Simhastha Mela: Pilgrim’s Prowess in Ujjain

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It’s another Kumbh spectacular on the riverbank as sadhus and seekers join the biggest festival of faith

THE FULL MOON—all white and light—glints from the sky. Ram Ghat, on the narrow Kshipra river (said to have sprung from Vishnu’s body) in Ujjain, throbs with expectation. All eyes and camera lenses are fixed on the opposite bank. It starts with the beating of drums and a distant hum which rises to a ululation, amplified by the darkness of the night. And then they appear—all flailing limbs and flying dreadlocks. The poornima renders silver the ash on their body. The eye strains to decipher the details in the distance. The obscuring of specifics makes this dawn appear ancient, even primeval. From across the river one realises that one is seeing a tradition that is as old as myth and as unchanged as the course of a river. As they come closer, the howls become clearer. “Har har Mahadev” ripples down the ghats and gets louder with the approaching footsteps. They gallop into the water. And then there is a splash and another, and another. Till all one can see is the rise and crash of waves as thousands of darkened bodies plunge into the river. They dunk their heads below the surface and emerge exulting and celebrating.

It is 5.16 am. The date is 22 April 2016. The Naga sadhus of Juna Akhara have taken their holy bath. The Simhastha Kumbh Mela in Ujjain has officially begun. The waters of the river at a Kumbh are considered sanctified only once the Naga sadhus have taken their snaan.

Down the ghat other akharas slowly make their way to the bathing area. The nakedness of the Naga sadhus is followed by a procession of saffron robes, sadhus on horse-chariots and even a lone elephant. Juna Akhara leads the way for various other Shaivite sects such as Agni, Niranjani, Naya Udasin and Digambar to name a few. Each akhara follows the same process—walk, chant, run, dive, plunge, splash and rejoice. By the afternoon, more than 100,000 sadhus have taken their plunge into the Kshipra (which is actually the water of Narmada that has been brought to Ujjain via the Kshipra-Narmada interlinking project).

If ‘emotion is the measure of humankind’, the Kumbh Mela would then be the most emotional and the best measure of humanity on planet earth. It is here that everything gets distilled to the absolute, where emotion is like a force field with no exit.

On the chief bathing days at the Allahabad Kumbh, the crowds are so gargantuan that this mass of humanity can be caught even by satellite images from space. From the pantheon of Kumbhs, the less known and less celebrated one occurs at Ujjain. Known as Simhastha, it opens during the full moon in the springtime month.

The Kumbh mela is not only about the act of bathing. It is an extravaganza where everything is codified with a religious tint

‘Kumbh’ comes from ‘water pot’, and not just any water pot but the one containing amrita or the nectar of immortality. As the legend goes, gods and demons battled over this pot, and as the gods grabbed it away towards the heavens, four drops fell upon earth. These four spots became the sites of the Kumbh mela— Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. Author and professor of Comparative Religion, Diana Eck, writes in India: A Sacred Geography , ‘What amrita is to gods… so to humans is Ganga water… Both the Shipra River at Ujjain and the Godavri River at Nasik are said to become pure Ganga water during their respective melas, underlying the connection to these huge melas with the Ganga.’

For pilgrims, it is these connections and linkages that matter. Kshipra has always had a connection with the Ganga as it too is uttaravahini or north-flowing, as the Ganga is at Varanasi. But once in 12 years this connection is cemented and augmented as its waters are considered as sacred as Gangajal—the giver of immortality.

Ujjain (located in the ‘navel’ of the country) is one of India’s seven holy cities, or ‘the givers of spiritual freedom’, along with Kashi, Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi and Dvaraka.

With a population of just around 500,000, according to the 2011 Census, Ujjain is not a town that impresses immediately. But it is special for its history and not its geography. It is mentioned in the Puranas and was home to Kalidasa back in the fifth century under the Gupta Empire. In Meghaduta (‘Cloud Messenger’), Kalidasa describes the journey of a cloud taking a message of love from a spurned young lover to his wife in the Himalayas. The lover tells the cloud to not miss his town. Ujjain is described in this work as a place built by those ‘who must have come from heaven’. ‘Here the breeze at dawn/rising from the Shipra with its opening lotuses/carries over the city/the sharp and liquid calling of the paddy birds/touching the body softly/soothing the weariness of ladies from their night of love,/it whispers like a skilful lover who would ask for more.’

For the pilgrims who come here for the Simhastha, this is the Ujjain they believe in. Not the crowded town with its congested bus stops or newly constructed flyovers. They see instead the Ujjain of Kalidasa.

This year, on the day of Shahi Snan 100,000 devotees made their way to Kshipra river. The ghats are opened up to the crowds only once the akharas have completed their holy baths. For hours, thousands strain against the barricades, awaiting their time and turn.

One of them is a farm labourer from Kewda, Madhya Pradesh, whose only wish is to bathe in these waters. We meet him in the camps the previous day. This time, he has brought only his 14-year- old son as his elder son works in a bus repair shop back home. What is the draw of Simhastha? In Hindi, he says, “I have come here just for the snaan and for darshan of the Naga sadhus. There is water everywhere. You can bathe everywhere. But only in this water can you have darshan of the gods.” He speaks with an unusual clarity and erudition and soon reveals that back in his village he delivers pravachan (discourses) to the willing. He will stay in Ujjain only one night, as work awaits him and he must return to the fields.

