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Thursday, 11 January, 2001, 16:42 GMT
Kumbh Mela: A personal pilgrimage
Vijay Rana of the BBC Hindi Service describes what attending India's Kumbh Mela festival meant to him
"Pilgrims plodded for months in the heat to get here, worn, poor and hungry, but sustained by unwavering faith."
So wrote Mark Twain, who was perhaps the first American to attend the Kumbh back in 1885.
And it is faith that Hinduism still flourishes on.
But two decades ago, as a research student in Allahabad University, I was less interested in spiritualism and more in adventure.
We were determined to acquire immortality by taking a dip at the blessed hour, before dawn, right at the sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.
Warnings that only a few could get there strengthened our resolve.
Our journey began around midnight.
Sea of humanity
All the roads to the Kumbh were jammed, not with traffic but with people.
Soon we sunk into a sea of humanity.
We were part of an extraordinary spectacle of the human spirit.
Surging ahead at three o'clock in the winter morning was a skeletal old lady riding on the back of her great-grandson - an engineer from Madras trying to keep a family of nine together - and millions of others, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, old and young - people from India and abroad.
We reached the sangam in time, were pushed, jostled and virtually thrown in the muddy Ganges at the recommended hour.
Spirituality still eluded us - but the enormity of the occasion captivated us. The feeling of being in the midst of action enthralled us.
The Hindu faithful worship almost all elements of the universe, nature and humanity.
And nowhere is it reflected more than in the concept and the story of the Kumbh.
According to the myth, the gods, led by Lord Indra, were about to lose their great war against the demon king, Bali.
But the demons also insisted on taking part in the exercise.
A huge mountain and a giant serpent were used to churn the sea.
When the nectar pitcher or Kumbh came out of the sea, Jayanta, the son of Indra was transformed into a large bird, Garuda, and flew off with the Kumbh.
He was to take the pitcher safely to heaven, the abode of the gods.
The flight took 12 days or 12 human years.
That is why the Kumbh is celebrated every 12 years in Allahabad.
Therefore, the Kumbh in Allahabad is linked to a particular astronomical configuration, when the Sun and Moon enter Capricorn and Jupiter arrives in either Taurus or Aries.
The faithful believe that those who take a dip in the holy Ganges during this time not only wash away their sins, but also earn blessings equivalent to a million pious deeds.
On our way back from our trip, while standing on a 20-foot high embankment built to protect Allahabad city from monsoon floods, I saw that the earth had vanished underneath a gold and red striped dawn sky.
It looked as if a pall of human heads had covered the ground.
For the first time, I saw the earth and sky not meeting on the horizon.
It is an image still imprinted on my mind.