Although I live with my family just an hour‘s drive away from Haridwar, I wanted to stay overnight this time, during the auspicious Mauna Amavasya (no moon day in the Magha month, January / February, and the last Amavasya before Mahashivratri). It is a favourable day to take a dip in Ganga, a bath that is called “Mauni Amavasya Snan”…
Amāvásyā (Sanskrit) means no moon, or new moon. On Amavasya, the Earth sets itself between the moon and the sun, and hence the moon doesn’t receive any light from the sun. The word ‘mauni’ or ‘mauna’ signifies silence. Many yogis, sadhus and saints observe complete silence on this day. It is a good time to meditate, to restrain and calm the restless mind.
I had booked a hotel in advance as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were to be expected.
Unlike during my last visit – when I reached Hariwar early morning with cold fog still hanging above the city – this time I arrived after lunch. Under a bright blue sky I sat down for tea in the hotel’s garden, right on the banks of Ganga. It was a sunny, pleasantly warm afternoon and I wondered where to walk from here.
At the neighbour table a group of four women began chanting. It was the most melodious version of the Bhagavad Gita. Never before have I heard such sweet flowing chant of this epic story. And certainly not open air in a hotel cafe. The residential two dogs, an older desi dog and a labrador type puppy, joined us and laid down on the lawn nearby.
The atmosphere was magical. As if transported back to ancient times and yet the prevalent feeling was that of delightful timelessness. And spacelessness. Familiar, yet also detached.
Eventually I got up and started my stroll along the river towards Har Ki Pauri in the city centre. Shortly after leaving the hotel premises, a couple of young Indian girls crossed my path. We laughed – without reason – and spontaneously took some selfies.
Ganga had quite some speed. Luckily, the water was only slightly muddy, despite the glacier crash and landslides in the upper Himalayas three days before. The river still had its typical emerald hue. Little did I know that in the evening, during the Aarti (famous daily fire ceremony), torrents of dust and sand heavy waters would reach Haridwar. Srinagar Dam, located up in the mountains, decided to unleash parts of the avalanche which they had contained til then. All of a sudden, the water level rose significantly, the colour changed to brown and strange milky mud particles formed swirling psychedelic patterns. I was hopeful that Ganga would calm down and recede by next morning. And I was puzzled. Could the hydro project authorities not have waited one more day with the opening of the mountain dam to release the floodwater, until after the important bathing date?
Different kind of patterns, namely beautiful bright wall paintings were on walls, bridges and buildings all around town. Murals depicting scenes from ancient scriptures, pretty ornaments as well as humorous takes on the lives of saints and saddhus, creating a refreshingly artistic Look & Feel. It seemed not a single grey surface was left empty.
Along the banks of Ganga, a multitude of people came together. Sadhus, yogis, sellers of flowers, balloons, snacks and candyfloss, village women, business ladies, children of all ages, dogs, birds and cows, police by foot or by horse, individuals, couples and families, locals and guests, on the phone and off the phone, walking, playing, sitting, resting, reading, sleeping, chatting, eating, contemplating…
And how many thousands of people attended Ganga Aarti that evening. It was inspiring and elating to be amongst these trusting and devoted Souls who did not shy away from joining the Kumbh Mela, who did not allow fear over a virus with a 99% survival rate to suppress their aliveness and stifle the natural human inclination to move, travel, socialise, be free.
At dusk I walked back to the hotel, and I felt lucky to be able to witness also the smaller light ceremonies held by the ashrams and temples at the riverside. Maybe you can imagine the scene. Right after sunset, echoeing bells, ghee lights everywhere, intense incense, mantra chanting priests, circulating fire lamps, singing devotees… Cute palmleaf boats packed with good wishes and offerings such as aromatic flowers, sugar pearls and camphor candles getting launched onto Ganga Ma and float away on her waves.
Thursday, 11. February 2021. I woke up early and the first thing I did when I got out of bed: check Ganga’s water level. Low. Too low for a bath! What the heck is going on?
