March 8, 2013 7:31 pm

The making of a mahant: a journey through the Kumbh Mela festival

This weekend, Hinduism’s greatest gathering draws to a close. James Mallinson, a Sanskrit scholar, and his friend, the actor Dominic West, joined the millions who converged to bathe in the Ganges
Crowds head towards the Ganges to bathe in the holy waters©Cambridge Jones

Crowds head towards the Ganges to bathe in the holy waters

A final, vast wave of pilgrims will make its way this weekend to Allahabad in north India, where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet, for the closing mass river bath of the great Hindu pilgrimage, the Kumbh Mela. It is the biggest gathering of people the world has ever seen: as many as 30 million people are said to have taken part in the festival’s main bathing day on February 10.

Yet most of the camps set up near the riverbank lie empty at present, deserted after a deluge last month forced many to cut short their pilgrimage to the two-month festival. I and my friend, the actor Dominic West, fled too, sheepishly abandoning our host – my guru – as water flooded into the tiny tent that had been our home for a fortnight. Tomorrow’s closing bath is likely to be something of an anticlimax: perhaps just five million people will take to the water.

In my academic life, I specialise in Sanskrit texts on yoga. But it was a fascination with India’s holy men, the original practitioners of yoga, rather than yoga itself that first inspired my studies two decades ago, and I have always sought to complement my research with insights from traditional yogis.

The best place to meet India’s sadhus, or Hindu holy men, is at the Kumbh Mela bathing festivals held every three years, which rotate through four different holy riverside sites. The one at Allahabad is the biggest by far, and its Mela (festival), held once every 12 years, is known as the Maha or “Great” Kumbh. Sadhus must attend and their camps, home to hundreds of thousands of them for up to two months, are the Melas’ centrepiece. The main events are three days when it is deemed particularly auspicious to bathe. The sadhus go in procession to the river watched by millions of pilgrims, who come for the blessings that the sight of the holy men bestows and to bathe themselves.

James Mallinson is ordained as a mahant by his guru Babaji©Cambridge Jones

James Mallinson is ordained as a mahant by his guru Babaji as Dominic West (top right) looks on

My first Kumbh Mela was in 1992 and it was there that I met my guru. A series of haphazard events had my now wife and me staying at the camp of a friendly old sadhu. As we sat by the fire, Claudia was nudged by another sadhu who pointed at a rakish holy man walking by. “Beware of that master yogi,” he whispered. “if he gets inside you he will suck out all of your energy.” I’d read in Sanskrit texts of vajroli, the practice of urethral suction. Now expunged from prudish translations, it was said to be the ultimate technique of yoga. And this charismatic young sadhu could do it! We found ourselves gravitating towards him. Within a week he had initiated us into his order and we moved into his tent.

I have stayed in my guru’s camp, often for a month or more, at every Kumbh Mela since, and spent much of the periods in between wandering around India in his company. But this year’s Mela was different. Not only was I there with my old friend Dominic West and a film crew, but I was to be made a mahant, or commander of the order into which I was initiated 21 years ago.

At the end of 2011 I had taken Dominic to a monastery of tantric yogis in the Himalayas. Our night with them fell somewhere between The Canterbury Tales and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Our hosts included “Yogi Baba”, an ash-smeared chillum-smoking contortionist who threw a sequence of improbable pretzel shapes to the accompaniment of pounding techno; a dreadlocked ascetic who spends the nights of winter sitting in meditation while freezing water is poured over his head; and the fat, shaven-headed abbot who, in between eating balls of opium, counted the takings sent up from the lucrative fire temple below.

In the morning a priest from the temple fed Dominic the curried flesh of a freshly sacrificed goat (as a vegetarian I was excused) and hinted, with some pride, that he and his colleagues indulged in more sordid tantric rites. Dominic was intrigued – not even his Catholic upbringing had prepared him for this – and we vowed to go together to the Kumbh Mela, where the full range of India’s holy men would be on display. And while there, why not film it? Each time it comes around, the Kumbh Mela is the subject of more and more media interest but its inside story has never been told.

Babaji©Cambridge Jones

Babaji, Mallinson’s guru for the past 21 years

Despite my assurances to the contrary, Dominic and the rest of the crew expected to find, and perhaps to have to adopt, at least some of the trappings of conventional religion: rituals, rules, dogma and maybe even a bit of yoga. But there was none of that (at least in our camp) and Dominic was soon won over by my guru, or Babaji, as I call him. Babaji’s daily routine consisted of sitting cross-legged at his sacred fire, drinking chai and smoking chillums. For a week none of us saw him sleep and he barely ate. He would sit there running the show, attending to our needs, entertaining a stream of devotees and holy men, and ensuring the security of the camp. After three days Dominic declared that Babaji should have been the captain of a pirate ship and that he would follow blindly any charge he led. “I’d die for him,” he said, and we all agreed.

