Taking a Sacred Plunge, One Wave of Humanity at a Time
By JIM YARDLEY and HARI KUMAR
Published: April 14, 2010
HARIDWAR, India — Over the bridge they came, Hindu holy men by the tens of thousands, the most devout naked and dusted with sacramental powder, marching toward the bathing pool in the Ganges where the water is considered holiest on this most propitious of days.
Shouting and singing, waving tridents or spears, the naked mystics, or naga sadhus, were granted the first plunge.
Then came the gurus and swamis, wrapped in saffron robes, a few shaded by beaded parasols. One swami was delivered into the water on the shoulders of his disciples. For 20 minutes, they frolicked, as other pilgrims watched from nearby rooftops.
And then time was up. The police tweeted their whistles and began nudging the group out of the sacred water. There were still untold thousands of holy men waiting to take a dip.
Wednesday was the culmination of the Hindu religious festival known as the Kumbh Mela, a staggering outpouring of humanity that also represents a staggering logistical challenge.
Since January, tens of millions of pilgrims have arrived in this city by train, plane, bus or foot for the privilege of bathing in the Ganges on certain auspicious dates. On Wednesday alone, 10 million people were estimated to have entered the water. The crowds are so massive that safety is a serious concern.
Not least is the challenge of managing the rival sects of holy men, the self-described defenders of the Hindu religion for whom the Kumbh Mela is both a sacred ritual and a demonstration of their status.
In years past, they have bickered with each other, or with the government, arguing over issues like which group should be allowed to bathe first or whether their photographs could be taken during the holy dip.
“They are very egoistic,” said Anand Bardhan, the administrator overseeing the Kumbh. “One moment they suddenly become angry and the next moment they will shower lots of affection. You need to understand their nature.”
This year, the police assigned a special officer as a liaison to the various sects who helped negotiate a consensus on the bathing schedule. The first in the water this year were followers of the order known as the Niranjani.
But tragedy struck Wednesday morning. The police say the Juna sect was beginning its procession toward the Ganges when one of their vehicles hit several people in the crowds. People panicked and stampeded. Seven people were killed, though it is unclear if they died from the accident or the stampede.
Leaders of the Juna canceled their procession, instead choosing to bathe at a different spot on the Ganges, and blamed the authorities for failing to adequately clear their route to the river.
Mahant Hari Giri, general secretary of the Juna, said that leaders decided it would be inappropriate to resume their march through the city but that the group had not boycotted the ritual, as some had reported.
“It was not possible to take the whole procession,” he said. “But we have not boycotted the holy bath. We did take a dip in the Ganges.”
The Kumbh Mela derives from Hindu mythology, which holds that gods and demons struggled over a pitcher, or kumbh, containing the drink of immortality. As the gods raced toward heaven, drops of the sacred nectar spilled out onto four locations on the river: Allahabad, Ujjaink, Nashik and Haridwar. Today, the Kumbh Mela is held every three years, rotating among the four cities, meaning that each hosts every 12 years.
Tucked in the foothills of the Himalayas, Haridwar is a challenging place to host tens of millions of people. The Kumbh Mela is conducted in the middle of the city, and many pilgrims insist on taking their dip in the holiest spot, known as Har Ki Pauri, which is roughly the size of three Olympic swimming pools.
Authorities estimated that roughly 100,000 people an hour entered the water at Har Ki Pauri on Tuesday and Wednesday. Many pilgrims believe that a dip in this spot on the appointed day will allow them to break the cycle of reincarnation.