HINDU PILGRIMAGES AND THE KUMBH MELA

HINDU PILGRIMAGES

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Fire raised up during
evening Aarti on the Ganges in Varanasi
Hindu pilgrims make pilgrims to important religious sites such as major temples and caves, sacred mountains and rivers. The primary purpose of these pilgrimages is to see a deity or a place associated with a certain deity and to be seen by the deity. Many of the most important sites are on the Ganges or other important sacred rivers or sites associated with legends and mythology. River crossings have special significance because they are a metaphor for crossing from one world to another.

India is covered with holy sites associated with the exploits of the gods, the waters of a sacred river, or the presence of holy men. Texts called the Puranas (ancient lore in Sanskrit) contain lengthy sections that describe numerous sacred places and the merit gained by traveling to them in a devout manner. Bathing at such sites is a specially meritorious act. With the expansion of public transportation in the twentieth century, there has been a vast increase in the numbers of people who visit these spots to partake of the divine and visit new places. In fact, for many Indians pilgrimage is the preferred form of tourism, involving family and community groups in enjoyable and uplifting vacations.[Source: Library of Congress *]

For many pilgrims, the process of getting to their destination involves preliminary vows and fasting, intensive cooperative efforts among different families and groups, extensive traveling on foot, and the constant singing of devotional songs. On arrival, groups of pilgrims often make contact with priests who specialize in the pilgrim trade and for a fee plan the group's schedule and ritual activity. At some of the major sites, the families of the priests have served as hereditary guides for groups of pilgrims over many generations. Where a shrine is the focus, the devotee may circumambulate the buildings and wait in line for long hours just for a glimpse of the deity's image as security personnel move the crowds along. At auspicious bathing sites, pilgrims may have to wade through the crush of other devotees to dip into the sacred waters of a river or a tank. Worshipers engaged in special vows or in praying for the cure of a loved one may purchase shrine amulets to give to the god (which are circulated back to the shrine's shop) or purchase foodstuffs, sanctified by the god's presence, to take to friends and family. Nearby, souvenir hawkers and shopkeepers and sometimes even amusement parks contribute to a lively atmosphere that is certainly part of the attraction of many pilgrimage sites. *

Hindu Pilrimage Sites

Popular pilgrimage destinations include Varanasi; Kurukshetram the site of a great battle in the Mahabharata ; Ayodhya, the reported birthplace of Lord Rama; Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna; and Mount Kailas in Tibet, said to be the home of Shiva’s mountaintop heaven.

Hardwar, in northwestern Uttar Pradesh, far up the Ganga in the foothills of the Himalayas, is theVaranasi of northwest India for Hindus living there and is a favorite spot for ritual bathing. There are numerous destinations in the Himalayas, including Badrinath and Kedarnath, isolated sites in northern Uttar Pradesh that once required a long journey on foot. In southern India, the rivers Kaveri, Krishna, and Godavari attract pilgrims to a large number of bathing sites, and the coastline features major temples such as the Ramalingesvara Temple in Ramesvaram, Tamil Nadu, where Ram and his army crossed over to Lanka to rescue Sita. Pandharpur, in Maharashtra, is the destination for many thousands of devotees of Vitthala, an incarnation of Vishnu, whose tradition goes back at least to the thirteenth century and was written about by the great Marathi bhakti poets Namdev, Tukaram, and Eknath. There are smaller sites near almost every river or scenic hilltop. [Source: Library of Congress]

Varanasi Pilgrimages

Certain important sites are well-known throughout India and attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually. Probably the most significant is Varanasi (also known as Banaras, Benares, or Kashi) in southeastern Uttar Pradesh on the north bank of the Ganga. It is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, who flock to the ghats, or steps, leading from temples down to the banks of the sacred Ganga in their search for an auspicious site for death, cremation, or immersion of ashes.

Every Hindu hopes to make a pilgrimage to Varanasi in his or her lifetime. According to one old scripture, "when sinful people set out for [Varanasi] all their sins, even those that have affected the very elements of their bodies, stagger and fall off.” Pilgrims ideally bathe or swim in the river to wash away their sins, make offerings at shrines along the river and at dawn offer water from the river as a salutation to the rising sun.

A ghat is a set of bathing steps that Hindus use to enter the Ganges or other holy Hindu rivers. A pandit is a religious teacher and a sadhu is a holy man. Ashrams are lodging houses for pilgrims who come to study yoga and other disciplines. The Ganges has 108 sacred descriptions which can all be found in a little book. Number 102 is the "Roaming About Rose-apple-tree Island."

