3rd Post: The Hindu Pilgrims of the Kumbh Mela

As we made our way back to the ghats or bathing areas I noticed strings of beads like dried and wrinkled apricots in many of the

Herbs that are supposed to ward off evil spirits

shops. JG told me they are Rudraksh seeds and are a charm against all sorts of sickness and evil. Most of these hanging were the fakes most Hindus would wear as the real Rudraksh seeds are quite expensive they are kept in a locked case. These seeds are all the more precious if a priest would bless them – for a fee of course!

The narrow streets of Haridwar are abuzz with tens of thousands who might never return.  Like the Muslim Haj the visit to the Kumbh Mela will most likely be repeated by most.

For example, the pilgrim we met from West Bengal would have spent a minimum of 40 hours on the train plus accommodation and food. In any case, Haridwar is only on of the four sacred places of Hindus where Kumbh Mela is observed. The others Nasik; Godavari to achieve spiritual Nirvana; Allahabad and the confluence of three sacred rivers; Ujjain on the Shipra River. If the pilgrim bathes in each

Pilgrims seeking… something?

of these locations they believe they will achieve Nirvana. So, if a person is able he or she will visit the other three!

There were many that were shopping in front of the small stalls that sold jewelry, roti and curry, a hot yoghurt drink and many other items. We stopped at a small shop to ask directions and how business was. The owner said these times were the high point sales wise. My colleague said that in fact not many people visited Haridwar otherwise and this was a time for the vendors to hike prices up to earn for the slow times as people are more gullible away from home! A few shops over we saw a number of damp looking older pilgrim ladies haggling loudly over the price some item – not all were excepting higher prices!

Celebrated at basically the same day this year is the Hindu festival of Shivaratri. According to JG: According to Hindu mythology,

The cold of the early morning seemed to really effect those who bathed in the even colder river.

Shivaratri or ‘Shiva’s Great Night’ symbolizes the wedding day of Lord Shiva and Parvati. Many however, believe, Shivaratri is the night when Lord Shiva performed the Tandava Nritya – the dance of primordial creation, preservation and destruction. Celebrating the festival in a customary manner, devotees give a ritual bath to the Lingam (sexual organ) with the panchagavya – milk, sour milk, urine, butter and dung. Celebrations of Shivaratri Festival mainly take place at night. Devotees of Lord Shiva throng Shiva temples across the country and spend ‘the Night of Lord Shiva’ by chanting verses and hymns in praise of the Lord. The festival holds special meaning for the ladies. They pray to Goddess Parvati also called ‘Gaura’, the giver of ‘suhag’ for good husbands, marital bliss and a long and prosperous married life.

Most of Haridwar is built on snaking paths hardly suitable for a some of the higher than the river. The streets all eventually point to the river and if you just go on a down spiral (and follow the pilgrims) you will find the water. It was on one of these snaking streets we found ourselves suddenly breaking out into an area that had three Hindu worship places. I hesitate to call them temples as the biggest was only 10 x10 feet. All were the same, With an ornate sign on top, the idol set back garlanded with flowers from worshippers, the priest sitting or standing outside to receive gifts, provide incense and whatever. We started working our way over to the other side of the river in the stream of Pilgrims. Our goal was to reach a vantage point where we could see the official bathing of the Sadhus and naked Nagas. This

Naked Sadhu – forsaking all, including clothing to reach the gods of Hinduism

turned out to be more troublesome that we thought as we had to cross over the river and much of the bridges were blocked. Eventually security personnel herded us across the way for the location. This was 930am. We had been on site since 530am and were tired. The crowd gathered as suspense mounted. More and more people gathered expectantly.  People from across India of course, but I heard German, Dutch, Arabic and of course, American English!

Finally, at 11am the most “holy” of the Sadhus came down the steps to the water side. Again the crowd surged forward to the ropes where the security forces scanned the crowd almost like the secret service does with the American president. This was considered a high security risk time and weapons were ready. Everyone had their cameras up. Many Indians were using their cell phone cameras. I found out yesterday that the largest seller  of cameras is cell phone manufacturer Nokia!

Boy on bench – waiting for the sun..

From the distance we could just see people in orange and naked men and women bathing. Soon, we tired and decided to take a break. Others were feeling about the same as we passed men, women and children sitting on the sidewalk or the raised changing platforms. At 11am the sun was just coming out of the clouds and we could see the steam of warming clothing – many baring arms for the first time that day to soak in the sun’s warmth.

Looking at the thousands of people there I realized that I had much in common with them. The first is a desire to be closer to God – for them somehow that is tied up in the stone idols, for me, a desire to walk closer to the Living Christ. The second for them is

Waiting, seeking for the peace they can only find in Jesus. Who will tell them? Who will pray and go?

a realization that they have sin. The baths are supposed to wash them clean and somehow break the re-incarnation cycle. For me, it is the knowledge that I am a sinner, a need to repent every day, but an understanding that thru Jesus’ blood I am free of the penalty of sin!

This trip I have met several recent Hindu converts. Although I will not be able to share specific stories, several of them were influenced by caring believers or some unique work of God.  Pray with me that these Hindu “god-seekers” will encounter the Living God through caring Indian believers!

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