Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi
  AHYMSIN Newsletter, Issue - May 2013  

Kumbha Mela (part 2)

by Pierre Lefebvre

This is Part 2 of an article about the pilgrimage to the 2013 Kumbha Mela taken by Swami Veda Bharati and a small group of other sadhakas.

Let’s take our story back up where we left it last time. 

When we came back to the hotel after our tour of the Mela grounds with Swamiji, we had a treat of chai and sweets from him.  The plan for the next day’ programme was made, and they asked me to join Swamiji, Swami Prashant, Medha, and Surendra, for Swamiji’s visit at a renowned institute of social science in the outskirts of Allahabad to take photos of the meeting. 

Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute

The next afternoon, someone came to bring Swamiji and the others to meet the director and students of the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute. This institution is conducting research on the migrations of Indians throughout the world (Surinam, Trinidad, Guyana, Fiji, Mauritius, etc.) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Indian populations having migrated mostly as workers after the abolition of slavery.

Their work in that field began several years ago after coming across and being inspire by the doctoral thesis of a certain Usharbudh Arya, Ritual songs and folksongs of the Hindus of Surinam.  They took the principles presented in the thesis, expanded them, and it became the bases for their research on Indian migration. 

No need to say that they were very interested to meet Swami Veda.  They seem also a bit surprised that a great ethnologist like him had become a sannyasi and a Mahamandaleshwara! 

They guided us through their very impressive museum focused on the Bhojpuri (Bihar state or India) migration to Surinam.  Having lived in these areas in his youth, Swamiji was very interested in their work and was sharing many memories from these years.

After visiting the second exhibition of their museum, about the civilisations along the Ganga River, we went to their conference hall, where Swamiji addressed the graduate students and explained about his own field work during his research.  The group was very interested in what Swamiji had to say about his experience and the motivations he had for conducting his archiving project of folk songs and of Indian culture abroad.  He also spoke to them about many other things, like how the local languages in different countries were mixing with Hindi and other Indian languages, sometimes changing the meaning of words or expressions. 

Of course Swamiji also spoke to them about yoga, Indian philosophy and his spiritual life.  He guided a meditation where all the students and teachers remained very still and silent. 

Before leaving, they wanted to make sure that we saw where they had placed the copies of the integral of Swamiji’s recording of Hindu folk songs (much more than his doctoral thesis) that Swamiji had given to them.  They proudly showed us the “Swami Veda Bharati” section of their research archives. 

Last Visit at the Mela Grounds

Our last day in Allahabad had already come.  Our train back to Haridwar was to leave late in the afternoon.  Surendra and I decided to go one more time to the Mela Ground to take some more photos, shoot videos of the surroundings and try to interview a few sadhus. 

We took our cameras and left for the Mela in the morning, taking a cycle rickshaw to see all the area coming to the main site from a different angle.  It allowed us go from another route and to notice many amazing things. 

Outside of the main area where all the Akharas and prominent Swamis have their camps, we saw a whole market place made of tents.  There were shops for all the kind of things you could imagine, banks, insurance dealers and even a temporary railway booking office.  I have heard often Swamiji say that the tent makers of India were extraordinary and that they could build anything you would ask them, even a replica of the Taj Mahal.  Seeing that temporary tent city, I understood what he meant on those occasions.

We began walking around the main area, looking for sadhus to talk to and interview. We found a few naked monks and one amazingly long haired one. Surendra transformed himself into a journalist with great credibility and professionalism, while I was holding the video camera and taking some photos at the same time.

Their stories were quite fascinating. They spoke about how the naked monks were the warrior branches of the Akharas and how their duty was to protect the Mahamandaleshwaras and other high ranked Swamis. One of them was taking a vow to remain standing without sitting or lying down for a period of twelve years.  He had been asked by his master to take that vow for the benefit of world peace.  He had already completed ten years of it.

We walked towards the confluences one last time.  The flow of pilgrims going for a holy dip was unending, even on a day where nothing special was happening.  We witnessed the peaceful comings and goings of that huge crowd, amazed at the fact that no serious crime is reported during these Kumbha Mela gatherings of several tens of millions in a country like India, where the crime rate is fairly high. 

Niranjani Akhara

As it was a quieter day at the Mela, we went back to Swamiji’s Akhara’s camp to take more photos of the area while everybody there were not so busy. The Niranjani Akhara is one of the oldest, having been established, as the most widely accepted version of history states, in the year 826 in the Indian state of Gujarat.

The word akhara is said to have come from the Sanskrit akshara, which means indestructible.  They were founded as orders of martial monks after the Muslims had entered and settled in India.  This martial history remains, all the terminology used within the Akharas being martial terms and all the titles being military titles.  The naked monks, naga sadhus, are still the keepers of this tradition of martial arts.  It was really incredible to witness the very high level of organisation, discipline and order that these groups are able to maintain. 

