Karma and Kumbh

The month of March has been frenetic and feverish – and that is an understatement. Other than the consulting assignment, which I have been working on, it has also been a sort of geeky month. My website had some glitches on the server, then my iPhone acted up and finally, my laptop decided it was time to breathe its last. Add to that a switch to Apple after using Windows for about 20 years, and you can imagine how it has been. Fascinating!

And this meant that even writing a post got put on the backburner. Anyway, here I am again…with thoughts of the Maha Kumbh that I went to in February.

Held this year at Allahabad, at the confluence of the three most holy rivers in India: the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythological Saraswati, the Kumbh lures the faithful for a dip in the holy waters that relieves them of lifetimes of karma. Hindu religious scriptures say that bathing on the astrologically favorable days snuffs out innumerable sins, relieving the pilgrim of his or her entanglement in the complex cycle of birth, disease, old age, and death – the cycle of samsara. Kumbh is actually a Sanskrit word meaning “pot”, “pitcher” or “jar” and mela means “festival.” According to Indian mythology, the Kumbh Mela derives its name from the pot of the immortalizing nectar from the waters of the holy river Ganga.

It has had an appeal or an allure for saints and scholars for many millennia. In about 302 B.C., the great Greek historian Megasthenes documented his seventy-five-day stay at Prayaga (Allahabad), during a mela which had an attendance of two and a half million. Some hundreds of years later, in the 7th century A.D., the devout emperor Harsha invited the distinguished Chinese mendicant Hsian Tsang to attend the festivities of the mela. Later when writing his journals, Tsang noted Harsha’s consummate spiritual leadership with lavish praise and wrote: “The festival concluded with Harsha distributing all of his accumulated wealth to the needy, down to his robes, and returning to his palace in clothes borrowed from his sister.”

The Kumbh is a melting pot for perhaps more than eight thousand religious groups and sects that debate and discuss philosophy. For the mela, it is said that this is a symbol of Hindu unity, an instrument for passing on spiritual teachings and values of India’s ancient Vedic culture to the masses of devotees.

Here saints and sinners, mystics and beggars, all gather on the banks of the holy Ganga in the smorgasbord of by far the largest human congregation on Earth, albeit temporary. Pilgrims travel from far across many miles to bathe in the Ganga; they are dressed in their finest and most colorful – it is a celebration of hope, and festivity for a better tomorrow.

The numbers tell the story – this year there were a total of 100 million people who attended the Kumbh; on the days these photographs were made, I was just one of 30 million people there.

At the Kumbh, there is a veritable sea of swaying bodies and heads, which moves slowly towards the confluence of the three rivers – a deluge of pilgrims. The intonation of invocations, cacophony of flutes, bells, cymbals, horns, and the constant blaring of devotional songs over innumerable loudspeakers are a constant accompaniment to reverence. There are the aged who cannot walk without support, there are mothers being carried literally by their sons, there are sons being carried by their mothers. All in the name of faith. And hope.

Yes. Faith. And hope. That about sums it all up: for karma, and Kumbh.

And for life.

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  1. Emily Mabee April 2, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    It’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful then your past work. This post is just that beautiful. Your photographs are breathtaking. I enlarged each one to really see the detail and color. the writing is both poetic and informative. What a wonderful experience you had. thank you so much for sharing. It’s great to hear from you again. Emily Mabee

  2. Heidger Marx April 2, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    Dear Debesh,
    congratulations to another wonderful post! Thank you for sharing your experience in your amazing words and images, many new among some already appreciated before.
    It’s is good to see you back with your blog after your computer and work-induced hiatus!
    All the best, my friend,

  3. Debesh April 2, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

    Emily, you my friend are too kind…thank you so much for such wonderful words. It is always so lovely to hear from you. I am most touched.

    Heidger, for you I have no words. I think I have been singularly blessed to have connected with you through photography. And each time we have communicated in various forms, you have been radiant and upbeat – absolutely positive and encouraging. And yes, my friend, it is good to be back for sure.

