The Maha Kumbh Mela (Part 2) by Ross Dixon

 Friday 8th February 2013 continued.

We walked along a road that took us up a gradual hill for no other reason than the flow of people was taking us that way. The crowd was less dense at this point, so as we walked, the group began to discuss what we wanted to do.

“We should go see the Naga Babas!” Daisha exclaimed enthusiastically.

As none of us had any better ideas, that became our plan.

Photo by Matthew Farrar

Photo by Matthew Farrar

Debbie explained to Matthew and I that 'Naga Baba' can be translated into English as 'Serpent Father' or 'Naked Father'. They are renunciants, without material attachments, who live in natural environments. Also, they are often completely naked and covered with ash. This is a practice that dates back to holy men called Aghori, who would cover themselves in the ashes of the dead, from funeral pyres. The Naga Babas are survivors of an ancient lineage of holy men, whose bathing in sacred rivers has been at the centre of Indian traditions, way back into antiquity. With India becoming increasingly modern, they are held in very high regard.

We were now at the top of a hill. This allowed us to see down, into the middle of the Kumbh Mela site. Once again, I paused to take in the enormity of the crowd. At the very edge of the crowd a calm looking man, with an amazing moustache, stood alone. He was close enough to us that we could hear him, over the chanting and singing.

He said “Hello”' in English, then waved and smiled.

Debbie asked him “Where are the Naga Babas?”.

He turned his head, and raised an arm, pointing to a huge orange flag, that stood over the crowd in the distance. The flag appeared to be at the geographical centre of the Kumbh Mela site. The dense mass of people extended as far as could be seen, in every direction. Despite Matthew saying that he felt a little tense about the possibilities of entering the density of the crowd, he raised his arm, inviting us in the direction of the flag. We headed in.

The energy was more carnival-like closer to the centre. People seemed less interested with making money from us and more concerned with their own experience. By this point we were all constantly brushing past, or bumping into several strangers at any given moment, many of whom wanted to talk and find out about us. Our group was finding it harder and harder to stay together. I don't know how the others managed it, but I just never let the group member nearest to me get out of sight. I observed that the more I became concerned about anyone from our group getting separated, the more difficulties I perceived. Once again I had to let go of trying to marshal things and just trust the experience.

On the surface level, although my situation could be interpreted as worrying, when the worry came, it took away all the aliveness of the moment. This disabled my awareness of space and sensitivity to the movement of the people around me. So at the cost of my insistence on being a sensible Englishman in control of the situation, I had to just go with the flow. There wasn't room for any valiant narratives at the Kumbh Mela.

As a group of five white people, including a woman with bright pink hair, we continued to attract lots of attention.

Many times people would shout to Debbie “Is your hair natural?”.

To which she would reply “Yes!”.

Sometimes this would receive a smile or laugh, and at others a shocked expression.

Many of the Indian people who inspected us more closely were interested in our Tattoos. Debbie has the chakra symbols tattooed down her back. Although her body was mostly covered, the throat chakra symbol was in full view on the back of her neck. Many people smiled and nodded in approval of it, and in many cases responded by showing us 'Om' tattoos on their wrists. I have a trident symbol tattooed on the back of my arm. It turned out that this is a central symbol of Shiva, the Hindu God of transformation. The same deity that the Naga Babas revere. Upon seeing it, many people stood perfectly still, with wide eyes. Some of them would look me up and down, as if wondering why I, a westerner came to wear the mark of Shiva. At times this became quite intense. So I would join my hands in a prayer gesture and perform a small bow. To Hindus this is a sign of recognition, from the divinity within yourself to that within the other. This would usually lead to the other person repeating the gesture and then smiling.

In some instances they would say “Om namah Shivaya”, a Hindu chant to Shiva.

Other Indian people would walk with me a short distance to talk. We would exchange basic information about each other and then shake hands and go our separate ways. I was struck by how excellent their command of English was in many cases. Mostly however, I pondered the uncanniness that a tattoo I had, years before I knew anything about Hinduism, Yoga or India, was now the focal point of my interaction with all these new people. I had come to witness the spectacle of the Kumbh Mela, and become part of the spectacle myself.