The maharajah of Varanasi is revered by some as a god. During festivals he rides through the streets on an elephant with a gilded headdress and floats down the Ganges on a royal barge. He drinks only Ganges water, for it keeps the longest without spoiling, he says.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures

Pilgrimage to Mount Kailas

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KailashTanka
The 33-mile trek around Mount Kailas is one of the holiest acts for Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bonpos. Pilgrims from all four religions do the trek. Tibetan Buddhists believe that one trek around the mountain cleanses one of his or her sins and 108 circuits (an auspicious number to Tibetan Buddhists) will lead to nirvana in this life.

Each year thousands of pilgrims complete the hike, known as the kora. Most of them follow the Buddhist custom and walk clockwise around the mountain. A few pilgrims walk counterclockwise. They are mostly followers of the animist Bon religion. The main pilgrimage season is in May. Many of them prostrate themselves at regular intervals. Along the route are discarded clothing and drops of blood left by pilgrims who cover the distance on their knees.

Those who prostrate themselves, take one step, make a Tibetan prayer gesture, raise their hands in prayer, and lay down on the ground, their arms extended in front of them. Then they stand up and place their fee where their fingertips had just touched and repeat the process again. Those that do this often wear knee pads, aprons and canvas shoes on their hands and take two three weeks to complete the journey.

Pilgrimage to Shiva's Cave

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Mount Kailas
Amarnath Cave, 30 miles from Pahalgam in Kashmir, contains an a nine-foot-high pillar of ice, which forms every year. Hindus regard it as a large lingam, a phallic symbol representing the Hindu god Shiva. Located at an altitude of over 12,000 feet, the cave is a shrine that attracts tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees during the annual mid-July-to-mid-August pilgrimage known as the Amarnath Yatra. The cave has been a pilgrimage site since the 1970s when a Hindu priest viewed the ice pillar and declared the cave as the mythical home of Shiva.

Much of the main pilgrimage route is comprised of two parallel dirt track that wind through meadows, pine forests, and past rushing streams and granite cliffs. Many of the pilgrims have marks on their forehead, wear orange clothes and shout “Hail, Hail, Shiva!” as they walk along. They include barefoot sadhus, naked to the waist, marching with tridents, symbols of Shiva; elderly men and women carried in lawn chairs by thin but muscular porters; amputees walking on their stumps; and women in pink, red and yellow saris, with infants in their arms. For those who don’t want to walk locals rent out scrawny-looking ponies they can ride on.

The traditionally pilgrimage is from the south and is 36 mile long. The trek is generally done in three days, which means two nights are spent sleeping outside in temperatures that often drop below freezing. A new route has opened up from the north in the early 2000s. It is 19 miles long which means that pilgrims can do the whole pilgrimage in one day. Many yuppies and middle class families can be found on this route.

Pilgrims are only allowed to view the pillar for a couple minutes. Many ritually bath in an icy stream and change into clean clothes first and then wait in line for up to two hours until it is their turn. Around the cave is a parade of hawkers selling every thing from lingams to postcards to soft drinks. When pilgrims enter the cave they ring bells and hail Shiva. Some are disappointed when they finally see the pillar, which is protected behind iron bars. In 2002 the pillar was only 12 inches high. Many want to confess their sins and make request to Shiva but are ordered by soldiers to move along. [Source: David Rohde, New York Times, August 5, 2002]

The pilgrimage was disrupted by trouble in Kashmir but was brought back to life with assistance from columns Indian soldiers and free food. Some 200,000 pilgrimages participated in the annual event in the 1990s. Islamic insurgents staged attacks against the pilgrims in 2000 and 2001 that left 40 people dead. In 2002 thousands of soldiers and police were deployed to protect the pilgrims. As the situation has improved in the mid-2000s the pilgrims began returning. Weather can also be a problem. In 1996, 100 pilgrims died in a freak storm. Every year a few pilgrims and porters slip off the paths and tumble to their deaths.

Kumbh Mela, the World Largest Gathering

The world largest gatherings are a series of melas (festivals) held on the Ganges attended by millions of Hindu pilgrims who enter the river in hopes of washing away their sins. There are four major melas: in Allahabad (Prayag), in Haridwar, in Nasik, and in Ujjain. Each one is held every 12 years, which means that one of four is held every three years. The one in Allahabad is by far the largest. It attracts over 50 million people. The others attract about 10 million each.

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Kumbh Mela 2001

The melas are held at confluences of the Ganges with other rivers and last for about 40 or 50 days. Pilgrims come and go, with the greatest numbers arriving and entering the water at the sangam (confluence points) at auspicious times and dates set by Hindu astrologers in accordance with a correct alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, earth and the moon. Because the event is usually held in January and February the water is icy cold.

