Alone, and at home, at the Kumbh Mela

Har-ki-Pauri, Haridwar during Maha Kumbh Mela

A sea of humanity, an ocean of bliss

April 14, 2010 was the highly auspicious final Royal Bathing Day at the Maha Kumbh Mela – the biggest and perhaps most important spiritual festival in the Hindu world, and the largest gathering of humanity on earth. As I was staying at my spiritual home, Aurovalley Ashram, just about 10 kilometres upstream from Haridwar, I found myself caught up in the excitement. And on the morning of the big day itself, I found myself alone, smack in the centre of the Kumbh Mela, at the extremely sacred Har-ki-Pauri ghat in Haridwar, surrounded by millions, probably tens of millions, of pilgrims, devotees, tourists, naga sadhus, babas, sunnyasis, pandits, swamis, VIPs and god knows who else. All the roads into and out of Haridwar in every direction were closed for miles around, the sun was climbing and the temperature was starting to soar to above 40 C. It was one of the peak experiences of my life: In that moment, I had to face my fears.
Photograph of Mariellen Ward at Kumbh Mela, India

A drop in the ocean…

The morning of the Royal Bath, I had walked the 10 kms into Haridwar with Swami Brahmdev (Swamiji), my teacher and a group from the ashram. We left at 5 am and walked along the Ganga River at dawn, then through a stretch of ashrams, a sadhus enclave, a village and a lovely area of natural beauty before passing several huge temples and the flat, barren areas on the outskirts of Haridwar that were filled with camps. Huge billboards plastered with garishly coloured pictures of swamis and babas lined the way, with seas of khaki tents for their followers billowing behind.

Swamiji leading us through the forest

We started with just about 12 people, alone on a small forest path, but as the sun came up and we got closer to Haridwar, we were joined by an increasing number of people until we were surrounded by thousands, and then, perhaps, millions. If you have never seen or experienced anything like this, imagine the film Gandhi. An enormous mass of people were streaming into Haridwar to take a dip on the sacred ghats (steps down to the river) at this extremely auspicious moment.

According to Hindu belief, at the time of creation, the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) churned the ocean until the kumbh (pot) of amrita, the nectar of immortality, appeared. A fierce battle for the kumbh ensued, between the devas and asuras. During the 12 days (12 years in human life) struggle over the kumbh, four drops fell on earth, in four different places, and every 12 years there is a mela (festival) at one of these places to commemorate the devas’ victory in wresting the kumbh from the asuras. It is a victory of light over dark; truth over ignorance; positivity over negativity. One of the four drops fell where the sacred city of Haridwar is located in north India

Evening aarti to honour Ganga during Maha Kumbh Mela

This year the Maha Kumbh Mela took place in Haridwar over a period of about four months – with the final culmination of the mela taking place when the sun entered Aries and Jupiter entered Aquarius on the new moon, April 14, 2010. (Someone told me this happens once in 5,000 years.) This was the moment of the Shahi Snan (Royal Bath) – the most auspicious time to bathe in the Ganga (Ganges River). I read that 10-12 million people bathed in Haridwar on April 14.

At play in the river

The Maha Kumbh Mela is the largest gathering of humanity on earth.  Millions of people gather from all over India, some walking for many days and weeks, to have a bath in the Ganga at Har-ki-Pauri, a very small, narrow stretch of ghats that run alongside the river as it wends its way through Haridwar. It is astonishing in so many ways and for so many reasons. In this cynical day and age, to find so many people of such powerful faith is astonishing. To have many millions of people living together in tents and camps, and taking turns bathing along a small stretch of river, largely without incident is astonishing. To achieve the kind of order and organization that such an event takes in INDIA, of all places, is astonishing! And just to be there, to be part of it, to see the people – the naga sadhus (naked holy men), swamis, babas, sunnyasis, pilgrims – is astonishing.

At a ceremony to inaugurate a naga sadhu

I had asked Swamiji about the Kumbh, and why people go, what is the purpose and the best attitude to take. He said that an event like the Kumbh helps put people in direct contact with the Divine. No mediators are needed. I know now what he meant.

A pilgrim brushing his teeth

After about two-and-a-half hours of walking we passed the enormous statue of Shiva that greets visitors to Haridwar arriving from the Rishikesh side, and soon after we reached the start of the ghats that line the river into Haridwar. I was never so happy to see Shiva in all my life! The first ghat was closed to the public – only VIPs allowed. I had a media pass, and another ashramite had an all-access pass, and between the two of use, we got the whole group into the VIP enclosure (after the usual round of argument and negotiation with the guards, of course). This was a lovely place to be, well-located, spacious and calm – the perfect place to bathe, and I am so grateful to Swamiji for leading us directly there.

