Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
After a twenty-minute drive from the Sangam out of the Kumbh’s main grounds, we reached the flower market I’d been hoping existed. A flower seller in Sector 4 thought her garlands came from Gau Ghat, and so our search began. Our driver remained visibly befuddled by our directions and objective throughout the morning, but following a few inquiries he was successfully directed by locals past a main market and ferris wheel lot toward the city of Naini. After passing a truck piled with orange buds traveling in the opposite direction, I knew we were going the right way. Pulling up to this market it was clear we’d reached something bigger and more established than the market we’d been to in Varanasi. Wooden booths stood in rows along the main road and each had a sizable stock. In addition to the 30 or so stands I saw lining each side of the road and a fork in between, men stood above piles of loose buds and garlands resting on scarves. I counted about 16 piles and 10 men standing above them. Women did not seem present in this method of sale but were rather perched inside stalls, stringing roses. My method was to approach each seller who reciprocated a smile and seemed receptive to my clasped hands. The first woman was helpful, friendly, and eager to talk. Our very kind driver decided we were struggling (or continued to think we were crazy) and came over after a couple of minutes. With his and Nicholas’ translation help, we were told that the market opens at 7am and closes at 10am, though it was then 11am and clearly open. The woman reported there were 100-150 vendors and she saw 200 buyers each morning, making roughly 1000 rupees per day. There wasn’t a typical sale- people bought both garlands in bulk and single strands. She’d been here for the last Kumbh and didn’t see a difference in demand based on this year’s sales. The marigolds and roses came from Allahabad and the chrysanthemums from Kanpur. Nearby, a motorcycle loaded with saffron-colored garlands took off in the direction from which we’d come, headed to a “store nearby.” From the next sellers we heard conflicting reports. Minivans came at 5am after collecting flowers from trucks. No, ten trucks came directly and everyone at the market bought from them. One-hundred-fifty sellers. No, 500. No, 1500. Two-thousand regular customers. The market didn’t close at 10am but rather noon. We only saw one actual customer, who was standing by as loose rose petals and four red and orange garlands were packed into a blue plastic bag a few meters from a “no polyethylene” sign. Overall, the market scene from 11-11:30am consisted of 30-40 booths with a woman or two in each, 20 men standing over twice as many flower piles, 5 motorcylces and a few more bikes, one customer, one cow, one goat, one baby single-handedly manning a stall, and three westerners with their perplexed driver.
Professor Eck received this sapling as prasad at a launch event for Swami Chidananda Saraswati’s Green Kumbh Initiative. We planted it at Lakshmi Kutir camp yesterday.
All night, the waves of chants rolling from the tents and pavilions of the Kumbh Mela are a pillow of sound for our sleep. By 5:00 a.m., the sounds become louder and more insistent punctuated by the occasional conch blasts, announcing a new day. Some of our research groups are out early, leaving by 5:30 to visit the sangam for the early morning activities or the vegetable market to track the food routes into the vast camp. For us, the day began after nine, when our research group went to sector 9, almost the “suburbs” of the Kumbh City, where the camps are more spacious and where some of the construction is still very much in process. The crews that are world-experts in the bamboo and rope construction method were out lashing up gateways and the walls of cottages and audience halls. Several of the most popular gurus, like Pilot Baba, have their camps in this sector.
Our destination was the camp of the head of the Juna Akhara, Swami Avdeshanand Giri Ji, the Mahamandaleshvara of Juna Akhara. We arrived at just the same time the gates opened for what seemed like thousands of sannyasis who surged into the spacious compound like a great pale orange wave and then fell into an orderly single file line that moved steadily toward the hall where they each were to be fed with sweets, namkin, and tea. As they entered the hall, each stopped at a table set up in the courtyard to receive a 20 rupee bill as dakshina, the payment offered by Avdeshanand Ji for accepting his hospitality. More later on our tour of this spacious camp and our visit with Avdeshanand Ji. Diana Eck
Kumbh Mela, January 19
Today we spent time in two different kinds of camps. In the morning, we went into the sector nearest the sangam where the ascetic renunciants live in their akharas. Near the main gate of the largest, the Juna Akhara, we met with Rampuri who has been present at Kumbh Mela for the past 42 years. Born in California and a long-time initiate in the Juna Akhara, Rampuri has both the experience and perspective to be a bridge to the world of our students. We sat for most of the morning around his dhuni, his altar-fireplace, and listen to him respond to our questions about the meaning of the Kumbh Mela and the life of the Juna Akhara. Rahul’s group came late in the morning and worked on the quadrant layout of the whole of the Juna Akhara.
In the afternoon, we went across a long pontoon bridge to the camp of Swami Chidanand Sarasvati, who was launching an effort of the Ganga Action Parivar at the Kumbh. The Governor of the Uttaranchal was there, known widely as the Green Governor, as were mayors of several of the cities along the Ganga, including the mayor of Allahabad. It was a strong indication that cleaning the Ganga will involve not just spiritual commitment, but the leadership of those who deal with urban infrastructure along the River. We had a discussion afterwards with Sadhvi Bhagavati Sarasvati, a Stanford graduate who has been part of the ashram for some sixteen years, and were received at the end of our visit by Swami Chidanand-ji himself. Students keen on understanding the Green Kumbh movement are eager to come back, which we will.
The end-of-the day reports from the four research teams out in Kumbh Nagar today were fascinating.
A sacred peepal (Ficus religiosa) at a Hanuman Temple at the edge of the Mela Grounds towards the city of Allahabad proper; the sign reads, in Sanskrit on the left and Hindi on the right, “Shiva resides in the southern portion of the peepal tree, Vishnu lives in its western part, Brahma is located in the northern part, and in the eastern part is Indra”. The line of Hindi running along the bottom asks devotees not to put iron nails in the tree but only to perform puja, a request perhaps meant to apply not just to this specimen but to peepal trees in general.
We have had five days in Varanasi walking up and down the Ganga riverfront, discussing the state of the river with Veerbhadra Mishra of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, visiting the central flower market, and generally getting more familiar with the ritual and commercial life of a dense urban city. Everyone is still in good health and excited about the days ahead. Tomorrow we leave at 7:00 a.m. for the sandy flats of the Kumbh Nagar, the city that has been constructed at the confluence, the sangam, of the rivers in Allahabad. We’ll meet our other colleagues there tomorrow evening. Wishing well to all, 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.