Večernji list, August 2004
First I heard drums, then trumpets, then screams. Hundreds of ascetics were pushing their way in a procession through the excited crowds that had been waiting for them the whole night. The first rays of the rising sun marked the beginning of Shahi Snan, a royal ritual bathing in the holy waters of Shipra in Ujjain, India. By the time the procession reached Ramgat, the place where gods had spilled drops of the nectar of immortality, the holy men had already fallen into a trance. "Shivaaa!!! Shivaaa!!!” A little humpbacked man with large, pointy elf-like ears screamed as he jumped up and down, waving a trident, the symbol of the god of destruction, in his hand. "Shanboooo!!!" Hundreds of saddhu voices answered followed by fists lifting in the air and eyes rolling in an ecstatic trance-like atmosphere. "Shiva! Shiva! - Shanbo! Shiva! Shiva! - Shanbo!" filled the electrified air of early morning.
People who renounced the world and retreated into solitude in search of enlightenment had spent the past twelve years meditating in forests reined by tigers, in caves high in the Himalayas, or at cemeteries ruled by Kali, the goddess of death. Only once every twelve years they come out among the public, to the festival of Kumbh Mela, to achieve immortality by taking a ritual bath. They line themselves chaotically along the very edge of Ramgat. Naked, covered in ashes, Shiva followers fervidly perform their ritual. Drums, horns, mantras, jumping, grimacing faces, flailing arms, tridents, royal swords. The first one among them steps forward. He jumps in front of them, swings his sword above his head, and sprinkles the holy water. Then he calms down. Kneels in the water, turns towards the rising sun, lifts his cupped hands filled with holy water, blesses it in the direction of the sun, and then pours it back into the river. He then throws himself into the water, diving completely, then jumps out, lifts to a standing position, tenses all his muscles, and pulls forth all his energy into one powerful scream: "Shivaaaaaa!!!" Blood freezes in the veins of every being present, and every hair on their bodies stand out. "Shanboooo!!!" The masses yell, and follow him in a rush into the water!
I spent the night before that, during the moon’s eclipse, in Nagua Baba Camp, and witnessed preparations for the ritual bath. Some babas were meditating, some were covering their skin with hot ashes that they had just taken from the dhuni, the pure hole fire, and some were just sitting around the dhuni, smoking chillums, holy pipes filled with Himalayan hashish. One tent drew my attention. Babas there were performing exhibitions with their penises, wrapping them around swords or lifting huge rocks with them. Ram Giri baba, who was sitting to the side, showed more interest in an astonished stranger like me, than in the exhibition he must have seen thousand of times, so he approached me, and explained some things to me.
"There are two ways to enlightenment, the right way is easier and slower, and the left way is more difficult and faster" he told me. "Vishnu and Krishna followers choose the easier way that is practiced by devotion to God, piety, endless repetition of holy mantras, purity in ritual performance, studying of the holy texts of Veda, and meditation - yoga. We, Shiva followers, choose the harder way. It consists of many demanding practices and long term vows. Nagua babas usually perform exhibitions with their penises. Thus they kill the negative effect of semen. They live in celibate, and through meditation they can achieve transformation of energy from their semen into their heads, and that is a huge amount of energy. Not many people are aware of that energy. In one ejaculation, man loses millions of sperms, therefore, millions of potential lives. Imagine what you could achieve if you manage to transmit that energy successfully!"
He invited me to walk around the camp to show me other babas and the different vows they had devoted themselves to. We saw a man who was standing leaned against a hanging support. "This is 'standing-baba'. He hasn't sat for twelve years!" In other tents we saw babas with one hand up, or babas that stand on one leg. Ram Giri explained to me that there are babas who vow for silence, and those who draw circles around their dhuni somewhere in the forest and decide not to move out of it. Sometimes a young student helps them by bringing them food, water, and firewood. There are babas who are strong vegetarians and only eat fruits that have fallen from trees, but there are also those who eat nothing for years. They feed on prana - the divine energy-food.
To westerners, it may be hard to understand all these ways, especially the most radical of them all, the Kali worshipers and dwellers of cemeteries known as Aghoris. "The Aghori live in cemeteries, and satisfy Kali through alcohol, meat, and sex. They meditate sitting on corpses, eat human flesh, and sometimes even have sexual intercourse with the corpses. That is the most radical, the most dangerous, and the most risky path. Most of the Aghoris turn crazy, though. It is too hard. The point is to keep divine light within yourself even during performance of the filthiest actions!"