After taking my dip in the Ganga

I entered the chilly water at about 7:30 am, fully clothed, propelled along by excitement, energy and the full knowledge of how incredibly lucky and privileged I was to have had such an experience. It was more than once-in-a-lifetime; it was once in several lifetimes! I did puja, reciting the mantra Jai Ganga Mataji, held onto the rail (the current is very swift) and dipped three times in the water. Afterwards I stood up, hands in prayer, and just took some time to feel the blessings and the energy, and savour the momentousness. I felt pure joy and exhilaration. I was riding a wave of bliss that was running through the entire Kumbh Mela and uniting the millions. I felt my feet on the ghat, the water up to my waist, and a current running through me, through the water.

Swamiji taking his dip

All around me, the other people bathing were also expressing happiness and joy. Families bathing together, friends, my fellow ashramites. And across from us, a sea of people heading towards the river, or in it, or walking away from it – everyone united in the desire to honour Ganga Mataji, the mother river of India, and receive the highest blessings from her as the stars aligned above our heads.

Afterwards, I had the presence of mind to get out my camera and I documented Swamiji’s bath with both photos and video. He waited to bathe until we were almost finished, watching over us. I felt completely protected. When everyone was ready to go back to the ashram, I was torn – should I go with them or take my chances and try to make it to the media platform in the centre of Har-ki-pauri. I was afraid to go alone, but I didn’t want to miss the chance; and I had made a decision to at least live one day in full faith of the Divine. The group went left, towards the ashram, and I went right, into the heart of the mela.

Woman on the road to Haridwar

I reached the media platform by walking with the river of pilgrims into Har-ki-pauri, but the guards wouldn’t let me up. The platform was completely full – a very small space for the world’s journalists – and no amount of cajoling could move them. I saw my friends from the ashram on the platform (one Colombian group was there making a documentary about the Ganga, and two men from Pondicherry were there taking photographs). They were the people I hoped to attach myself to, and return to the ashram with (in their vehicle). But when the guards wouldn’t let me up, I knew I was on my own. With nowhere to go, and no way to get back to the ashram except by walking, I had to think fast as the sun was climbing and the heat was building. This was a peak moment for me, a moment of facing just about every fear I have ever had. I had to find my way back to the ashram through an unknown route, alone amidst crowds of millions coming the other way as the sun climbed in the sky.

Har-ki-Pauri, Haridwar, on April 14

And I decided to go. To take my chances and walk back, and let the Divine guide me. I went with confidence, positivity and purpose. I remembered that even when Gandhi was an old man, he was still a very good and very fast walker. I thought about how I had on top-quality walking sandals, and, in my backpack, a bottle of water, a bag of peanuts , two oranges, a hat and sunscreen.  I was fit and healthy. So many of the people around me were old, frail, bent, poor, shoeless. So I went. I walked all the way back to the ashram, somehow finding the route, and I was back in time for satsang, at about noon. The bottoms of my feet were covered in blisters, but aside from that, I was completely well, exhilarated from my experience and my achievement. I felt I would never be the same – and realized that this is the entire point.

Woman bathing on April 14Swamiji talks about how we are here to learn, grow and change. Each experience gives us a drop of knowledge, and the more we use our knowledge – LIVE our knowledge – the more we grow our consciousness. The more conscious we are, the more we realize our truth, who we really are: part of the Divine. In ignorance we think in terms of duality; in truth, we are One. On the Kumbh Mela day, I definitely grew in terms of my faith in my own strength and my faith in the Divine. I feel I have already benefited from the blessings of bathing in the Ganga at that auspicious time; and I hope I am contributing to the increased consciousness of all.

Flowing with the current

The sweetest naga sadhu I met at he Kumbh mela

To be honest, I came to Aurovalley Ashram without the thought of the Kumbh Mela in my head. I knew it was taking place, but I did not plan to go. I needed the peace and solitude of Aurovalley to recover from fatigue, stress and chronic digestive problems – and, generally, to recover my equilibrium and reconnect to myself and my spiritual path. The past year has been a tough one – among other things, I was really focused on launching my travel writing career and my blog, and I have never worked so hard in all my life – and it really left me feeling depleted. I did not think I would find the strength to face the Kumbh Mela’s crowds, chaos and massive amount of energy. Also, I have been in Haridwar several times before and I have always found the energy there quite disturbing. It’s a Shiva city, and Shiva is the destroyer – the destroyer of the unneeded – and while that energy is cleansing, it is turbulent too.