It is said that the melas date back to the second millennium B.C. If that is true that would make them the oldest continuously-held festivals. According to legend the melas began as a battle between gods and demons for control of the kumbha , a clay pitcher that holds the nectar of immortality produced at the bottom of the oceans. One god, the story goes, circled the earth with the pitcher for 12 days (12 years in human time) and spilled drops on the four places the melas are held and eight places in heaven. According to historical records, including an account in the 7th century by the Chinese traveler Hsuang Tang, the melas were huge gatherings for sadhus, gurus, swamis, and yogis.

Melas are said to wash away sins, cleans the soul and bring good luck in marriages, business and other things. Hindus believe that at the precise moment of the mela, the Ganges turns to heavenly nectar and anyone who bathes in it is freed from the cycle or death, reincarnation and rebirth and is guaranteed eternal salvation. According to Hindu beliefs bathing in the Ganges during one these melas is worth 10 million bathes in the Ganges at a less propitious times.

Kumbh Mela Pilgrims

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Khumba Mela devotees
Mela pilgrims daub their foreheads with ash or sandlewood, give money to beggars lined on the shores, chant prayers, clasp their hands in prayers and march into the icy cold knee-deep waters. Some women shave their heads. Many men enter the water naked. Some bring buckets to carry the water home.

Describing a pilgrim, who works as an engineer in Agra, John Burns wrote in the New York Times, "Sharma made his way through the dense crowd of worshipers, pressing towards the river. Less than two hours remained to the most propitious moment...[He] stripped to his underwear, plunged into the shallow edge of India's holiest river and raised cupped handfuls of water towards the rising sun."

Explaining why he was there, Sharma said, "Something is there, something which I am not exactly knowing, something which is hidden, something which I may not be able to prove technically, but which I know to be the in my soul."

Some pilgrims have disabilities. Burns met one man, who was paralyzed in both legs and took 20 hours to drag himself 10 miles from his camp so he could enter the Ganges at the most auspicious time.

Tens of thousands of men, women and children have their heads shaved by the thousands of barbers who set up shop under tents near the river. One barber told Reuter, "A haircut here is considered the most auspicious. Every hair removed during the Kumbh is as good as offering a cow to the gods." Hindus believe that shaving their heads during the mela and immersing their hair in holy water is a purifying act. The hair of children is mixed with dough and thrown into the river for good luck. For widows, head shaving is regarded as the end of one life and the beginning of another.

Kumbh Mela Sadhus

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Sadhus (Hindu holy men) dominate the melas. They arrive from all over India and set up camps near the Ganges, where they pray, meditate, give blessings, do yoga, chant mantras and engage in discourses on various matters. Not all the sadhus fit the image of stereotypical holy men. Some arrive in fancy, air-conditioned cars. According to Indian newspapers many are fakes who just trying to make a fast buck.

In a 1991 book on sadhus, Rajesh Bedi wrote, "When the stars were in a particular position, the sadhus simply followed the great river to their confluences and stayed there until others from all directions, joined them. Then they discussed the state of the body politic , the economic condition of the people and the philosophical an theological questions."

The sadhus are organized into monastic orders called akharas , which are led supreme leaders called shankarachrayas . Describing their procession to the Ganges, Burns wrote, they "marched across pontoon bridges to the bath ghats...The crowds tossed garlands of marigolds and shouted, 'We bow to you, oh holy men!' 'We kiss your feet!' and 'Long live Lord Ram!”

Leading the procession into the Ganges are hundreds of naked, ash-covered sadhus with tridents, the symbol of Siva. After them come followers on camels, horses and elephants and millions of pilgrims who approach the sacred site from boats as well as on land by foot. The ashes that cover the naked sadhus comes from dung fires.

"The sadhus and their leaders, many of them carried to the ghats in gaily-colored palanquins shaded from the sun by gold and crimson parasols, waved back regally," Burns wrote. The sadhus "marched to the river in triumph, headed by hundreds of stark naked Nagas sadhus, the warrior-like holy men who constitute a kind of commando force."

Kumbh Mela Atmosphere, Infrastructure and Violence

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There is a circus like atmosphere at the melas. Vendors sell everything imaginable; Bollywood movies are shown on the back panels of trucks; and plays with child actors are performed that depict episodes in Hindu mythology. Displays with Christmas-style lights sprouting from the heads mannequins represent the great rivers of India flowing from Shiva's hair. [Source: Tony Heiderer, National Geographic May 1990]

The Haridwar Mela in 1998 was organized with the help of the Indian government. Over 100 miles of roads were fixed up, 50 miles of pipes were installed to make sure drinking water reached the pilgrims. To handle the massive crowds the Indian government erected pontoon bridges so that worships could make their way to camps on both side of the Ganges. Main thoroughfares were paved with metal plates and tents cities were erected to help accommodate all the people. The biggest problems are stampedes and people getting lost in the crowds. It is also difficult to provide enough food , drinking water and sanitary facilities.

