Home / Articles / #2 June 2011 / Ilya Zhuravlev: Kumbh Mela - The Great Flow

Ilya Zhuravlev: Kumbh Mela - The Great Flow

The Great Flow

On January 19th in 2007 on Amavasya (a new moon), in the beginning of Maagha, a month in the Hindu calendar, there was the culmination of Kumbh Mela, a holiday that lasted one month. Vedic astrologers calculate this date separately for each holiday. It is the time of the most important ablution in the Ganges, a holy river; it is the time, ancient sages say, when bathing in the river clears karma and revives pilgrims for a new, more spiritual life. Representatives of the most different Hindu religious schools gather for this festival: sadhus - vagrant ascetics, sanyasins, yogis, ashrams’ leaders and Gurus of almost all existing traditions, and ordinary pilgrims, of course.

It is the biggest religious festival in the world but the international mass-media, except for Indian, usually ignore this fact; probably, because it is difficult to get any political or financial benefit from that kind of information. In a meantime about 60 million people have taken part in Kumbh Mela in 2001, on the day of the main bathing there were about 40 million people. During the last one, "half" or Ardha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad there were about 18 million pilgrims on the day of the main bathing.

The logics of mass media can be followed easily - such archaic "Triumph of Faith" is dangerous to be displayed to the modern society where the culture of consumption and globalization is being imposed.

Kumbh Mela literally means “a pot gathering”. Its origin is connected with an Old Hindu myth. During immemorial times one just sage imprecated the Gods and they lost their immortality. To return it back, they had to “churn” the ocean and to get a sacred vessel (Kumbha) filled with amrita, nectar of immortality, from the ocean’s bottom. Lots of remarkable things emerged from the ocean while it has being churned, including Lord Dhanvantari, a sage and a forbear of Ayurveda (but this is a separate story, as well as the story about Rahu and Ketu being split half-and-half exactly during this time and since then they became the strangest Gods-Planets in Jyotish - Vedic astrology). Demons tried to take amrita away, and during the struggle that lasted for twelve divine days that made twelve human years, some drops of this elixir of immortality fell down on earth in places of present Indian cities: Allahabad, Haridwar (where the upper Ganges leaves the Himalayas and goes to the plain), Ujjain (in the central India, where the Shipra river cuts Vindhya-Kaimur mountains) and Nasik (or Nashik, in the western India, at the head of the Godavari River, to the northeast from Bombay). These four sacred places alternate – festival moves from one place to another every time. The latest Kumbh Mela was in Ujjain, and this year it is in Allahabad (Prayag). Prayag is the most sacred place; it is a junction of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers at physical level and the Saraswati River at subtle level. That is why Maha Kumbh Mela always takes place here. Maha Kumbh Mela happens once in twelve years when Jupiter comes to the same position, as it was at the moment when amrita was splashed (within a twelve-year cycle festival is held every four years in other cities that got amrita). Hindu calendar that is a basis for calculating Mela dates differs from a standard solar calendar, and the festival shifts on different seasons of the year. This is the way how this great stream keeps flowing through centuries and epochs. The latest “full” Kumbh Mela was in January 2001. This Kumbh Mela is called “half” and took place in Prayag also. In 1583 ancient Prayag has been renamed into Allahabad (a city of the Allah) by Akbar, Muslim governor of India, from a dynasty of Great Moguls. It is interesting that after Muslim sovereignty was terminated people did not rename it back. Hinduism is tolerant and it confirms itself not through neglecting other beliefs, but through dissolving them inside. It should be mentioned that Moslems were stopped, in the broad sense of the word, by Sikhs; otherwise the present picture could be different. By the way Sikhs’ ashram with portraits of Guru Nanak, a founder of this religion, a king and a mystic, could be seen on Kumbh Mela as well.

