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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 February 2007, 10:48 GMT
'Brownie points from God'
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Allahabad

A Kalpavasi pilgrim
A Kalpavasi at prayer

Not far from the foreign devotees and naked Naga sadhus (or Hindu holy men) who hog the limelight at the Ardh Kumbh festival in Allahabad, a few thousand men and women spend their days and nights in silent prayer.

They are called Kalpavasi and many say they are the "real" pilgrims at the festival, which still has nearly one month to run.

The others take a dip at Sangam - the confluence of three of Hinduism's holiest rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati - on the big bathing days.

Kalpavasis do so every day - sometimes twice or thrice a day - for an entire month.

They are the first to arrive at the mela, coming as they do a day before the full-moon night of the Hindu calendar month of Magh when the mela begins. They are also almost the last to leave.

The month that they spend at Allahabad is dedicated to worshipping the Ganges river.

All along the river side, tent cities have sprung up and those who can afford them, rent them.

'Austere living'

Many who can't, just live under the open skies.

Coping with bright sunny days and chilly starry nights.

Living here is austere and simple.

Their day starts at 4am, a dip in the holy Ganges comes at 6, they eat one meal a day and the rest of the day is spent in worship and meditation.

Boats at Kumbh
Millions come for a bath on big bathing days

So what is it that draws these pilgrims to the sands of Ganges?

"Hindu religion has four yugas or eras - Satyug, Treta, Dwapar and Kalyug. Each one lasts millions of years and together, they add up to one Kalp," explains Devendra Nath Pandey.

"By doing Kalpavas (inhabiting a Kalp) for a month on the banks of Ganges, you can accumulate enough brownie points in God's ledger to last you a Kalp," he says.

This 74-year-old man comes to Allahabad from the neighbouring Jhunsi town every January to spend a month here.

Shayya Daan

He has done it for the last seven years. The norm is to do it for 12 years. But once started, many continue to do it till the end of their time.

"Once you've completed 12 years, a ceremony called Shayya Daan is performed which is equivalent to performing your own last rites," says Devendra Nath Pandey.

Shayya Daan literally means donating the bed. But here the list of items donated is vast.

It includes anything and everything that you can require or may want in your life - from needles and thread to beds and mattresses, tables and chairs, and pots and pans, and clothes and jewellery too.

And in the modern technology-driven world, even mobile phones.

Tent city at Kumbh
Tent cities sprung up all along the river side

Wandering around the mela ground is Gujarati Pandey, who is not sure whether she is 70 or 75. She says she did Shayya Daan last year.

"You're not supposed to tell what you donated. It's secret donation," she says when I ask about it.

For Shobha and Lakshmi Narayan Pandey of Sujanganj (from Jaunpur district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh), it is their first year of pilgrimage.

They have rented a tent inside one of the numerous tent cities that have come up on the river side.

It is just after 8 in the morning and although the sun is out, the winter breeze blowing in from the river is quite chilly.

Many of the pilgrims here are sitting huddled together on the ground in front of a block of tents in a narrow patch of sunshine.

Penance

Inside her tent, Shobha is preparing a simple meal of rice, lentils, vegetables and roti (unleavened bread).

The Pandeys say they decided to begin Kalpavas this year as "we are getting old and we want to complete 12 years".

Women bathers
Hindus believe bathing at Sangam can wash away their sins

For them, it's more like a penance - "it's an opportunity to correct past mistakes," says Mr Pandey.

Some say they come here because here they "can escape the world's worries and troubles".

"We leave our families and come and live here, we don't even think about our children, we can worship god here without any disturbance," says Saroj Chand of Mathura.

But at its core, Kalpavas is a means to a better future. And that's what motivates these pilgrims to give up the comforts of their homes to come and live an ascetic's life on the banks of Ganges.

It fits in well with the Hindu belief of reincarnation. Where death just means the soul leaves one body, only to be re-born as another.

And one's actions in this life set the tone for the next life.

And that's why most pilgrims say a little discomfort here and now doesn't matter if it ensures that their next lives will be happy and secure.


SEE ALSO
Millions of Hindus take holy bath
19 Jan 07 |  South Asia
A day at the Ardh Kumbh festival
19 Jan 07 |  South Asia
Spiritual cleansing at Ardh Mela
17 Jan 07 |  South Asia
Hindu Kumbh festivals
15 Jan 07 |  South Asia
Millions bathe at Hindu festival
03 Jan 07 |  South Asia
The man who reunites families
23 Dec 06 |  South Asia

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