  4. Karen Dawson April 2, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

    Dear Debesh, Your words and photography are a symphony for the soul. Love

  5. Debesh April 2, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    Thank you so much Karen! It is always lovely to “hear” from you. Many thanks for your time and such kind words.

  6. sonika April 2, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    what a truly fascinating read…not your regular genre or style of writing…..which usually is a lot more personal….but brilliantly penned nevertheless . I really enjoy going through your photographs here on the blog…the stunning clarity and colours and composition sinks in properly ….

    the mythological reason…[ which i am sure you must already be knowing ] why the kumbh is held in only 4 places , though the ganga flows in other places too….and that is , that when the fight took place between the demons and the gods for that amrit or the nectar …a few drops fell on the earth ….in four places out of which allahabad was one……like i said….fascinating read…..especially loved the second photograph…don’t think i have seen it earlier….thanks for sharing …..:)

  7. Debesh April 2, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    Thanks so much Sonika – it was such an amazing experience (and you know it) that no photographs will ever do justice to it, or words for that matter. Yes, I know the reason, but thanks for adding it in to the post – I am sure many others will be happy to read it too.

    And no, you haven’t (or hadn’t) seen the second image till now. I still need to edit my photographs from the following day – this was just a trial. Thanks again.

  8. glencapers April 3, 2013 at 2:49 am #

    Very nice work, Keep shooting

  9. Kislay April 3, 2013 at 2:54 am #

    Lovely writeup and stunning pictures.Words and pictures are totally intertwined, while the eyes feast on colors the mind gets to enjoy the poetic commentary.
    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Cyretha April 3, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing your country, culture and photography. It is so much more vivid to hear your first hand stories than to read any textbook. Once again you have given us a masterful post with beautiful images.

  11. jaitri acharya April 3, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    super write up…loved reading it…..:-)

  12. Cynthia Sanders April 4, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

    Always a pleasure

    Always an inspiration


  13. Caroline April 6, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    Debesh, your emotional experiences are both intensely personal and universal in their appeal. It is the result of your passionate intent and engagement with the world. They say a picture speaks a thousand words. Thank you for sharing your stories as clearly and passionately as possible with compelling photography.
    All the best.

  14. Debesh April 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

    Dear Glenn,

    Thank you so very much for your kind words and all your encouragement. Meeting you at the Kumbh was so fortuitous and such a pleasure. I hope that someday I shall have the privilege of photographing with you, my friend.

    Thanks a lot Kislay for your time in reading, and also commenting. I am most grateful.

    Cyretha, my friend, it is always such a delight for me to hear from you and for us to share our journeys with each other. Stay safe and I look forward to being in touch with you.

    Thanks a lot Jaitri.

    Cindy, there are no accidents in life, or coincidences. While I do know that you’re not regular on Facebook, if you do happen to see your inbox there, you will see a hello from me about two hours before you commented out here. Thank you.

    Dear Caroline,

    You are a sensitive person who also has the ability to convey what you feel to the rest of us. Thank you as always for the encouragement and inspiration – I do look forward to being in touch with you. All the best wishes.

  15. Hannah Kozak April 7, 2013 at 7:13 am #

    I just stumbled onto your blog while up with jet lag in Israel. Your photographs are beautiful and I enjoyed the way you wrote about your experience at the Kumbh. I haven’t been to India in years, your words and photographs inspired me to return.
    It’s wonderful to make this connection in the cyber world. Thank you for taking the time to post this lovely, and informative post.

  16. Lumaca Moderno April 8, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Very nice article and photos, thank you for sharing :)

  17. Rajen April 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    One word …..”Superlative” !

  18. Debesh April 8, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    Dear Hannah,

    Thank you so much for such lovely words. Yes, Kumbh was indeed an incredible and awe-inspiring experience – absolutely sublime. This post wasn’t how I usually write which is more personal, but was more a travelogue. Perhaps my next blog will be an account of how I felt.

    Thank you so much Lumaca and Rajen for your time in reading an commenting – I appreciate it.

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