. . .

Before we’d arrived, at the insistence of our producer, I’d rung Babaji a couple of times to confirm the camp arrangements. “How many of you are there?” he asked. “Seven,” I said. The pause before he said that it would be OK was slightly worrying but I did my best to be more upbeat with the producer.

The tent turned out to be smaller than those laid on for single travellers in the posh tourist camps on the edge of the festival. But it would have done for 20 Indian pilgrims and having to do a bit of “adjust”, as they say in Hindi, was a small price to pay for the privilege of bedding down in the Knightsbridge of the Kumbh Mela, the camp closest to the confluence.

Babaji kicked out a couple of devotees from Gujarat and we took over the tent, filling it with all our film gear and leaving Babaji with no refuge from the occasional rainstorms. The one bed in the tent was covered by Babaji’s tiger skin. The skin had belonged to an inmate of Gwalior’s royal zoo; when he died, the queen had given his skin to Babaji’s own guru. Tiger skins have long been the yoga mat of choice for Indian sadhus. As the leader of our troop, that was where I had to sleep. When I voiced my apprehension, Babaji told me not to worry, adding that if I were lucky it might awaken my Kundalini (energy) or have me levitate. If it did either, I didn’t notice, but I have never slept better, despite the constant chants blaring out from sound systems all around.

Saris drying after pilgrims took to the waters©Cambridge Jones

Saris drying after pilgrims took to the waters

The Kumbh Mela is, of course, a religious festival but for the holy men themselves it is perhaps the most mundane part of their sacred round. As the one time when they all assemble, it is where organisational decisions, appointments and promotions are made. There is little time for the spiritual practices they pursue at their ashrams.

As their regimented camps illustrate, the various holy orders are organised along military lines. In the power vacuum of 18th-century north India, when the Mughal empire was fizzling out and the British were yet to take control, various sadhu orders developed battalions of nagas, or warrior sadhus. At first they fought over the control of pilgrimage routes and the right to receive alms. Before long the battalions grew into fighting forces of 10,000 or more naked, ash-smeared mercenary yogis, whose commanders would sell their services to the highest bidder.

As the East India Company expanded west from Calcutta, its main opposition, the Maratha armies, was forced to capitulate after the British bought up a massing force of 16,000 sadhus. Now nothing stood between the Company and Delhi. But the sadhus had made the wrong choice: the rise of the Raj precipitated their downfall. Once the British had established control of north India they quickly quashed the mercenary sadhu armies. The Kumbh Melas had been the scenes of huge battles in which thousands of sadhus died. The British stationed armies to keep the peace and the sadhus’ military displays became purely symbolic. To this day the layout of the camps and the order of the processions on the main bathing days remain as they were when the British took charge.

The Raj was also responsible for the Mela taking on its current timetable, despite claims that it has been going for millennia. While there have indeed been bathing festivals at Allahabad for thousands of years, it was not until the late 19th century that the system of triennial Kumbh Melas was established. The British wanted to halt such festivals, perceiving them as breeding grounds for both disease and dissent, so the priests of Allahabad, fearing for their livelihood, cooked up a myth to prove the ancient heritage of the festival.

Despite being deprived of their military role, the naga units were not disbanded. One morning Dominic and I visited a naga camp and were treated to a desultory display of swordsmanship, for which a fee was expected. The naga divisions were set up to defend yogis and ascetics in return for financial support but, with their raison d’être long gone, they have had to resort to other lines of power-oriented business to survive. These range from land ownership to politics to out-and-out racketeering. It is the nagas to whom the government allots the Mela land, which they then sell on to other sadhus, who also have to pay protection money. Any sadhu who refuses risks a beating and is barred from bathing on the main days.

Dominic West©Cambridge Jones

Dominic West after bathing

The organisation of the order as a whole is still that of an army of independent brigades, each headed by a mahant, or commander, who must share resources with the rest of the order to maintain his position. Babaji is a mahant and I have always paid for him to throw a small feast at the Mela in order to make my contribution to the camp.

This time, in return for being allowed to bring in a film crew, we felt we should feast the entire camp of nearly 1,000 sadhus. When I proposed this to Babaji he said that throwing such a feast would entitle me to become a mahant. I laughed, but the film crew was understandably keen. I was uneasy. The sadhus of my order are men who have renounced the world: they left their families as children and have lived off alms ever since, devoting their lives to the service of their deities and fellow sadhus, and undergoing intense austerities and yoga practice in order to get closer to God. In pursuit of a deeper understanding of the sadhu world I have adopted their appearance and some of their ways, but I am no holy man. I’m a happily married father trying to make a career as an academic and writer.