Time and time again, to experience the essence of the Simhastha, one returns to the face of the pilgrim. He who asks nothing from man and pins all his hopes in something larger

It is such people—this farm labourer, a schoolteacher from Kolkata here with her sister and mother, a construction worker from Gujarat—who don’t have a day to spare who make up the essence of the Kumbh. The Simhastha is more ‘local’ compared to the other Kumbhs and the vast majority of devotees seemed to have arrived from the neighbouring states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

It is these millions of pilgrims who assemble at the Kumbh who carve out India’s ‘sacred geography’. As Eck writes so eloquently in her book, ‘Most important this ‘imagined landscape’ has been constituted not by priests and their literature, though there is plenty of literature to be sure, but by countless millions of pilgrims who have generated a powerful sense of land, location, and belonging through journeys to their hearts’ destinations.’

The Kumbh mela is not only about the act of bathing. It is an extravaganza where everything is codified with a religious tint. Water coolers are labelled Jal Mandir. Every man in saffron is treated with a veneration prompted by the colour of his garb and the length of his beard. Every ‘sadhu’ who can grab a piece of land and a canopy does so. The ‘gyan’ that they spurt and the causes they defend vary from the absurd to the insightful. Most croon for the media and can be dismissive of devotees. Of course, a few are more genuine than the rest. But the overwhelming sense is that this is a place of speechifying, a one-way, top-down communication and not a dialogue, a conversation among equals. At such melas, the listening and attentive Indian, rather than the argumentative Indian, is on full display.

Walking through the akharas, which stretch endlessly, and watching one stoned Naga sadhu after another pulling antics can weary even the most ardent believer. The chillum is passed around from dawn to dusk. The odour of ash, bhasma and hashish oppress the air. One Naga sadhu swings endlessly from a jhoola, another twirls a baton with his penis. It is hard to find any significance, other than trickery, in these acts.

But for every sadhu and shaman, whether it is Computer Baba, or Golden Baba, a limitless number of devotees can be found. Pilot Baba (he was a wing commander in the Indian Air Force) attracts a large number of foreign and Indian bhakts. In his ashram we meet GK Soni, from Dewas district, a retired English teacher in a Hindi-medium school who has come to Ujjain for Pilot Baba’s darshan and not the Shahi Snan. He says he has read and listened to Pilot Baba over the years and in his words he finds comfort. At the Kumbh, devotees follow multiple ways to their own path of faith.

But with faith comes politics. This time a chief concern in the sadhu world was the accreditation of certain akharas which had been refused by the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, the apex body of 13 akharas. The Pari akhara (of sanyasins) and the Kinnar akhara (of transgenders) were not deemed worthy. The Times of India, Indore, reported that the Akhara Parishad head Narendra Giri said, “Anyone can come and take a bath in river Kshipra but not as an akhara because there are only 13 akharas and a 14th is out of the question.” The District Magistrate of Ujjain, Kavindra Kiyawat, told Open that such matters were left to the akharas and the administration could not interfere.

DENIED PERMISSION TO bathe during the Shahi Snan, the Kinnar akhara made history by taking out processions throughout the city. And they did this with all the pomp and splendour imaginable. Dressed in shimmering saris they stood proud and regal upon their chariots, sprinkling people with their blessings.

The sadhus and saints of the Kumbh are themselves deeply embroiled in akhara politics. Gangadhargiri, toying with his cell phone and battery pack, has come from Haridwar but belongs to Ujjain and visits each Kumbh every three years. He says, “There are only 13 akharas. How can another one appear? Do you think anyone can become Shankaracharya just like that?” Jageshwargiri, an Italian-born sadhu, passing his chillum to a Naga sadhu and an Italian disciple, talks with ease about his initiation into the sadhu life but says akhara politics is too contentious to discuss.

Time and time again, to experience the essence of the Simhastha, one returns to the face of the pilgrim. He who asks nothing from man and pins all his hopes in something larger. Ask them what brings them here and the recurring answer is ‘aastha’. They come simply in faith. The Kumbh Mela is faith in action.

Even with all the arrangements made by the state and district administration, the facilities stretch thin because of the numbers at hand. Inspecting the ghats at 4 am prior to the Shahi Snan, Kiyawat says that as an administrator “crowd management” is his biggest worry, considering 50 million people are expected to descend on Ujjain over the month. To keep matters under control, 25,000 policemen have been stationed and 25,000 other volunteers have been roped in. He says that the planning for the Simhastha began in earnest a few years ago—the length of the ghats has been increased from 4 km to 8 km; 11 bridges have been constructed and 150 km of roads have been constructed in and around the city.

The sun glowers at 42° celsius in April in Madhya Pradesh. The dispensaries receive a stream of the sun-stricken. The crowds are so large that they intimidate and frighten. The ghats remain unbelievably clean, swept by hundreds of staff. The bathrooms, however, are nightmarish. The food options begin with poha and end with chhaas. This is not a place for the curious tourist or the inquisitive foreigner, this is simply for the ordinary man and ordinary woman who arrives here in aastha and leaves after darshan. Ultimately, the Simhastha belongs to India’s hardy pilgrim.

(Photo Gallery: For more photos of Simhastha Mela 2016, click here.)