Kumbh Mela festival

Pilgrims at the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India The 2013 event is a Maha Kumbh Mela - and that takes place only every 144 years.

What do you make of householders turned austere pilgrims who live in tatty canvas tents on a flood plain of a river braving regular baths in freezing water, biting cold, smoky skies and ear-splitting din for more than a month?

Most of them come from villages, are elderly, and belong to the higher castes. Many are worldly people turned ascetics eking out spartan lives as kalpavasis (those who spend their days in silent prayer) at the ongoing Kumbh Mela, the biggest religious gathering in the world.

Ordinary folks like us would want to believe that the suffering that ascetics undergo in order to toughen themselves up will in fact have deleterious effects on their wellbeing and health.

Not so if you believe recent research on "pilgrim experiences" by academics and researchers from nine universities in India and UK. They carried out two surveys involving over 400 kalpavasis during the festivals in 2010 and 2011, an event which even the researchers called an "ordeal".

Tens of millions of people - 30 million on the main bathing day on Sunday - bound by faith that a dip at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna river will get rid of their sins - throng the event. Dust, smoke and the ear-shattering noise levels can make matters worse.

Still the pilgrims describe the Mela as "serene and blissful". When researchers played them 20-second clips that contained a mix of sounds recorded at different sites, including in the Mela grounds and also the streets of Allahabad city, the pilgrims could pick up the sounds of the festival and "interpreted and experienced these noises much more positively when they believed them to be Mela-related".

The research talks about the pilgrims bathing in the cold water with "relish, serenity and silent stoicism". Being in a big group helps them to overcome hardship - researchers call it the virtue of a "social security net".

It's also a shining example of the "power of the collective over the individual". Ergo, when a group of people deals with hardship together, the weakest of individuals can display remarkable feats of endurance.

The Kumbh Mela is a stunning example of the power of faith. Last Sunday, I witnessed millions of bedraggled men, women and children, young and old, on their way to a holy bath trudging towards the river silently carrying their bare belongings in sacks and cheap rexine bags.

Far removed from the excesses of the shiny gurus and their rich devotees, these ordinary pilgrims make the Kumbh Mela a truly extraordinary event of faith. And faith can apparently move mountains.

I asked Dr Nick Hopkins of Dundee University, one of the lead researchers, about what surprised them about the findings.

"Typically", he said, "people assume that crowds - especially noisy crowds - are stressors that must detract from one's well being."

But strikingly, the pilgrims at the Mela told the researchers that they "feel good ... actually, more than good ... their language verges on the ecstatic".

French sociologist Emile Durkheim famously coined the word effervescence to describe the fizzy excitement of crowds. Many believe anand (joy), the word used by pilgrims to describe the experience, is closer to effervescence, especially as Durkehim was studying religious experiences.

But what about that assumption that crowds are generally considered bad for one's health? A young British devotee told me at the Mela that coming to the event was a massive leap of faith for her as she thought it would not be "safe" for her health. Years ago, the medical journal The Lancet ran a series of pieces on why mass gatherings are bad for health.

But the research at the Kumbh Mela found that the event "actually increases peoples' mental and physical well-being", showing the "importance of networks and groups in sustaining our health". (The pilgrims, the study says, reported better well-being after the Mela compared to a sample of people who did not attend it.)

Dr Hopkins says he finds the findings interesting. Faith, he agrees, helps in completing rituals.

But there's also a social dimension, he says. "For example, to bathe in the icy Ganges, it's important to have the support of the others.

"There is a sense in which the support of others is important is one to to realise one's faith-based commitments."

Clearly, the world's biggest religious gathering happens when faith meets the collective.

Soutik Biswas, Delhi correspondent Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    French have the credit to have discovered most ancient Hindu temple, and rightly they praised that at par with the greatest of works in their own history.
    The point here is not intended offense but ...
    We need to understand, beyond the unorganized, extant cacophony, there is a serenity ...
    Just like inside our own body made up of soil and filthy-looking substances, there is a beautiful soul ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Kumbha mela is one of biggest things that is surviving to this day after many westerners tried their best to show each thing Hindus did as a lowly thing. (e.g., Temples at Khajuraho were ridiculed as insane as they were first found. Temples had had nude figures !!
    Those ridiculed them preferred handshakes over kisses. Probably french if they were to discover them, would not have ridiculed them.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Indian culture is very scientific. If you analyse their ways of worship and sacred books in detail, you can see everything is aimed for the well being of humans in a very scientific way. But for most us they might appear superstitious, because we don't study or go in depth to analyse and try to understand them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I feel pity for some people who commented against Indian culture. It's always better to study in detail and try to understand thoroughly before making a derogatory comment. Don't share your ignorance with others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Hinduism is a very scientific religion. If you analyse their ways of worship and sacred books in detail, you can see everything is aimed for the well being of humans in a very scientific way. But for most us they might appear superstitious, because we don't study or go in depth to analyse and try to understand them.

  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Being of Indian descent, it will never cease to amaze me if indians will ever move forward.

    I think not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    This is how Satan allures people to him.He makes them feel better when they are worshipping him.
    Sad to see so many people thinking that bathing in a river is cleansing them of their sins when the Saviour of the world has already done it for us at the cross and all we need to do is just accept Him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Being an Indian, I think we (that includes the author) should stop glorifying such things. I have also engaged in such spiritually comforting things time and again. But that is a private matter. Hallucinations howsoever pretty can't be the ultimate solace for people of my country. Reality, however unpleasant should be acknowledged and addressed head on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    The Globe is my place of birth and I recognize no boundaries of any Countries that are existed on Planet Earth and the entire UNIVERSE is my place of play with the Energy we call as GOD.Therefore, I consider the all objects irrespective of either positive or negative as exactly same as one can not exist if the opposite is unavailable.Hence my mind never accept such situations as necessary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    4.Lord Prosperity. In the UK, only public baths most people use are for swimming, loaded with chlorine to kill bugs and regularly tested. Water at beaches regularly tested/rated for cleanliness, fast food restaurants cleaned well & inspected. Camping, take water cleaning tablets or use tap water. That's why we don't die from water-borne diseases like so many in India or other 3rd world countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I unable to understand how we can get the touch of GOD,at outsides when He resides within but the gathering of Shadus from Himalaya without any knowledge of time can take place to take a Holy Dip in River Holy Ganga at the exact time and date often confuse me.There must be something which I don't exactly know;even though I am most nearest to both aspects of the LORD as HIS humble servant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    To clarify my removed comment- the point I was trying to make was thus-

    From a spiritual point of view, the Kumbh Mela is good for wellbeing, but from a physical point of view, it is probably quite bad for wellbeing.

    I suspect the previous comment was removed due to a description of the conditions that was not well received. Although, it's no worse that what's been said by others.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Most Peoples who attend this Mela comes homes with lots of diseases as this Mela is one of the Dirtiest gathering in the World and many peoples who have seen this will agree with me, and The River they dip in and Drink from is already the one of the filthiest river on planet

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Mr. Biswas the caption under the image on your blog states the gap between two maha-kumbha mela as 144 years! It should be 144 months i.e. 12 years.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Indian culture is the most complex & colourful culture on the planet. You will see, the way people look, their language & food, their way of dressing, music & dance, everything is different every 50 or 100 kilometers in the country. One place where you can really see the complexity of this culture is the Kumbha Mela.


  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Without ever attending the actual ceremony (I am a Canadian.) the Kumbh Mela experience cannot but help improve one's spiritual well-being.
    It is about all of nature - flowers, trees, human beings - all one, all God, all united, all Holy. It is about transcendenceI, the realization of what must be done to find salvation, an uplifting of the human experience.


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