The temporary tent city for pilgrims is created on low-lying sites, almost along the very shoreline. Actually this is a river bottom of the Ganges and the Yamuna junction. From the earliest times this place was used for public rituals and offerings, in monsoon river floods and washes off all remains of camps and ritual fire places. To host a huge number of people (population of Allahabad makes about one million people only) Uttar Pradesh state authorities start building a temporary city half of a year before the festival starts. Mainly those are camps of big army canvas tents, log ashram models covered with fabric and sheds made of bamboo and palm leaves. But infrastructure is like in a real city: water and sanitation systems, transmission facilities providing power supply to thousands of street lanterns and tents. For better orientation sadhus’ city is split up in numbered districts, roads are covered with iron sheets and military pontoon bridges are laid over the rivers. Simple Indian food - samosas, chapatis, rice and tea are cooked right in the streets on gas cylinders. Police patrols the camp and keeps order; however atmosphere is very peaceful, tension grows when it becomes too crowded and crush starts. Air is the main problem here. Hot dust is swirling over sandy roads, and in the evening acrid smoke from thousands and thousands of campfires kindled with cow's dung covers the whole place. Huge logs in dhuni (ritual fireplaces of sadhu) are smoking nonstop. Thousands of sadhus are sitting around these sites and smoking chillums, ritual smoking pipes with hashish. It is interesting, that the police has absolutely no concerns to that, though according to the legislation these kinds of substances are illegal in modern India, no one dares to encroach on the ancient tradition. From all this smoke that irritates your eyes you can hardly see further than few meters in front of you in the evening. You hear people coughing everywhere – it is hard even for a smoked through sadhus.

For Kumbh Mela we have been invited by Rampuri Baba, an american born sadhu, one of the elders of Juna Akhara order, uniting ascetics of PuriSaraswatiGiri, Bharati, Tirtha and other sanyasa (monastic) orders established in 8 century by Adi Shankaracharya. “This mystery is worth visiting”, Rampuri said once. Millions of sadhus from all parts of India come here for this event. Many sadhus come down from the mountains or leave their seclusions in remote places only once in six years - to visit Mela.

There is a certain hierarchy in the camp’s layout. Juna Akhara districts are situated in the centre of the tent city, ashrams of different Shaivite and Shakta traditions are placed around it, and Vaishnavas are based along the edges. The main bathing in the Ganges is strictly scheduled as well. Naga Babas, fervent naked ascetics armed with tridents, like Shiva, and covered with ashes go first on the day of the main bathing at 4 o’clock in the morning. Then it is the turn for the gurus (they are carried by wheel tractors beautifully decorated with flowers) and pilgrims of different Dashanami Sanyasa orders, shaivas, and vaishnavas of various traditions. The last are widely presented and it is not just ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness established by Swami Prabhupada, which is very common in the West) and other Gaudiya Vaishnava schools, but more ancient Vaishnava Sampradayas - Ramanandi sadhus (devotees of the Lord Rama), vaishnavas from Nimbarka and Ballav Sampradayas, South Indian Shri (Ramanuja) Sampradaya, different traditions worshiping Hanuman, Rama and Sita. However, Southern India is poorly presented at Kumbh Mela; mainly it is filled with people form the North.

The morning of the main bathing day begins with Naga Babas’ march-run along a wide corridor fenced with poles, accompanied by mounted police, to the place of immersion into the sacred waters of the Ganges. With red staring eyes, swinging their tridents and swords, completely naked ascetics shout "Hara Hara Mahadeva!" and rush to the river, going into religious exaltation. Excitement passes on to the crowd and the next moment a great number of voices start to chant the mantra. Then old Naga Baba-women go, we even noticed few newly initiated white women among them. Their naked bodies are wrapped in a piece of orange cloth and are also covered with ashes. All these people have accepted a full renunciation of worldly, even a minimum of property and clothes. These orders continue ancient tradition of Pashupata ascetics, extreme devotees of Shiva. During the festival old Naga Babas initiate young candidates who have passed through a severe trial period, shave their heads, cover them with ashes and give them Guru-mantra. In ascetics’ community there is a rigid, army type discipline. Juniors implicitly submit to seniors and fulfill any kind of work. They should be ready to live naked or to manage with one thin piece of cloth in any climate, to support a ritual fire, to live on alms only. They have died still being alive, they do not exist for the society (have no documents at all), for any values and comforts of the external world – they have their own world. Guru, mantra, karma yoga (collecting alms, fire wood or dung, cleaning and preparing chillums), and life on a bare ground in a wild nature – this is the circle of their interests. Some Naga Babas can demonstrate few asanas (usually, feet behind the head and shirshasana), in general, but most of them do not practice Hatha or Kundalini yoga. And it is impossible to practice pranayama while constantly smoking charas (hashish mixed with tobacco). Lungs suffer, though experienced sadhus regularly use “antidote” - ayurvedic herbs collected by themselves. They often practice mortification of flesh, extreme ascetic practices for "prompt karma clarification", for example, some broke their penis and roll it around a cane regularly (a very tough variant of brahmacharya), or they hold one hand extended upwards for several years and it withers, etc.