From my encounters with the Indian people, I began to sense that the practise of Hinduism is the way in which they keep the story of themselves in a living or sacred context. Each person is irrefutably tuned into the living myth all around them. On the personal level, through families, provinces, nations, races, species and beyond; the Gods are always present in every aspect of their reality. This is not to reduce the term 'myth' to what it is commonly thought of in western culture (fabrication). To indigenous cultures around the world, myths serve as working templates of the human journey. (It reminded me of my essay tutor at university, a classicist who described Greek myths this way). The Kumbh Mela is an important event in the human level 'myth', which is humans celebrating the divinity of the rivers. The ancient Vedic knowledge of Astrology, which governs the timing of the Kumbh Mela, ties this living myth of the earth to the story in the sky; our position within the celestial cycles. My sense of how important this event was to all the people here was very palpable. I was getting a feel for the Kumbh Mela and beginning to gather context.

I was very touched by the acceptance and ease of the people. Despite the density and apparent poverty around us, there were very few signs of stress, (except those which members of our group had decided to impose on ourselves). I remember thinking that this lightness of existence that Indian people exhibited was a good example to us westerners. We seem to put ourselves under a lot of pressure, often at the expense of others and our environment. Many Indians were outspoken about what the British had done for them. I found this surprising, as I assumed that in celebrating the Naga Babas and the sacred water there would also be some intention of restoring old ways, or a return to natural harmony or some such ideal. This did not seem to be the case. In fact, for the most part, I experienced a profound unconditional acceptance for things as they are. If anything, their practises and beliefs were not domineering at all. Each Hindu just seemed to be a living invitation to exist in a more simple, yet complete and less fragmented story, often including lots of singing and dancing in reverence of the archetypal forces of nature. When I saw it like this, it seemed very sensible to me.

After what seemed like an hour or so of struggling to keep the group together, conversing as pleasantly as possible with an endless stream of super curious and joyous Indian people, we reached the Naga Baba's 'village'. This was an area of simple shacks, where the Naga Babas were staying. Initially, the crowds did not relent there. In fact, a very densely packed crowd was gathered around the first shack. Here, one Naga Baba stood naked with a dollar bill tied to his penis. It clearly meant something to the crowd gathered there. The Naga Baba seemed to have the their full attention. Matthew and I found it highly amusing, Daisha seemed completely unphased and Larissa seemed like she just wanted to pretend she hadn't seen it at all.

Among the crowd were some other white people with expensive looking video and sound equipment. I said 'hi' to one of them, who smiled and nodded, but the scene was far too busy for him to chat. I now realise they were the BBC film crew, making 'The Greatest Show On Earth' documentary (screened July 2013). We would later see the 'dollar bill' Naga Baba featured quite heavily in the film.

I noticed that Debbie was not with the group. I didn't want to panic the others, who seemed to still be distracted by the circus like effect of the first shack. I told myself to stay calm and looked in all directions. No pink haired woman. I thought I had better share the news with Matthew.

“Have you seen your sis?” I asked.

“Yes mate, she's chilling with some Naga Babas next door”.

Sure enough, Debbie was in the next shack sat among some men in orange robes. She seemed to be having a deep conversation with one of them. Shortly after this the circus effect calmed a little. As the BBC cameramen left the village, the mayhem followed them. Just as the rest of us were discussing whether or not to join Debbie in the shack, she came out shaking her head. She expressed her disillusion. Whilst the Naga Baba had seemed authentic, his entourage appeared corrupt; only interested in her money.

With the group reunited, we considered trying to meet the dollar bill Naga Baba, who was now entertaining a smaller crowd by coiling his penis and testicles around a stick in a way that looked painful. After watching this spectacle a while, we began to explore what the rest of the Naga Baba's village had to offer. For the first time in a couple of hours, we escaped the density of the main crowd. Our awareness shifted from the urgency of keeping the group together, to now having some space to relax into the experience.

Eventually we came across a quiet group of Naga Babas, who welcomed us into their shack. We joined them for an intimate ceremony of chanting, smoking and eating. This was very welcome after our hectic day. To share space with real people, who had no motivation other than sharing space and sacraments with us was very homely. There was a group of smartly dressed businessmen from Gujarat in the room with us. They seemed impressed by our presence and gave us business cards, saying we could visit them whenever we wanted. I asked Abbas, the businessman next to me, what they were doing there. Their appearances suggested they had wealth and success in the business world. I could not understand why they had any interest in some ash covered men from the mountains.

“Why have you come to see the Naga Babas?” I asked.

He replied, “Because they keep our story alive.”

Ross DixonComment