Khumb Mela 2010 & the Naga Babas

P1160915The Khumb

Last weekend, we visited the Khumb Mela in Haridwar. The Khumb is a spiritual gathering – the biggest in the world – where (predominantly Hindu) ascetics come together like in a spiritual fair. They exchange ideas and connect with each other according to the idea of Adi Shankara who, through this event, wanted to unite the different Akharas (orders) and thus unite the various traditions of hinduistic India. Shankaracharya’s wisdom led to the Khumb being organized at four different locations in India rotating every three years, completig a full cycle every 12 years. The Khumb thus rotates through Haridwar, Allahabad (Prayag), Ujjain and Nashik. Based on astrological calculations that involve the Moon, Sun and Jupiter, these gatherings are held over 2-3 month from winter until spring. There is also a Maha (Great) Khumb every 144 years, the last having taken place in 2001 at Allahabad. I attended the impressively large Maha Khumb at Allahabad, but did not take photographs at that time. In 2001, the Mela was allegedly visited by about 60 million people. The second most auspicious bathing day this year in Haridware was comparatively less crowded and Indian papers reported ‘only’ 6 million participants on the respective day, 15th of March 2010.

The Naga Babas

In 2001 I visited some Naga Baba’s tents with a group of Dutch friends and even got to sit near the newly elected “King” of this particular Akhara. The recent Khumb was even more an occasion for me to get in touch with this group of Sadhus that are regarded as being very special by Hindu believers. If it was not for Kausthubh Joshi from Rishikesh, who guided us around on the Khumb and also did some translations, we would not have seen half of all this.

Back to the Nagas: While other monks usually stand in front of house-doors to get attention and be fed by people, the Nagas only have to walk through the streets. If anybody sees them he or she will immediately run after the Naga Baba to feed him. The Nagas are regarded as ‘aggressive’ and usually bear weapons as trisuls (tridents) or swords. I do not consider them dangerous as such. However, they walk around naked and they trace their tradition back to a time that was not benevolent to them and had seen a lot of curfews and violence against them. So I think their ‘aggression’ rather comes as a way to protect their freedom. They are not controlled by any government or other religious sect and they obey no orders from whom ever. Counting about half a million adherents in India, according to their own estimate, the Naga Babas are still a viable force within the Indian population.

At the Khumb, the Naga Baba-Akhara delegation has about 15 minutes time to take a bath – as the first of all Akharas. More than other groups, they fiercely rush in impressive speed and strength towards the water. Apart from their ‘first’ place in the bath-ranking there are other revealing attributes that can indirectly tell about their origin:

They cover their bodies with nothing more than ashes, supposedly as a mark that they consider their body as dead. For this they use the ashes of open fires, where they burn tree-trunks only, the roots facing the sky. They smoke heavily (chillums) as do the shamans of America’s native populations. (To my knowledge there is no other major religious group in India who smoke for ritual purposes.) The Naga’s main insignum is the trisul or trident – the only real physical thing they possess. It is the same trident that had also been the insignum of Poseidon – according to Plato the original ruler of the lost Atlantis.


The Naga Roots

Officially the Naga Babas trace back their movement to Adi Shankara and his division of Hindu orders. In a second layer of tradition their order originates from Karttikeya (aka Skanda, Muruga, Subrahmanya, Senthil, Saravana, Guhan, Skanda, etc.), the son of Shiva, who is worshipped predominantly in the south of India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Mauritius as stated in wikipedia and who is closely linked to various snake gods and godesses like Adishesa or Vasuki. Karthikeya is not only the son of Shiva but also denominates an origin from Kartika or Krittika, a Sanskrit term for the star cluster of the Pleiades – the “cutters” – also known as the six sisters (with a seventh being lost).

The name Guhan (for Karttikeya) means “cave dweller” and sustains this claim; Skanda means “that which is spilled or oozed, namely seed” – referring again to the Naga’s root-origin.

Murungam, the ‘red god on the blue peacock’ – as described in the most ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam – stands for fire on top of the water. The Nagas of old are commonly associated with the water element and as beings often represented as water-dwelling snakes. On the other end as dragons they represent ‘fire’ in various cultures of East-Asia – transcended to ‘intellect’. The Sangam literature also described Muruga as presiding deity of the “hilly area” (Kurinci region).

There is much more to this and the mythology goes very deep. I will explore further aspects of the Naga Babas, like their connection to the Nagaland hill tribes, in another article or paper.

What else?

We took a bath around 8:30 on Monday, just before the ghats where closed for the representative groups of the Akharas. The current of the still young Ganges is strong at some places in Haridwar and though chains and fences were constructed to prevent people from getting too far into the water and providing something to hold on, around 300 people are drowning each year between Rishikesh and Haridware – so basically one per day.

Besides the Nagas, we visited some other Babas, like the now famous Pilot-Baba, who had been a pilot in the Indian Airforce before. Another one was Soham Baba, who certainly is a oddity. he surfs well on diverse environmental issues and could easily be funded by IPCC. We called him Green-Baba internally. However, he was clothed in a blue shawl and took quite some time for an interview; his devotees served us a delicious lunch. Thanks for that!

Sant Balak Yogeshwan Maharaj is the long name of an apparently very humble little person whose response to our question regarding ‘his message for the world’ simply was: “I have nothing to say. Nobody is listening today”. We roughly agreed on this and proceeded to a group who was taking care of Indian war-widows and – as Pilot Baba – was promoting Indian Nationhood, etc. They appeared dedicated but not detached…


Police & Conclusio

I have to end this protocol-like blog (too much diplomatic tension here for jokes) with a laudatio for the Indian police forces. They really did a marvelous job in planning and staying cool and human in the heat of the already hot spring-days. It was really amazing to witness their effective fencing and guiding systems to keep people moving. Behind the several fences that were set up between the crowd and the procession, they pre-arranged enclosures to separate potentially clashing groups easily into smaller handy packages.

What puzzled me though was the fact that not only local police was employed – which is usually provided by the various states – but a new group of police force was also present. They wore blue uniforms, like the equally new police forces in Nepal and allegedly had been formed as a ‘federal’ force. In a certain global context I find this worrisome and it reminds me of rumours about un-elected UN-take overs, especially since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can’t stop wearing this equally UN-blue turban…


–> Also have a look at my picture gallery of the Khumb 2010!


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