Chillum smoking is always a bhakti yoga ritual for Naga Babas, it is their offering to Shiva, always accompanied by mantras "Alakh Bom" and "Bom Bolenath". Rampuri Baba explained that the ritual of offering hashish to a Deity comes from very old times, has a shamanistic origin (in any shamanistic tradition priests used similar natural substances), and is not connected with the use of drugs “for fun” as it happens now in the Western culture. Much later Moslems brought tobacco to India; before that it was not present among sadhus, but now the majority of them smokes cigarettes as well. A sadhu, puffing at a chillum, stays in a state of worshiping Shiva, explained Rampuri, and why should he worry about his body and health if he doesn’t care a bit about the world around. Many of them have tuberculosis and even lung cancer, and cough constantly.

The basis of their spiritual practice is devotion to the Guru and mantras’ chanting. Scanty food and charas are always offered to the God before intake – “Shiva is unboundedly merciful and accepts all and everything, that is why Bolenath - protector of gawks or geezers – is one of his names”, Rampuri says. Though, even the most ominous Naga Babas, often looking like mythical ganas (“goblins” of awesome Mahadev’s retinue) adhere to a strictly vegetarian diet, except for Aghori, “left-hand” tantrics. And really, who is not the gawk in comparison with the Lord?

Dattatreya and Shiva are the main gods for Naga Babas. Not all Juna Akhara representatives accept such degree of renunciation as dressing in ashes and living on “chillum, tea and chapati”. Among them you can see staid SwamiAcharyas, Sanskrit and Philosophy experts and leaders of big ashrams and educational centers, in orange clothes and with shaven heads (as monks-brahmins). Their mission is to carry on and keep the knowledge of the Vedas, Upanishads, Vedic rituals and pujas. Some of them practice meditation and hatha yoga. However, they all make an entire community once structured by Adi Shankaracharya into a system of Dashanami Sanyasa (10 ascetic orders).

This is a paradox of diversity and capacity of Hindu religion. In this tradition there are some Western devotees and even Western Gurus. Mainly they belong to “civilized” religious orders, especially to Saraswati order, due to educational activity of Swami Shivananda and his disciple Swami Satyananda. And there are few westerners among Babas, besides Rampuri we can name Mangalanand Giri (aka Goa Gil), his old friend; India Bharti, an Australian (who has made a good film about Kumbh Mela in 2001) and some Babas from Germany and Italy. Basically, they all know each other or heard about. There are also impostors, but they can be figured out very quickly.

“Who is your Guru?” - this is one of the first questions asked on Kumbh Mela. Every adherent is proud of his Guru and the lineage and does not hide it. The information can be checked with old residents, whether someone is really a disciple or not. The person who gives vague answers to this question is not trusted; it means there is a reason not to be fair. Listening to these explanations, I recollect with a smile how mysterious become our local russian “ezoterics” when you ask them where they happened to study yoga, tantra, “samadhi” and “astral trips”, “kundalini awakening” and etc. Usually they start to talk about some “secret teachers” or “astral Gurus”… It is easier and clearer in India. There are many impostors around, but mainly it is a business here targeted at foreign “spiritual tourists” who want to get some “secret technique”, but not a sadhana as a way of life. And local Indians knows very well, who is “bakshish Baba” (commercial so-called Guru for westerners) and who is serious spiritual teacher.

Coming back to the subject of white sadhus, in 1960s many westerners received initiations, but very few managed to live Baba’s life for long. Exotic appearance and vagrant way of life is one thing but tough discipline and self-restrictions is another. As Rampuri Baba told us, when you have to serve the Guru or simply wake up at 4 o’clock every morning and take bathing in the ice-cold Ganges, many newcomers “blow off”. It is really difficult to live as “paka Baba” (a forceful ascetic of principal), their times are passing away. Rampuri himself, when living in the West, uses civilization’s comforts, and travels within Bharata on a new powerful Mahindra Scorpio jeep.

