love back into our hearts.
The magic of the Kumbh Mela turned me, a spectator, into a believer. I was meant to have been there. It was my awakening.

(PS): I could not resist. After the last akhada finished dipping I grabbed the opportunity and jumped in again for the appropriate three quick dips. Twelve years is a very long time to wait.




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