Lalit: The heart of the Kumbh Mela

However, after about two weeks at the ashram I was feeling like a new person – calm, happy, healthy, energized – and then Lalit appeared. Lalit is a 6’ 3” Punjabi man from Pondicherry who has the exuberance of an entire class of school boys, the strength of an elephant, the positivity of a guru and the charm of a Bollywood star. He and his friend Jean-Pierre, a tall, suave, enthusiastic French man, arrived to go to the Kumbh Mela and take photos, and they did it with an infectious spirit that swept me up. Before you know it, I was with these two characters, in the camp of the naga sadhus (naked holy men), meeting men covered in ashes and mala beads and very little else.

A very handsome naga sadhu from Rajasthan

Lalit and Jean-Pierre just dove in, talking to the naga sadhus, taking their pictures. We spent about four hours in their camp, spending a lot of time in particular with two independent sadhus and one group. I felt especially calm and comfortable with the group, who had their guru, their baba, with them. One of the men spoke some English and we talked a little. When we were leaving, he told me he was my brother and gave me a topaz. I gave him a bracelet I was wearing. Another young man was very friendly towards me and enjoyed getting his picture taken. Although it was very hot, I had an enjoyable time. The camp we were in was actually in town, in a maze of alleys. Temporary tents and enclosures had been erected for them, which included electricity and water taps. Most of the tents had some fans running, and some even had TVs and DVD players.

Naga sadhu demonstrating his yoga prowess

The two independent sadhus we spent time with both showed us how they can wrap their penises around a pole and then move or exert pressure on the pole in some way. One had a man stand on the pole as he held it horizontally behind him! I really didn’t know what to think. It seems like a waste of time and effort to me. How does it benefit anyone? But I politely watched and tried to take some pictures, which didn’t really turn out that well. I mean, I just wasn’t prepared. I don’t remember any photography instructor covering this particular situation.

Some of the naga sadhus spend a lot of time doing this

I really don’t know how holy these men are: they seem to spend a lot of time on their “look” – their hair, make-up, jewelry. They spend a lot more time than me, I am sure! I don’t mean to judge them; honestly, I just don’t get it. One of my Indian friends said that many become sadhus due to a lack of options and opportunities. I guess it is like everything else: there are genuine and sincere naga sadhus and those who are just passing time. Another of the sadhus we spent time with was very taken with me – no doubt the blonde hair and fair skin – and spoke to my friend in Hindi, at length, about how excited he felt looking at me, and how he wanted me to come back and spend time with him. He even tried to get my phone number!

By about 3 p.m. we were very hot and tired and Lalit lead us to a beautiful, private bathing ghat in a huge home on the river that was occupied by people from the Aurobindo organization. We went down some stairs and came out into a gorgeous garden and a small, private ghat where only the three of us bathed. It was cool and heavenly. I felt very lucky.

This man has held up his arm for many years

Afterwards, we tried to make our way toward Har-ki-pauri for the aarti, the evening puja to honour the Ganga. I was tired and found the crowds of people too intense, so I stopped at the Haveli Hari Ganga, a beautiful hotel on the river. I have stayed there before, so I asked if I could wait there while Lalit and Jean-Pierre went to the aarti. I sat on a lovely upstairs balcony and sipped tea, and even had a reflexology treatment in the top-floor spa while my friends were battling for a spot to take pictures. They were exhausted and frazzled when they returned, while I was cool, calm and refreshed.

I was sorry I missed the aarti, but it turns out I really did make the right choice. Two days later I went to the Media Centre and was pleasantly surprised to discover I qualified for a media pass. With that in hand, I went to the media platform in Har-ki-Pauri, directly across from the aarti, and had the best view possible. This was just two days before the BIG DAY and there was only a handful of media on the platform. In fact, most of them were staying at Aurovalley Ashram!

Naga sadhu smoking

Aside from myself, Lalit and Jean-Pierre were there, and a group of seven wonderful young Colombian people making a documentary about the Ganga. So I was able to get a comfortable ride back to the ashram, and was very grateful for the smoothness of my day.

Even getting the media pass took only an hour, and I didn’t even have my passport with me. Apparently it’s not possible to get a media pass without a passport. It’s also not possible to take a train from Delhi to Haridwar during the Kumbh Mela without a ticket, but I did that too … (I was number 48 on the waiting list and thought I had seat 48! An amazingly kind train superintendent actually gave me his seat, just two minutes before the train left.) So, I really do feel the Divine’s grace, guidance and protection.

In the end, I went to the Kumbh Mela three times from Aurovalley Ashram, in the days before the Royal Bath, with rest days in between at this peaceful haven. It took a lot of energy, and I felt a lot of energy when I was there – in fact, I could feel my spine tingling as electrical currents surged up and down. I am very glad I went; it was a great experience. But I still prefer the peaceful, nature-imbued Aurovalley Ashram and the beautiful natural setting of Rishikesh. I am better at feeling the Divine’s presence in nature than in man-made structures and events. But of course the Divine is everywhere and in everything …

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25 Responses to Alone, and at home, at the Kumbh Mela

  1. Linda April 16, 2010 at 8:43 am #


    “I felt pure joy and exhilaration” — my feelings exactly at the first snan on Mahashivaratri and at Kalhighat.

    everything that was foretold to me happened: I died in India at the Mela and was reborn in Africa, at the bottom of the Ngorongoro Crater, where humankind took its first steps.