Sitting around dhuni we ask Rampuri Ji how it is possible to find a sadhu who has reached a high level in meditation and samadhi. You get the impression that the majority of them spend most of the time sitting around fire, talking and smoking. Rampuri explains that 90% of sadhus “are common soldiers who support the tradition of this way of living. And Generals are always in the background, in seclusions or small mislaid ashrams that are difficult to reach”. On a broader scale, achieving states of consciousness similar to samadhi or kundalini awakening are not the goals for a sadhu, Rampuri says, though some of them have been initiated into various yoga practices, as, for example, well-known kriya yoga teachers - Yukteshwar Giri and his disciple Yogananda Giri (author of famous book “Autobiografy of Yogi”).

Basically, sadhus’ task is to give blessings to people and to help them “at subtle level”. This task can be achieved by an ascetic way of life, worshiping the Deity and mantras. “Samadhi” among sadhus mainly means “leaving a body”, i.e. death.

This very moment a boy enters and says that one old Baba has just died in one of tents next to us. “You’ve asked about sadhus’s samadhi, here it is "- Rampuri adds. We saw how the old man in a sitting pose (in which he has left) covered with ashes, was put on a roof of a jeep. Accompanied by mantras he was carried out to the river bank where his body would be buried right into the river bottom (people acknowledged being sacred, are not cremated, as it is considered that they do not have already affection for a body). Passing away during the days of a spiritual holiday is a very good luck.

Searching after yogis we have decided to find Nathas’ camp, their tradition was established by great yogis Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath in Middle Ages. Soon we have noticed a round shape dhuni, characteristic for Nathas (Vedic dhuni is square with a fence in the form of steps), a big sculpture and altar of Gorakshanath. Here and there are some small tables selling books with mantras worshiping Gorakshanath in Hindi and in English, CDs with bhajans, plastic and wooden earrings specific for Nathas and photos of their teachers. We make a bow to the sculpture of great yogi Gorakshanath and sit down on a ground into a circle of friendly Nathas. Traditionally they wear big earrings (some are as huge as circle-like rubber hand expander), punched through the middle of the ear. It distinguishes Nathas from representatives of different Shaivite schools who wear earrings with rudraksha in lobes of ears.

Atmosphere does not differ radically from one at Juna Akhara’ dhuni – chillum was going from one to another. Nathas do not yield to Babas in smoking. Nobody speaks English; we try to communicate in simple Hindi. It is the first time they see Russians. But soon Italai Nath appears, he is an example of “the western Hindu”, the same as Rampuri, he is living here since 60s, deep in Natha tradition, he became one of superiors - Mahants, speaks Hindi fluently, and besides his native Italian language, speaks very basic English. He never heard about Russian Nathas, but promises to acquaint us with a Russian speaking Hindu monk, who is a disciple of Pilot Baba (a teacher from Giri order), we will go to his camp later. We ask Nathas about the sacred texts, about the practice of hatha yoga, its’ traditional lineage continued by Swatmarama, the author of “Hatha Yoga Pradipika”, starts from Lord Shiva, Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath.

Strange, but these subjects are not familiar to them. Their sadhana consists of worshiping rituals to Gorakshanath, Italai Nath was translating to us. He has heard the names of the texts before, but he laughed a reply that he is strong neither in books nor in hatha yoga. Finally, the ice is broken; we seized the moment when Nathas were busy cleaning and preparing the next chillum, and went to the tent to get a darshan (a meeting, blessing) from “the main Boss” as Italai Natha calls him. Young Nathas woke up a stout and imposing man who has started to press us with questions, whether we are vegetarians, whether we use drugs, whether we are ready to observe brahmacharya (sexual restraint). Yoga should not be just a hobby, he says, only then it would be possible to perfect in higher yoga practices such as pranayama and kundalini awakening. We explained that we do yoga practice, and would very much like to get a darshan from a Nath, experienced in yoga. One of my friends demonstrated to "the senior in the camp” nauli kriya and khechari mudra. That has removed an ironical smile from his face; he became more friendly and serious. Complaining about his poor English he advised to us and to all western seekers who want to get information or initiation into Nath tradition to apply to Nath ashram in Haridwar (it is a city on the Ganges bank, six hours driving distance from Delhi): Nath Ashram, Upper Road, Haridwar. They develop their educational activity now, publish books about Natha tradition and it is possible to speak with some of them in English. We had some tea, politely refused from the next chillum, and went to Pilot Baba’s camp where, according to the advertisement hanging on boards, his Japanese devotee was going to demonstrate samadhi in public...