Violence sometimes breaks out between rival akharas over gaining access to the best spots on the river at the best time. Burns wrote, "A pitched battle flared between two orders, the Niranjani and the Juna, after members of one of the groups delayed evacuating the most sacred of the ghats. The fighting, involving ceremonial swords, staves and trishuls---trident-like staffs---left more than 100 sadhus and police injured. Several policeman were thrown into the Ganges and several ashrams burned down.”

Nehru visited the Kumbh mela in 1954. That year thousands died in a stampede to get to the river. In 1960s free cholera injections were given out to prevent an outbreak of that disease. A stampede at Hardwar in 1986 left 60 people dead.

At the mela in Hardwar in 1998, a special police unit with 30,000 men was brought in to maintain order among the sadhus. The police wore flak jackets and carried automatic weapons. They surrounded the 13 major akharas until hours before the most propitious times.

Maha Kumbh Mela

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The Maha Kumbh Mela (literally "Grand Pitcher Festival") is regarded as the largest assemblage of people in the world. Held once every twelve years, it attracts tens of millions of Hindu faithful who come to the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna River (as well as the mythical river of Saraswati) in Allahabad for ritual bathing. The most auspicious place to bath was a long spit of land located right where the two rivers meet. Hindus from all castes, classes and sects take part in the ritual which supposed to wash away ones sins. [Source: Tony Heiderer, National Geographic May 1990]

The Maha Kumbh Mela in 1989 attracted around 50 million people. It was described by the Guinness Book of World Records as "the largest gathering of human beings for a single purpose." The festival in 1989 began in January. The most propitious time to bathe during Kumbhayoun on February 6th

The Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001 was regarded as the most auspicious in 144 years because of: 1) the way the stars and planets were aligned; 2) it coincided with a lunar eclipse; and 3) it was the first Kumbh Mela of a new millennium. Announcements were made on loudspeaker to prevent everyone from bathing at the same time. One organizer told AFP, "The major concern is that there is a constant inflow with no counter-balancing outflow.”

The Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001 lasted 43 days from January 9th to February 21th. The most propitious day was January 24th. The best bathing time lasted from 6:00am to 3:30pm. According to some estimates 70 million people, including Madonna, showed up. Around 4.2 million people entered the Ganges on the first day. On the most auspicious day around 30 million people entered the river.

For the most part the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001 went off with relatively few hitches. One organizer told Reuter, "We know it's an awesome task. And we have prepared for any eventuality...We have worked out the crowd movement in such a way that they will not be allowed to swell beyond a limit at any given point.” Commercial activity, except for the sale of vegetarian food, was restricted. Some of akharas boycotted the climatic bath because they were denied space at auspicious spots at the most auspicious times.

Hindu Pilgrimage Disasters

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In April 2000, 28 people were electrocuted in the eastern Bihar town two of Daltongunj, 500 kilometers southeast of Delhi, after a flagstaff carried by a chariot in a Hindu procession struck an electric cable, which fell on the crowd below, setting the chariot on fire and electrocuting Hindu devotees and people in the crowd.

In January 2005, more than 250 people were killed in a fire and stampede that occurred as 300,000 people converged on the hilltop Mandher Devi temple in Wai, 260 kilometers southeast of Bombay. Witnesses said the tragedy began when some pilgrims slipped on the steep steps to the temple, where some slippery coconuts had been left as offerings to the goddess Kalubai. Fires then wept though stalls selling flowers, fruit and food. Some said the fires were set intentionally by relatives of people hurt in the first stampede. Other said the fires were caused by a short circuit from a knocked down electric pole. In any case the fires set off another wave of stampedes. Most of the dead were crushed to death. The pilgrimage is popular with members of lower castes and is held during a full moon. The 24-hour-long festival features a number of animal sacrifices to the goddess Mandher Devi.

In August 2003, 39 people were killed and 125 were injured when the collapse of a barricade set off a stampede at a religious festival that drew more than a million Hindu devotees to the Godavari River, about 175 miles northeast of Bombay. One witness told AP, “There were some 50,000 people behind one barricade and they were pushing, The barricade suddenly broke and they just fell down. People at the back just began walking on them and that’s how the stampede happened.”

In 1999, 51 pilgrims died after a stampede caused a landslide at a Hindu shrine in southern India. The stampede began after a rope meant to guide the flow of people snapped.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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