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Saturday, 13 January, 2001, 11:22 GMT
The greatest show on Earth
Pilgrims bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges

By Jill McGivering in Allahabad

Balak Das was squatting on his haunches, resting by the side of the road. A threadbare blanket was pulled tight around his shoulders, a dirty bundle of belongings at his feet.

"I've travelled here from my village to bathe in the Ganges," he told me. His breath steamed in the cold of early morning. "We're poor people," he explained. "This is our way to salvation."

As if on cue, a temple bell started to ring, giving out a rich, melting sound.

The road ahead was alive with columns of people - tens of thousands, heads bowed, streaming down towards the shore. When we finally reached the crest of the road, the sight was mesmerising.
Holy man
Holy men flock to this auspicious site at the confluence of two rivers

The long sloping beach to the water's edge was solid with pilgrims. Below, the dawn light was turning the river silver, criss-crossed by the dark shadows of bathers splashing to and fro, in and out of the shallow water.

Holy men

Close to us, at the back of the beach, a group of a dozen sadhus, or holy men, were sitting cross-legged, facing the rising sun. Their robes made a startling orange splash across the sand, their faces daubed with streaks of paint.

One was blowing a conch shell. Another was pouring water from brass pots, ringing a bell and chanting. A third was rocking and mumbling as he read from holy scriptures, trying to ignore the cluster of cameramen poking lenses into his face.

Down at the water's edge, ordinary people were worshipping - standing in silent prayer or crouching to send marigolds and burning offerings floating out into the river. Smoking incense sticks dotted the sand.

The hardier pilgrims waded right out into the murky river for total immersion, ducking their heads three times under the water, asking for blessing.

It wasn't entirely solemn. The tone was constantly changing. One scene would be deeply spiritual - the next looked more like a cold bank holiday at the English seaside.

Family event
Devotee with video camera
Technology meets tradition at this year's Kumbh Mela

Families, clustered together, struggled to change their clothes under towels, grimacing as the wind whipped in from the water. Two small children in wet shorts stood rigid, shivering, while their father tried to rub life back into their limbs.

Behind them, a group of young women chased each other up the sand, stumbling and shrieking, dripping saris clinging to them like skin.

This is where millions of Indian Hindus are heading in the next six weeks - to bathe in one of the holiest places on earth at one of the most auspicious times. They'll also enjoy an amazing show.

Spectacular show

For days now, the different religious orders have been staging processions to mark their arrival.

Holy men in saffron robes and fake fur jackets sit on gold thrones, carried shoulder high. Marching bands and ear splitting speaker systems are a permanent refrain. Holy men ride by on elephants or camels.

And drawing most stares of all, troupes of stark naked holy men, or nagas, march along defiantly - smeared with ash and precious little else.

For me, the sense of carnival - and the downright bizarre - rather overshadowed the spiritual experience.

Scantily-clad holy men are a frequent sight
I won't forget the waterside prayers in the light of dawn - but it's even harder to forget the holy man who'd held his hand up in the air for the last twenty years in an act of penance. Or indeed the holy man who gave public demonstrations to show he could wrap his penis round a large stick.

This Kumbh is described as the first to be actively marketed to foreign tourists. Travel agents are now offering Kumbh package tours - selling the sheer spectacle of the event to non-Hindus.

The authorities proudly call this the first hi-tech Kumbh too. They've set up cyber cafes around the site so pilgrims can get information from the official website. So far at least, they're resisting commercial sponsorship - but even here, it seems, the modern world is finally impinging on the ancient.

As we waited at the airport, I got chatting to an American tourist. What did she think of the Kumbh? A deeply moving experience, she said. After bathing, she felt spiritually reborn.

And her strongest memory? She burst into giggles. That was easy, she said. The sight of a stark naked naga, smeared with ash, chatting away on his mobile phone.

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See also:

10 Jan 01 | South Asia
Kumbh Mela: A spiritual spectacle
09 Jan 01 | South Asia
Millions join holy dip
07 Jan 01 | South Asia
Millions flock to Hindu festival
09 Jan 01 | South Asia
In Pictures: Maha Kumbh Mela
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