Varanasi, January 14, Makar Sankranti, Diana Eck
January 14, Makar Sankranti in Varanasi, Diana Eck
Our Kumbh team had a first glimpse today of the massive bathing rituals of the Kumbh Mela. Today is Makar Sankranti, the first of the shahi snans, the “royal bathing days” of the Kumbh, and here in Varanasi this is also one of the most auspicious of Hindu festival days. It is characterized by bathing along the River Ganga in the morning and kite flying in the afternoon. And also, of course, eating particular foods, especially the foods of the harvest: rice grains of all kinds, dried, pounded, and above all cooked with lentils to make khichari, the food of the day.
By dawn, pilgrims were coming in a steady stream along the walkway in front of our guesthouse in Asi Ghat, headed toward the clay bank of the river and a dip in Mother Ganga. They bathed in the chilly waters, made offerings at the small shrines of Hanuman beneath the great tree on Asi Ghat, circling the tree and offering water, flowers, and bilva leaves to Shiva, represented by the dozen or so Shiva lingas there at the base of the tree. Having bathed and worshipped, they offered a handful of rice grains to each one of the multitude of beggars lining the pathways and the walkways of the ghats. The crowds were festive and full, all along the river at all the major bathing ghats. We boarded a boat at Asi with a boatman named Gauri Shankar, who rowed downstream past one ghat after another for more than two miles to Panchganga and then back. It was a Varanasi bathing festival at its best.
The reports came from Allahabad that nearly 10 million had come to bathe in the confluence of the rivers and watch the spectacle of the ascetic akharas as they marched in procession to bathe. By tomorrow, many of these pilgrims will have come to Varanasi to complete their pilgrimage by a dip in the Ganga here and by going for darshan of Shiva Vishvanatha. The photo here is of Prayag Ghat, one of the central bathing ghats of Varanasi, named for Prayag, the old name of Allahabad.