  2. lil sis April 16, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    Holy crap! That sounded amazing. I am looking forward to speaking with you when you get back to Dehli.

    love you!

  3. Krista April 17, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    Thanks again for another splendid description of your sojourn in incredible India!

  4. Sister Tinh Quang April 22, 2010 at 9:27 am #

    Hi, Mariellen. This is a wonderful blog. The Maha Kumbh Mela is an event that I’ve always thought I’d like to experience.

    My computer crashed a while ago, so lost all information, including your blog info. I’m so happy to be back in touch.

  5. Lalit Verma April 24, 2010 at 12:18 am #

    It was wonderful to be with you probably exactly at the spot where the nector fell.this makes our meeting immortal.Reading your blog took me back to the holy experiences of the kumbh mela.I appreciate your big heart of calling me the heart of kumbh.Cheers to the scooter rides of pondicherry to witenessing the smooth flowing of the ganges at haridwar together.
    In silence and Joy

  6. Michael April 26, 2010 at 12:06 am #

    Wow, this sounds amazing. Nice write-up as well.

  7. Andi April 30, 2010 at 8:35 am #

    You were right when you said this was a once in several lifetimes event!!! I’m SO excited that you were able to experience this, wow!!!!!!!!!! Thank you for your story and photos (the photos are AMAZING). This was the 1st thing I read today and it’s filled me with such peace and joy. 🙂

  8. Marie September 2, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Such a fantastic experience and you’ve written it up so well I could really feel your senses. Isn’t it amazing how people like your friends Lalit and Jean-Pierre appeared just at the right time to push you along into the situation that you were meant to experience? I love this! And I really think we meet people for reasons, some of them big and some of them small that we don’t even recognise. We are here to guide each other and forge our understanding of the connection.

  9. Beverly October 11, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    You tell a lovely story Mariellen. What an experience!

  10. Vinayakan Aiyer March 25, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    Nice! I love all the mythological stories….as I have read and heard lots of it in my formative years & I can never have excess of it. It doesn’t matter whether its Hindu/Greek mythology. While reading this blog, I wonder where the other 3 drops fell? I don’t know…but if you
    happen to know through your readings, please share.

    Wanted to add…I have always questioned realness of all the Naga Sadhus..some are for real and some are just passing time – I agree with your assessment. That said, they easily are best human subjects for photography.

    I am a Hindu myself. But I definitely question blind belief of 10-12 million people. My personal opinion is…in India a place of worship will always be more crowded than a shopping mall. Not that shopping mall is a great place, but crowded temples through the year to me is religious madness (minus the violence). I wonder how many really believe in it…and blind believe has never known to get anyone anywhere.

    Thanks. Vinayakan

  11. ranjan padhi March 27, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Wow! You are really lucky to be at Kumbh Mela or else people like me always plan to visit but due to heavy schedule it gets postponed. It’s well said that only people who get the call from god gets the chance to be part in Kumbh Mela. Thanks for sharing your experience, it raised my curiosity and this time I will definitely visit neglecting all other works.

  12. om namah shivaya April 27, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    om namah shivay ek place hai jaha per sabhi prakar k kasto ka niwaran om namah shivay mahamantra ka jaap kara kar kiya jata hai, aaj k jiwan mai aadami bimari se sabse jada paresaan hai , log lakho rupay apni bimari per exp kar dete hai agar app bhi aise kisi person ko jante hai to please use bataye ki wo om namah shivay jay aur apne kasto ka niwaran pay. thanks

  13. madan mohan November 7, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    hi Mariellen.,

    its really an intresting article. there are so much to learn abount tantrics n naga sadhus. if u know any naga sadhu n tantrik who can teach me just mail me. ur article is factual

  14. Pyarilal January 17, 2013 at 12:50 am #

    It is a pity that I can’t share your blog in our website !

  15. katie Morries September 23, 2015 at 6:25 am #

    Kumbh mela itself has beauty. It seems like you have very nice experience of visiting kumbh mela. I think its largest people gathering festival in the world even nasa also capture pictures of kumbh mela. In picture we clearly see gathering of peoples. It’s important and holly for hindus. Million of people shouting “har har gande” “mahadev” “om namasivay” its too loud. Arti at ganga river is amazing. Thanks for sharing your every single movement of kumbh mela its remember my old days of visiting kumbh mela. Your pic Dip in Ganda is beautiful. 🙂


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