We came to the camp. It was decorated with big stands showing images of a middle-aged Japanese woman sitting in padmasana and bearded Guru with a severe stare and a raspberry beret on his head with the Himalaya Mountains background. “Yog Mata (“mother yogi”) Keiko Aikawa – the message runs – is going to demonstrate samadhi in public at Kumbh Mela for several days”. It was the representation of Pilot Baba’s ashram, quite a popular master in India. His ashram is situated in foothills of the Himalayas close to Almora and Nainital.

His spiritual name is Somnath Giri and he also belongs to Juna Akhara order. He is Mahamandaleshvar, one of the elders of this order. Pilot Baba is his “popular” name connected with the fact that before taking up sanyasa he served as Wing Commander in the Indian Airforce and fought the war against Pakistan in 1960s as a pilot. At the age of 33 he retired and got initiation from his Guru, Hari Baba. He spent some time in spiritual wonders in the Himalayas, met sadhus of different traditions and witnessed, as he says in his biography, the appearance of Divine Beings for several times. Now he is 70 years old. Advertising booklets inform that Pilot Baba teaches hatha, raja and kriya yoga in his ashram, and that he has demonstrated “21 days public samadhi” for several times. Among his students there are many people from Japan, the country he has often visited. In this camp we came across a Russian young man that we’ve heard about from Italai Nath. He spoke good Hindi and was all dressed in orange, as Hindu sanyasin. This young man visited Nathas in their camp. He did not disclose us his origin right away and started to speak Russian only after we’ve addressed him for the third time. He did not want to tell us where he was from, just mentioned that he is living in India for a long time and has no plans to go to Russia. We asked him whether he practices different types of yoga mentioned in the advertisement booklet of the school, he said: “I have to practice, Guru said, it is necessary”. He did not burn with a desire to speak with us.

In the center of the camp there was a dug round well with a canopy over it. Around the well they laid out a carpet strip for onlookers. The well was partly covered with metal sheets and at the depth of two meters you could see a Japanese woman sitting in padmasana on a clothed seat. She was sitting in a meditative position, but no one could estimate what she was experiencing. The well is not secluded and gapers are allowed at certain hours. And everywhere, around the well and at the camp entrance, you could see Indian guards dressed in identical sports wear with ashram’s emblem and armed with Kalashnikov submachine guns. It looked very strange because even the Indian police at Kumbh Mela was armed only with bamboo sticks mainly. There were lots of Japanese in the camp. With faces displaying veneration, in white cloths and flower garlands they were standing behind the line of guards and patiently waiting for Pilot Baba to appear on a carpet strip supported by his close disciples. Promotional booklets in Hindi and in English were persuading the reader that many Baba’s disciples possess siddhis (superpowers). It might not be a proper thing but the atmosphere in the camp provoked some associations with sadly known Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. It also liked public demonstrations, arms, sports wear and bright advertisements describing superpowers of the teacher Shoko Asahara and his disciples. Or, probably, this association comes from a big number of Japanese faces? “What do you think about this demonstration?” - we asked our companion – Italai Nath. He grinned and made an international gesture – rubbed a thumb and forefinger together.

We were wandering along the heated, noisy and dusty streets of “cities of sadhus”, realising what even one month of the festival is not enough to cross this ocean of ashrams and to get acquainted with all directions. Here is a huge shed from poles and reed that can cover a football ground. Under the shed there are many square firewood places - dhuni, and around dhuni there are close circles of young Brahmins from Andhra Pradesh, a South Indian state. Every day of the festival from morning till evening they are conducting yagya, a Vedic sacrificial offering to the fire. Accompanied by choral recitation of Sanskrit mantras they pour ghee and throw a mix of seeds into the fire. This ceremony favours a peaceful and sattvic atmosphere in the place where it is carried out. The heat from hundreds of campfires mixed with the heat of the dazzling sun is unbearable. Thick shrouds of smoke cover 20-25 years old men sitting at the fire for days and nights. They look into their small books with Sanskrit mantras written in their native Telugu language and chant the prays that fly high to the skies together with the smoke of fire the same way as thousands and thousands of years ago.