I was worried that to become a mahant I would have to pretend to be something I am not – in fact I thought of asking Dominic for some acting tips – but my misgivings were unfounded. The division between sacred and profane is not as clear-cut in India as elsewhere. I was inducted as a scholar-mahant, not a sadhu, and to confirm my position several hundred other mahants of the order honoured me by placing flower necklaces around my neck. I, in turn, honoured them by touching their feet and giving them money according to their rank. The only objection raised was from a mahant worried that I would turn up at the next Mela with a gang of 200 foreigners and set up my own camp.

Far from being the awkward ordeal I feared, the ceremony was a boisterous celebration and afterwards I felt assured of my position in the community for the first time. Indeed, I was no longer viewed as an unclean foreigner: even those sticklers for Hindu purity who had refused to take away my used chai cups viewed me as one of their own. And I found myself the beneficiary of the financial reciprocity that sustains the order. As a mahant I was given money whenever anyone else became a mahant or threw a feast. Three or four times a day sadhus would accost me and thrust notes in my hand. But they would also remind me that I am now obliged to throw a big feast at every Mela.

Four days later was the dark of the moon, the day of the biggest bath of the festival. India’s growing middle class, improvements in travel infrastructure and increased media coverage of the Kumbh have meant that it has grown massively over the past few decades. Official state government estimates – admittedly unverifiable and unreliable, as they are the measure for financial support from central government – put the number of pilgrims bathing on the big day at 30 million. Relatively few linger at the festival for more than a day – they come only to see the holy men and bathe. Our camp rapidly filled to bursting point. People slept wherever they could find space; the eaves of our tent accommodated a dozen pilgrims. But the organisation maintained order, with crowds flowing freely through the festival and an army of cleaners keeping the camps spotless.Tragedy struck at the final hour, however, when a stampede at the train station led to 36 deaths.

Pilgrims collect holy water from the Ganges©Cambridge Jones

Pilgrims collect holy water from the Ganges

Dominic and I walked to the confluence in procession with the sadhus of our camp. The crowds certainly felt bigger than ever before and it was with panic and exhilaration that we were swept towards the water. Dominic had been ambivalent about bathing; it was why we were there but reports of dangerous levels of toxins in the water had all of us worried. There was no chance of turning back once we were in the flow of holy men, however, and I have never felt so much at one with a crowd. With everyone stripped down to their loincloths, a sense of individual identity fell away and we surrendered ourselves to the common purpose.

We ran into the shallow, turbid water and dunked ourselves the required three times, keeping our mouths shut all the while, then joined Babaji and the other sadhus as they splashed one another and gave raucous cries in praise of Mother Ganges. The crowd was more chaotic as we fought our way back to dry land, with files of militant sadhus protecting elderly gurus cutting swaths through our more ragged troop. Once we had reassembled and checked that all were present and correct, the relief, the dissipation of tension, was not anticlimactic but triumphant and buoyed us along through our return to the camp.

The last of the Mela’s three big baths was five days later, on February 15, the first day of spring. For many of the sadhus of our camp it also marked the first day of their fire austerity, in which they sit in meditation surrounded by smouldering cow-dung fires under the burning midday sun every day of the four-month hot season. They were relishing a return to structured spiritual discipline after the hustle and bustle of the Mela. The next day we were due to leave but before we did so Dominic, taking advantage of the vacancy in his spiritual mentorship now that the Pope had announced his resignation, asked Babaji to take him on as his disciple. As Babaji put a necklace with a wooden tulsi bead around Dominic’s neck, the heavens opened with a deluge deemed greatly auspicious by the sadhus.

The sky got darker and the rain heavier but Babaji refused to move inside. As we loaded our kit into our vehicles and other sadhus took to their tents, he sat at his fire, a blanket over his head doing little to keep off the sheeting rain. Shouting over the noise of the storm, Babaji harangued pilgrims traipsing past with words that applied just as well to us: “Yes, you worldly people! That’s right, run along! Gather your things and run home! Go and sort out your problems, your work, your families! Quick, quick! Everything is falling down! Don’t worry about me. I’m a baba. I’ll just walk out of here with my blanket and go wherever I fancy. But you must run. Run! Go!” And go we did, promising to be back at the next Kumbh Mela in three years’ time.

James Mallinson’s books include eight translations of Sanskrit texts. He is working on “Rogue Yogis”, about his time with sadhus.

For details of James Mallinson’s and Dominic West’s film, visit www.mountainsgreenpictures.com/dominicwestdocumentary

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