I met one of the “four ladies” in the hallway. She was checking the river status too. It turned out she and her friends came from Delhi for only one night.
I returned to my room and sat in silence for a while. What now? Ok, chalo! I ordered tea and decided to go for a morning walk in the neighbourhood.
Upon crossing the first bridge, I could hear and see lots of activities on the ghat (terrasse) facing the river. Pundits, priests and other people met in small groups and prepared special pujas for the day. Complex spiritual rituals including fire ceremonies, flower / fruit offerings and mantras. Every few meters there was such a gathering, or an individual alone.
In view of the low water level a proper dive into Ganga was not possible and so devotees, men and women, used a metal lota (vessel) to collect Ganga water and pour it over their bodies.
I realised that in all those years in India, I never experienced a low water level. Henceforth it did not occur to me at all that a container might be necessary to collect the water for today’s holy bath. A Lota is what I needed but there was no such shop around. I continued my walk, and bought a palmleaf boat filled with roses, marigold, incense, mishri (sugar) and a camphor candle. On the way back to the hotel a pundit offered me light (fire) and blessings. He was wearing a cap with “Victory” written on the front.
I moved on and continued to scan my mind for a solution to the snan challenge. The only option I could think of: the 1 liter plastic jug from the bath in my hotel room. Oh, so unprofessional! My (ex-)corporate mind was looping. Why did I not bring a lota from home? A plastic pot for Ganga snan, how ugly. Diletante! But then I heard my true inner voice: Marina, you do it from your heart, and that is what counts. Your intention matters, the container does not matter.
(Note: on one of the following days, back at home, I consulted my trusted Ayurvedic doctor, UshaJi, as to which lota / which metal is most beneficial for Ganga snan. She recommended a copper vessel.)
To cut a potentially long story short: that morning, when the sun came through and hit the ghat in front of the hotel, I stepped out with the plastic jug, the small flower boat and a matchbox. While I left the hotel premises, the four ladies from Delhi were absorbed conducting their puja in the garden. Their chanting was the background sound for my puja.
I climbed down the extremely slippery ghat stairs towards Ganga. The still wet mud from the high level water was covering each step. A priest popped up out of nowhere and watched me. When I lit the diya, he started to recite mantras. Optimal orchestration. Though I had to focus on keeping balance on the muddy ground, I felt a surge of beautiful energy, and gratitude. Five big icecold splashes over my body and one prayer later, I returned to the hotel. Refreshed and happy. Ready for dry clothes, and another chai!
Was I worried about Ganga’s water quality? Yes, and No. I had asked the hotel manager about the unusual mud. He told me it was Balu, a type of sand / mineral dust, and nothing to be concerned about.
In any case, Mataji Vanamali once told me the story of a good king who was deeply immersed in Sadhana as well as Bhakti for his family deity, Lord Padmanabha. One day, one of the king’s enemies bribed the temple priest to poison the king’s prasaad, but due to his unshakable devotion and faith, he survived the toxic attack… I always liked this story, which is true by the way. And I applied its message the morning of Mauna Amavasya.
“This is the space that offers rare opportunity to dissolve all fears and transgressions of the rootless modern times into the unity and bliss of surrender in the arms of the Divine Mother Ganga. It is a great blessing that faith conquers all reservations, in the absence of the gawkers, hooters or the eve teasers, in an atmosphere of simple celebration of pure faith and nothing else. It is time that more ‘modern’ Indians also learn to discard the faithless veneer of superiority to connect with the timeless beliefs at the core of this powerful tradition of the kumbh snan.“
– Pia Prasad, journalist
The Kumbh Mela has only just begun. From March onwards, when the Royal Baths (Shahi Snan) are scheduled and the Akharas have built their camps, crowds from all directions can be expected.
Here a short video I put together.
#KumbhMelaHaridwar #kumbhmela2021 #gangasnan
All photos and videos © Marina 2021 – No utilisation without my written permission
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