Here is a portrait of Paramahansa Yogananda on ashram gates. We enter the camp of a school that was founded by the author of famous “Autobiography of a Yogi”, a book, for the first time published in 1946, that has opened the world of Himalayan yogis for western readers. Surprisingly for India it is very clean in the camp. Neat tents are put in even rows, no one is sleeping on the ground, no chillums being smoked, no laundry hanging out, no piles of used pressed leaf plates. It looks like nobody is living here except for few Hindu service personnel. One old and well-mannered man gets up from the table and comes to us, he speaks good English. “Where is the Guru?”- we ask him,- “Is it possible to get darshan or to have a talk with someone?” He explains that Paramahansa Yogananda was the last Guru in the tradition. Before he died in 1952 in the USA he did not assign any successor (the initiation of next Guru, Guru-diksha - as it happened in the case with Yogananda and his teacher Yukteshvar Giri). What has left after him is “Self-Realisation Fellowship” organization that has an elected leader. “This charming lady (he shows her picture) is now the President, but she is in the States, does not come here and that is why nothing happens in the camp. But if you are interested in practices I’ve heard about the camp of another kriya yoga teacher somewhere at the edge of Kumbh Mela territory, but I neither know his name nor practice that he gives,”

We go further, discussing that any lineage without alive succession of realized Gurus turns into a religious organization, and that Lahiri Mahasaya, a founder of kriya yoga, entrusted to his disciples never organize any “kriya yoga organizations”, but be more attentive towards personal practice. We were talking about the fate of people coming to ashrams or communities (it does not concern only kriya yoga but Hindu tradition in general) where Guru, a founder, has already died and did not leave a worthy successor behind. But neophytes accept the knowledge without knowing his bearer, without even talking to him. Is it possible to replace a real alive contact with a teacher with worshiping a photograph, books, or even “Samadhi” burial vaults?

Then we had prasad (food offered to God) at ISKCON camp (it was so to the point, considering poor, unhealthy and overdone food prepared on old oil that is served in street cafeterias), praised Shrila Prabhupada for that, and headed for the search of Indian kriya yoga teacher. Close to Gaudiya vaishnavas we meet some Russians with dreadlocks. After all those chillums smoked at dhuni they felt themselves perfect in phantasmagoric landscapes of the evening camp inhabited by wild naked Sadhus with swords and tridents dressed in rudraksha malas and ashes, civilized swami in white and orange cloths, fabulous bearded old men with huge red circles on forehead and wooden crooks (these are Sadhu-vaishnanvas from Ramanandi order), ordinary Hindus with wives and children staring and twisting their heads around, beggars and various cripples, and loud pedlars selling bright plastic things of unknown purpose. “Welcome to Kin-dza-dza Galaxy” – one of our countrymen says. (Kin-Dza-Dza – great soviet fantastic movie about phantasmagoric Galaxy with comic caste system) This is a precise association. You can meet everyone here - from snitchers to Siddhas. But only the Lord Shiva knows where your karma would carry you out in this ocean of people.

The name of kriya yoga teacher was Satyam. He had a luxuriant head of hair and looked like young Sai Baba. A huge plastic tent with the walls and the floor served for a meditation hall, it was situated at the edge of the main camp.

Satyam dressed in orange was sitting on the stage against the poster displaying the parampara – a legendary Himalayan siddha Babaji, Lahiri Mahasai, Yukteshvar Giri, Yogananda and Satyam. The question how he was able to learn from Yogananda, who has left his body obviously before Satyam was born, was left unanswered because it was the time for group meditation in the hall. Satyam was giving instructions in Hindi and English in a sweet slow voice. Meditation included few arm rotations in the sitting position, breath awareness and visualization of the light in the center between the eyebrows. This kind of kriya yoga did not resemble any other technique that we knew from other teachers in Lahiri Mahasai’s lineage. Mainly there were Indian and Western senior women in the meditation hall, but we met a young American guy who told us that Satyam has a permanent ashram here in Allahabad, on the river bank, and there are around forty Russian disciples living there at the moment.

