- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

NEW DELHI A vast army of trident-wielding Indian ascetics, many of them naked and coated in ash, is preparing to march into the north Indian city of Allahabad today in what has been billed as the largest gathering on earth.

The "royal procession" of about 1 million holy men, bearing heraldic emblems and shouting the names of their patron deities alongside caparisoned elephants and gilded chariots, will signal the start of the monthlong Maha Kumbh Mela or Great Festival of Elixir.

At least 30 million people are expected to arrive in Allahabad over the next month, making this year's Kumbh Mela the largest in a history that spans several thousand years.

A 30-square-mile tent city has been built, thousands of tons of food have been stored, 3,000 telephone lines have been installed, 15 pontoon bridges have been built and more than 22,000 police and paramilitaries have been called in to control the crowds.

As the festival's quaintly worded Web site proclaims: "Such a congregation is nothing short of a marvel. It has to be seen to be believed."

By yesterday, most of the pilgrims, who will congregate on six main bathing days this month and in February, had yet to arrive. Already, though, several hundred thousand dreadlocked ascetics have camped on the sandy banks where the festival will be held at the confluence of the sacred rivers, the Ganges and the Jumna, and, according to legend, an invisible mythological river, the Saraswati.

Some have come from tiny Himalayan hermitages, carrying nothing but a brass pot and walking for months barefoot; some came by bus or train and some arrived in limousines with thousands of followers.

Over the weekend, the holy men's camp was wreathed in clouds of hashish smoke as ascetics performed bizarre penances such as lifting several pounds of rocks with their penises, meditating under pyramids of burning cow dung or in the case of one bad-tempered holy man holding one petrified arm in the air for 12 years.

The Maha Kumbh Mela occurs only once every 12 years, with smaller versions every fourth year at one of four Indian holy cities. It has been described as "the greatest show on earth" and "a microcosm of Indian life."

Originating in a mythological battle between the gods and the demons over a pot, or kumbh, of nectar from which four drops fell to earth at Allahabad, Hardwar, Ujjain and Nashik the festival's four sites on the Ganges it brings together people from all over India and all sections of society in probably the world's oddest gathering.

For more than a month, astrologers, palmists, hawkers and pilgrims from all over India come to bathe on one of six astrologically auspicious days, believing that one dip in the river at the time of the festival will remove the sins of seven lifetimes.

Despite the terrible crush, pilgrims at the Kumbh are generally well-behaved, "sustained by an unwavering faith and belief," as Mark Twain wrote of the Kumbh Mela in his book "More Tramps Abroad."

On the main bathing day at Kumbh Mela in Hardwar four years ago, almost 8 million people crammed into an area the size of a small city neighborhood without a murmur of complaint. Wizened grandmothers and small children bobbed and dipped happily in the fast-flowing currents, ignoring the occasional dead body and clumps of waste.

The good humor of the pilgrims, however, does not often extend to the ascetics, India's strange tribe of socially accepted dropouts, who are the stars and prima donnas of the Kumbh Mela.

At the last festival, thousands of Naga babas, naked and ferocious holy men from the Juna and Niranjini Akharas, or camps, fought a pitched battle with tridents and spears over a centuries-old squabble about which camp should bathe in the river first.

The dispute was resolved only after three persons had been killed, 300 more injured, 10 policemen who could not swim had been thrown into the river, the heads of the country's main religious sects had held a war council and 30,000 paramilitaries were called to help.


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