We were able to visit the temple housing the Akhara’s diety at the central point of the camp, just below the gigantic flag of the Akhara, that was first raised at the construction of the camp to mark the grounds. The presiding deity of the Niranjani Akhara is Kartikeya, one of the sons of Shiva. The temple was well protected by two silver mace bearing guards, a pandit being inside to preside the rituals and to make announcements on the microphone. There was definitely a special energy around that temple and that murti. I would say something similar to what I felt when I was in the presence of the murti of Kedarnath temple. 


There is another gathering happening every year at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna in Allahabad during the month of Magh in the traditional Indian calendar (approximately mid-January to mid-February).  Called Magh Mela, it was going on this year simultaneously with the Kumbha Mela.  Pilgrims known as Kalpawasis come from all over India and stay on the bank of the rivers for about a month (officially from Paush Purnima to Magh Purnima).  They are engineers, architects, bankers, mostly from good backgrounds and they go to live in very minimalistic and austere conditions with a high degree of asceticism.  This year, 1.3 million were expected to participate.

Kalpawasis have to, among other things; bathe in the cold water two or three times every day, to eat simple and non-spicy food only once a day and spend the rest their time in prayer, avoiding gossiping.

Very interestingly, a study jointly conducted by the Centre of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences of Allahabad University, the Economic & Social Research Council and the University of Dundee UK, showed that despite very harsh conditions, poor sanitation and high noise level, the Kalpawasis were healthier at the end of their stay at the Mela than when they had arrived on site.  The conclusions tend to show that the devotional sentiments and the faith of the pilgrims was a greater factor on their overall health than their difficult life conditions.  The study also concluded that there would probably be a greater improvement in their health if the water from the river, with witch the Kalpawasis need to cook their food with and drink would be cleaner.

Pollution and Low Water Level

The pollution of Ganga has been a topic of discussion and concern for a long time now.  During the Kumbha Mela, many sadhus, Dandi Swamis, Mahamandelashwaras and even Shankaracharyas threatened to boycott the Shahi Snan (royal bath) of Mauni Amavasya (annual day of silence) if nothing was done by the government to reduce water pollution.  They were firmly requesting real efforts and not only symbolic gestures.

They were also against the fact that the water level was artificially increased by the authorities by opening dams and letting the water flow only on the days of major baths.  Numerous dams are altering the flow and the level of water, and on normal days, water from the polluted affluent Ram Ganga flows through the Sangam at the Kumbha Mela, giving blackish and reddish colours to the shallow waters.

Muslim Pilgrims

A group of thirty Muslims from Allahabad took part in the Shahi Snan on Paush Purnima. Their objective was to show solidarity with the Hindu devotees. They said that: “The purpose of taking a holy dip on the occasion of Paush Purnima is to bridge the communication gap between the two communities. We want to spread the message of peace among all communities, and what a better place than the Kumbha Mela to bring people of all communities together.  Paush Purnima is a very pious day and taking a dip at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna is good for all beings, irrespective of their religion. Be it Hindu, Muslim or member of any other community, no one can question the holiness of Ganga water and the Sangam is the only place in the world that upholds unity of mankind.

This group also participated and took dips during the 1989, 2001 Kumbha Mela as well as at the 2007 Half-Kumbha Mela in Allahabad.


The Kumbha Mela is attracting all kinds of people.  Even from the world’s top universities.  A group of students and researchers from Harvard university conducted multi-disciplinary studies, trying to find out how over sixty million Indians could gather peacefully at one place to celebrate this ancient religious occasion.  They studied the infrastructures, organisation, commerce, technology, logistics, public health, sanitation, rituals, groupings, traditions and the rising environmental awareness at the Mela.

Let’s End with an Amazing Fact

Reaching Haridwar, one of the most incredible and unexpected events you could think about in India happened to us.  Our train’s arrival time was scheduled at 11:03 AM, and by the most amazingly improbable coincidence, our train arrived at the station EXACTLY at 11:03 AM!  That is definitely the magic of the Kumbha Mela, no other rational explanation is plausible for such a strange event.

We went, we witnessed, we participated, we experienced and we came back, but the memories will remain with us for a long long time.

Editor’s Note:

To read “Kumbha Mela [Part 1]” by Pierre LeFebvre, please use this link: http://www.ahymsin.org/docs2/News/1303Mar/04.html

Pierre was a student at the SRSG Gurukulam for 7 years.  He now lives in Canada with his wife Mina. He teaches hatha yoga and meditation as well as music in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada.  His website is www.yogahimalaya.ca


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