In one of the streets we notice familiar names of piligrimage sites written on ashram sign: Mathura, Govardhan. We decide to look in. This is the representation of Vaishnava Ballav sampradaya, we are guided to a bold young smiling Swami in dark glasses. He is the ashram superior in Mathura and he knows our Guru, Sri Shailendra Sharma, was present at his darshan. We have a talk, he shows us their magazine published in Hindi, we tell him about our “Yoga” magazine, about the Russian yoga center in Goa. “I’m also interested in hatha yoga, he says, I would like to have some classes in our ashram.” We remember Govardhan, Swami tells us an interesting story. Gaudiya vaishnavas are not allowed to go up or even step on Govardhan hill (once the Lord Krishna has raised up this sacred rocky hill with one of his fingers to protect people of Govardhan from the rains sent by Indra) because the founder of tradition - Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did not consider his followers deserving the right to step on the sacred Krishna’s hill. But the followers of other Vaishnava traditions do not have this restriction and Ballav sampradaya owns Gopal Mandir – Krishna temple which is situated on the highest range of the hill with a wonderful picturesque view.

It was getting dark and we went to the center of Mela for dinner, to familiar tent districts of Juna Akhara. Hundreds of tents, sadhus, practically no one speaks English. Experienced people say it is impossible from the first sight to understand whether you met a tramp or a person of spiritual knowledge who looks like a crazy hermit. However, the first would immediately start begging. Eyes and manners of the second reflect inner dignity and peace even if the person wears rags. This is not the money issue – donating to a spiritual person is a good deed (tradition says the sum of donation should end with numeral “one” - e.g. 11, 21 or 101 rupees). But Bhagavad Gita says that donation brings merit in case it is given to the right person and in the right place. Some sadhus are dressed in black, have skull bowls, sinister look, and rings on all fingers. They are Aghori, tantrics who deal with sorcery and spirits spells, or those (the majority of them) who tries to look like Aghori in hope that scared people would give them more alms for that. There are very few real Aghori remained. Their sadhana is even more difficult than asceticism of ordinary sadhus and has nothing with “new age tantra” (various "partner trainings") known in the West. It is rather similar to the work in morgue, resuscitation or forensic medicine - constant dialogue with death, decomposition, and dark side of the subtle world; complete overcoming of both, aversion and affection. There is an ashram in Varanasi founded in the beginning of 20th century by a well-known Aghori Kinaram Baba that supports the local leper colony. Sadhakas living there have an opportunity to face suffering, disease and death, it is not as entertaining as to play “5 M” rituals at exotic occult party that fake western “tantrics” offer. Kinaram Baba has once demonstrated his siddhi – he licked the leper with his tongue and the person got cured. This is a real Aghora. But nowadays no one is able to do similar things. Next to Kinaram Baba’s samadhi burial place there is a tree with bats, his favorite animals, living on it. The bats were flying to the tree all the time he meditated. But few years ago they flew away. Some people say it symbolizes the fading of the tradition, and that the energy has left that place.

We came across a senior Frenchwoman who was playing Tibetan bowls. We’ve got into conversation, and she told us that she has got acquainted with an interesting woman – a tantric Guru. And she led us into the jungle of tents and fires following the way known to her alone. Guru’s name is Narmada Puri, she belongs to Juna Akhara, but due to the fact that she originates from Assam state where Shaktism and tantra are traditionally strong they have become her "specialisation". Tantra as the system of practices (connected with mantras, yantras, pujas to various forms of the Goddess and certain yogic techniques) can be present in sadhana of followers in different schools, because this or that form of the Goddess Mother is honoured by all Hindus. Narmada Puri is a pujari (she conducts rituals) in a well-known Shakta temple, Kamakhya Devi. She lives in Dimapur, a small town on the border of states Assam and Nagaland.

Nagaland state is closed for foreigners because there are some aggressive groups living in the jungle and fighting with each other and with Indian Police. The elderly woman comports herself with dignity and is friendly to us. She does speak neither English nor Hindi, only Assamese language. Fortunately she is accompanied by a disciple-layman, a local engineer, who speaks good English and translates from Assamese. Her other disciple, a young Baba with huge, below the heels, jata (dreadlocks) is of a cheerful disposition and looks like Indian Bob Marley who came from far jungles for a spiritual festival. He speaks Hindi and offers us sweet loaves - a traditional dish of his native state.

