To be at the Maha Kumbh celebrations at Haridwar is to get caught up in a swell of pure devotion, and rituals that haven't changed since time immemorial…

We could feel the pulse start to quicken the moment we entered Haridwar which sits at the foot of the mighty snow-capped Himalayas. It was the second day of the Maha Kumbh 2010 immersions and there was an air of expectancy as people from all walks of life and from all corners of the country started to pour into the eternal city.

Haridwar, considered one of the holiest cities in India, is the point at which the River Ganga leaves the mountains and enters the plains. Ash-smeared sadhus with flowing beards and knotted manes who had descended from their quiet retreats in the neighbouring hills and mountains roamed around the city on foot, astride cycles and motorbikes, participating in a festival that is considered to be the holiest in the land.

Indeed, there was the sense of camaraderie that comes when strangers get together to share a common stage. We found ourselves adrift in a surreal world where different realities overlapped. For, we had checked into Leisure Hotel's luxury tented resort on the terrace of a grand haveli, overlooking a private ghat, buzzing with activity: a holy man in orange robes sat cross-legged on the opposite misty bank, deep in meditation; men stripped down to their underwear and women in dripping saris took purifying dips in the freezing jade-green waters of the Ganga; pilgrims floated offerings of flowers, burnt camphor and incense sticks; sadhus with flowing locks and hooded eyelids pulled on chillums; a young chela washed the feet of his stooped, grey-whiskered guru; others scooped up the river water in containers to take back home… Despite the presence of security men in camouflage uniforms, sporting mean-looking guns supervising the proceedings, we were caught in the swell of unadulterated devotion being poured into the surging river as it swept by.

Special arrangements

And then there were times when we felt a little detached from this pious euphoria as the resort had made special arrangements for our group which included a private river aarti performed by the resident pandit. There were even separate enclosures for men and women to take their purifying dip in the Ganga as it lapped against the steps of the haveli before flowing urgently onwards to douse the great Indian plains with the benediction of its holy waters. The priest alleviated any guilt that might have been attached to our privileged status by reassuring us that what was important to Ma Ganga was that we take a dip in her sacred waters during the Kumbh Mela and not how we went about doing it.

Later we climbed up one level to the open terrace of the haveli resort from where we had a grandstand view of the aartis being performed in all the havelis, temples and shrines that lined the banks of the river: the ringing of bells, the swirling of oil lamps, the chanting of mantras… Later we would cross over to the other bank of the river and marvel at the similarity between this stretch of the waterfront and Venice: the only difference being that instead of opulent mansions and ornate churches, the skyline was etched with grand havelis and the spires of temples and shrines.

We soon realised that trying to reach Har-ki-Pauri, where the main immersions take place, was going to be a futile task. The previous day, the first of the Maha Kumbh 2010 which had commenced with much zeal and an air of organised chaos, security personnel had blocked access to the site as it was brimming to capacity with over five lakh devotees.

So we were there early the following evening (the first half of the day we strolled down the streets of the hyperactive city and visited some of its more important shrines and temples including the Daksha Mahadev Temple that is linked to the tragic death of Sati and a cable chair ride to Mayadevi Temple on the summit of a neighbouring ridge). Though there was no Kumbh ‘bathing' that day, the waterfront swarmed with devotees who had come to witness the aarti that is performed here each day at sunset.

Spontaneous reaction

The urgent tolling of temple bells sent a thrill of anticipation through the crowd and the frenetic activity around the ghats came to a grinding halt. Even the setting sun appeared to pause. The priest who had been priming the oil wicks of the many layered lamps set them on fire and started to swirl the flames in unison right across the ghat.

The Ganga aarti — a ballet of fire — was a totally spontaneous happening, sustained by pure, untainted devotion. Indeed, it captured the essence of the Kumbh and the city it graces this year — raw yet brilliant like an uncut diamond.

The origins

The Maha Kumbh dates back to the creation of the universe. According to Hindu mythology, the devas and the ashuras once decided to set aside their eternal differences and together retrieve the Kumbh (pot) that contained the nectar of immortality from the depths of the ocean. Using a giant serpent as a rope the two groups started to churn the ocean. Almost immediately the waters started to release its many treasures as well as other evil elements. Just before it was ready to finally surrender the nectar of immortality, a cloud of vish or poison escaped and threatened to contaminate the entire universe. At that crucial moment Lord Shiva stepped in and swallowed the vish in one large gulp. But rather than consume it, he held the deadly poison in his throat and as a result his body turned to a deep shade of blue.

When Dhanwantari, the divine healer, finally appeared with the Kumbh in his hands, a great fight broke between the two sides, each one trying to wrest the pitcher for themselves. During the fierce battle that raged across the sky, a few drops of the immortal elixir fell at four different places in India: Prayag (Allahabad), Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar.

Ever since, when the configuration of the stars and planets are just right — when Jupiter enters Aquarius and the Sun is in Aries — the waters of the rivers that run through these cities once again turns into nectar. It is believed that a dip in these miraculous waters at this point of time heals and cleanses the soul and body. This event, known as the Kumbh Mela, happens once every three years and in rotation between the four cities.

Over a period of three months, there will be 10 ritualistic snans or bathing days that coincide with auspicious days of celestial significance. The festival reaches a crescendo with the Royal Baths on February 12 and 15 March 15 after which it tapers off; the last ‘ bath' taking place on April 28. It will be another 12 years before the Maha Kumbh returns to Haridwar again.

Bathing dates

The main bathing dates of the 2010 Kumbh Mela at Haridwar:

January 14, 2010: Makar Sankranti Snan – First Snan (bath)

January 15, 2010: Mauni Amavasya and Surya Grahan (Solar Eclipse) – Second Snan

January 20, 2010: Basant Panchmi Snan – Third Snan

January 30, 2010: Magh Purnima Snan – Fourth Snan

Feburary 12, 2010: Maha Shivratri – Pratham Shahi Snan – First Royal Bath

March 15, 2010: Somvati Amavasya – Dvitya Shahi Snan – 2nd Royal Bath

March 24, 2010: Ram Navmi – Fifth Snan

March 30, 2010: Chaitra purnima Snan

April 14, 2010: Baisakhi – Pramukh Shahi Snan

April 28, 2010: Shakh Purnima – Snan

Fact File

Haridwar is 214 km by road from Delhi, which is the nearest airport with regular scheduled flights.

The city's station is an important railhead on the line between Delhi and Dehradun and is connected by direct trains to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Varanasi and Allahabad.

By road, Haridwar is 24 km from Rishikesh, 52 km from Dehradun, and 90 km from Mussoorie.

The city has a wide range of accommodation to suit all budgets, including Leisure Hotels' luxury tented resort that sits on the banks of the river. For more information visit the official site of the Kumbh 2010 at www.kumbh2010haridwar.gov.in.

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