Kumbh Mela 2019 – The procession and the holy dip

Jan 18, 2021

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This is the main reason why tourists visit the Kumbh Mela and we were not the exception. We had seen numerous images of the wild looking holy man, in an ecstatic bliss, while bathing in the holy waters and we wanted to witness – if possible, taking part of it – sharing the energy and the feeling.

On this trip, we attended two royal baths: Mauni Amavasya (silent day), on February 4th, and Basant Panchami (preparation for Spring) on February 10th.

An early wake up

We left from out tent, roughly, at midnight, after un unsuccessful attempt to sleep from late afternoon. Crossed one of the floating bridges and walked nearly two hours on the crowded roads f (see them in here, first picture on the gallery). On the first one, we lost our guide as we got into the Tent City. On the second we followed the group, though we already knew where to go and what to expect. This gave us two totally different perspectives on the procession. On the first, we ended being a part of it, as it was the only way to find the naked holy men (Naga Sadhus).

 Pilgrims watching the beginning of the procession, from the river bed, while some Naga Sadhus cross the floating bridge. 

On the second one, we went straight to their Akhada (Juna), watch them lead the procession, and then rejoined them on the bathing gath. It couldn’t have been better, for shooting purposes.

At one point of the first, the crowd was so packed that we couldn’t even move our arms and we feared for our cameras. A steel cable, stretched along the way, got stuck between my foot and my sandal. On loosening it, I lost the sandal, and there was absolutely no way do lean and fetch it. Therefore, I ended up walking the whole day barefooted. That happened to many others, as we could see on our way back:

Shoes and clothing lost by pilgrims during the procession. Unfortunately my own shoes weren’t among those.

Juna Akhada, on sector 14, was easily recognisable by its orange gates.  They featured a trident and the picture of its leader. Also, there was an enormous orange flag, among other small ones.

Juna Akhada Gate during the procession, later in the morning. (Photo by João Carlos Gomes)

The beginning of the Procession

On these two dates, there were  crowds moving all night. Most were finding what they think to be the most auspicious spot for the holy Snan (dip): somewhere in the confluence between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Some tourists and devotees gathered in Juna Akhada around 3:00 AM, to see and (if possible) follow the naga sahdus.  Soon after, many pedestrian roads were closed and the remaining crowds would need to choose alternate locations.

At that time, there wasn’t yet  much movement in the camp. itself  The holy men were probably getting ready, smoking their chillums (conical clay made pipes), doing their initial chants and prayers and warming their bodies. There were hardly 12 ºC!

As the crowd got bigger, the holy man finally lined up and marched, to the sound of a fanfare, led by two naked leaders riding skinny horses. Naga Sadhu leaders on horseback, inside Juna Akhara, waiting for the procession to begin, among followers and tourists. (Photo by João Carlos Gomes)

They often screamed – Har Har Mahadev! – a plead for Lord Shiva to take our sorrows, anger, jealousy and so on. In sum, to remove our obstacles.

The procession leaved the camp to a large road into a floating bridge, and then to another large road leading to the main bathing Ghat, which was already completely packed with pilgrims.


An initial disappointing moment

As “press” we were allowed to follow the holy men but then were ordered to stay away from the river. So our only chance was to see them going and then returning. It was disheartening – after travelling all the way, me from Bali, my friend from Portugal, we were denied to witness the moment where these men find their bliss in anticipation of future liberation. Some  didn’t seem that human, specially while returning from the holy dip.

There was an awkward expression of fierce victory in their faces – something we couldn’t understand. Where were their enemy? Water, wasn’t so cold, as we could witness later on.  At that time we thought it was over, and we’d missed it.

Little did we know, that the procession would carry on nearly until sunset.

The holy dip

The security became more relaxed and we were allowed to come closer. In fact the best shooting spot was inside the river, and so I stayed for a few hours, with water above my knees, shooting and hoping not to slip and fall, like a colleague photographer. From time to time, the security dispersed the crowd, maybe upon the arrival or special holy men. Apparently, pilgrims believe it’s auspicious to bathe at the same time and place of their spiritual guides.


The remaining procession

There was an order in which different sects, from different Akhadas, arrived at that Ghat. Some leaders brought safety guards carrying machine guns. Some carried swords, parasols. Most came walking, but there were many other brought by tractor pulled silvery chariots. The disciples followed. Often, they were wearing saffron or orange, but there were those wearing white, and more naked and semi-naked ones. It was an incredible diversity and even all these pictures on the following gallery aren’t enough to describe the whole of it.  

We didn’t attend it all – it was humanly impossible. Around two in the afternoon, on the first day and a bit past that on the second, we started our twelve kilometre march back to our tent hotel. On those days we walked over 25 km, Stood on our feet, shooting over 12 hours with neither water nor food. Kumbh was forcing us into asceticism.

The processions and the dip were certainly a highlight, and we took our own, on a less busy moment. Still wondering it that will, indeed, free me from future reincarnations, but quite sure about the special properties of that water. Prior to the dip, and the in-water shooting sessions, I cut one of my toes in a metal board over one bridge. Walking barefoot among such a crowd would easily get it infected, but the fact is, it healed by itself with no treatment and left no scar.

On the remaining 5 days at tent city we had the opportunity to do “Darsham” – the visual exchange, where there is interaction with a religious deity and the worshiper is able to visually “‘drink’ divine power.”

Learn about it and watch the images on the next post.

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