The disciple-layman, an imposing man in trousers and unbuttoned shirt (he has removed his tie and put it in the pocket), unfolds a paper with weed - "this ganja is from Assam, he explains, not a bad quality charas with tobacco that everyone smokes here". Disciples are preparing chillum, but Narmada Puri does not smoke. "Smoking is bad for pranayama, she explains, I do not like when others smoke, but as there is a festival, let the men have fun ". Then with ardent shine in her eyes she lively demonstrates different asanas - padmasana, baddha konasana, gorakshasana." I practise yoga and tantra, come to me to Assam, we are going to have our own tantric Mela in summer.”

Dignity, spiritual force and well-disposed interest to the seekers are felt in behaviour and look of this Mongolian type woman. She especially likes when girls from our company easily repeat after her all the asanas. One of our friends, Roman, decides to visit tantric Mela and they exchange contacts. After we’ve got the blessing, we came back to our tent, discussing that this woman impressed all of us. She behaved herself in a natural way, not for show. If you want to get deep into traditions, the language issue remains urgent. In most of the cases you would not manage without Hindi, as there are quite few teachers who speak good English.

Today is the day of the main bathing. We wake up at four in the morning and go to Rampuri Baba’s dhuni. From here Gurus, their disciples and visitors will go to the Ganges in organised columns, observing hierarchy, along wide corridors specially fenced with poles in order to avoid crush and chaos. Naga Babas head the column – old with long dreadlocks and young newly initiated with shaved heads. They are absolutely naked and coated with ashes. They are chanting "Hara Hara Mahadev!" mantra glorifying Shiva non-stop. They are held back by a barrier sort of internal "sadhu Police" consisting of the largest and the most awesome Nagas. Finally the horn signals and sadhus start their march-run towards the Ganges’ banks to get ablution in the waters of the sacred river on this special and mystical day calculated by astrologers. Very old Sadhus-women surrounded by several old swamis mince after Nagas-men also chanting the mantra. Supporting each other they hurry on to the river waters. After these the most honourable sub-divisions of ascetics, the columns of Gurus, babas and disciples of Juna Akhara go. The elders (Mahamandaleshvaras) are going on wheel tractors beautifully decorated with flowers and garlands; each tractor trailer has a magnificent throne with palanquin that reminds movies about ancient India of Mahabharata’s times. Tractors move slowly, and columns of people chanting mantras, swinging banners and flowers are able to keep up. It really reminds the Soviet "International Workers' Day" demonstration, but the public in columns is of a very strange kind - with beards, dreadlocks, in orange dhoti (loincloth), with rudraksha malas (Shaivite beads). Everyone feels an inflow of sincere inspiration, you understand that you are in the very centre of a great holiday of Faith, naïve and shocking in some way, but undoubtedly alive, full of energy and light spirit. In the front rows of the column there are tractors of Pilot Baba and Banvari Puri, a friend and guru-bhai ("a brother in the guru") of Rampuri Baba. Finally we reach the Ganges’ banks – the sun is getting hot, it is very crowded here, wet and yet dry pilgrims are jostling, but baba - security guards try to redistribute streams of people.

Our guide, Ganesh Puri, a huge Baba with an awesome voice, a former army officer, who loves to repeat a phrase "Ganesha’s duty is to protect", watches clothes and clears out our way in the crowd. With the mantra glorifying Mahadeva we plunge into the ice-cold waters of the sacred river, dip for several times and get out, making way to other pilgrims (in water there is a fence made of poles providently established to prevent people in case of a crush to be pushed out to the river’s depths where the current is very swift). You get a feeling of being born again. Is it really the truth that Hindus say, that Kumbh Mela bathing clears the pilgrim from many karmas? At this moment no one doubts it. People are laughing as children, their eyes are sparkling - something really mystical happens here at this moment despite the crowd, clamor and crush. Looking at the great stream of people - Sadhus and laymen, men, women, children and old men - reverently entering the great stream of the ancient river, you understand that behind all of this is Eternity hidden in the heart of each human being. And in any circumstances and at different times it calls him for clarification, revival and awakening of the internal light.