We sat near one dhuni around which were calmly sitting a few babas. Chillums filled with charas - hashish, were being passed around from one to the other. Each time a baba would deeply inhale the thick smoke, he would first shout Alek! Bom! "Using that scream, we scare away evil spirits from the intoxicants, so we can enjoy only in its pure contents!" Ram Giri explained to me. "Charas helps us to get closer to the gods and away from worldly needs and pleasures!"
Marihuana and hashish are legal in India for saddhus and babas. During Kumba Mela, though, it is legal for everybody. Festival organizers informed us that in one month of Kumba Mela, $20 million is spent on weed. One saddhu spends on average $300, and half a kilo of the pot receives for that money, he smokes with believers who come to him for blessings. Furthermore, the police are officially allowed to distribute the drugs that had been taken from tourists in previous months.
Although most of the attention in Kumbh Mela goes to the interesting saddhus, this festival is primarily for ordinary people. It is one of the very few occasions when everybody, no matter what caste or spirituality level they belong to, can drink from gods' jug. According to legend, a long time ago the gods and demons fought for the jug of immortality made by the supreme god Vishnu. During those twelve years of battle in the sky, things got out of hand four times, and each time this happened, a drop would spill from the jug. So four drops fell on earth, each in one part of India. Nowadays the Kumbha Mela festival takes place in these four areas. The battle between the gods and demons is actually an eternal battle, so it is believed that nectar is still spilled onto the same places every twelve years.
Kumba Mela is the biggest gathering of people in the world. During the month long festival, Ujjain, which has just 400 000 inhabitants, is visited by 20 million people from all over India. Only on the last day of the festival, when astronomers determine the exact moment of the nectar’s spilling from the jug, do ten million pilgrims come to bathe in the holy river. The general atmosphere of the festival is happy and pious, but as is the case with every large gathering, problems arise here too. Poor hygiene, water contamination, infections spread during bathing, accidents, stampedes, epidemics. The festival attracts a lot of traders, fake saddhus, and frauds. Big tents with even bigger sound systems often play cheap pop music instead of religious mantras. Stands with cheap goods attract more crowds than the temples. Good saddhus stopped distributing free tea, for fear of falling victim to stampedes. On the way to circus like tents where cheesy pop programs takes place, pilgrims may stop next to a saddhu sitting next to the road to give blessings. Very often, that scene ends with the 'holy' man insisting on a material reward, such as money, a watch or a ring, in exchange for the blessing, and once he receives this material good, he ungratefully pushes the pious believer away.
In search of the answer to the question what exactly is Kumba Mela, I went to one of the globally renowned saints. Swami Avadesha Nanda is one of those holy men who has tens of ashrams around India, who feeds thousands of bellies through his humanitarian actions, and millions of souls with his lectures from America to Australia. His camp in Ujjain is an oasis of peace, purity, and spirituality. I found him in a private room, where small groups of believers entered to hear some words of wisdom, receive a blessing or just a compassionate look. His warm and honest smile that was always present on his face and ready to be shared, was sign enough that he really is a holy man. When he found a few moments for a journalist from Croatia, he told me:
"India is an overpopulated country, and you can feel it well on the streets of Ujjain. The prevailing atmosphere of the festival is mostly peaceful, and people are content and tolerant. Each person just wants to bathe in the holy river. But when you have 20 million people who want to do this, then it can be a problem that must be understood. Unfortunately, there are many fake saddhus and people who just come to earn some money. But that happens everywhere in the world, India is not an exception!"
I tried to find out what is the true motivation that brings all the people to Kumba Mela. "Just piety and emotional devotion, nothing else!" Swami told me. Our conversation was interrupted by four women who entered the room carrying small kids in their arms. They remained quiet and stared at the saint in awe. Swami blessed them. "Why do you cry?" He asked one of them, who continued staring at him as if in love. She just twitched her lip and remained quiet, staring at the wise man. "Westerners come to India and search for some deep spirituality," Swami began his conclusion, "But look at this woman: She probably doesn't know anything about yoga, meditation, chackras or tantra. She lives instinctively, emotionally, devoted. That is the core of Hinduism. That is the core of Kumbh Mela!"