It was a marriage unparallel. Lord Shiva, the dancer of death, was on his way to celebrate union and life. There was immense joie de vivre; all the dancing, singing and gallimaufry. The treble of spirited celebration, the exuberance and the fulfillment of years of penance.
The Mother of all Creation, Goddess Parvati, was decked in flowers and all ceremonial embellishments; her never fading beauty beyond words of description.
The marriage was unique in more ways than one. The bridegroom had smeared his body with ashes and wore lion’s skin. His matted hair were bundled together into a knot on his head with a peacock feather pinned in it. A shining crescent of the moon glowed in the heap of locks and a sprout of fresh blue and cool Ganges sprung forth with a sprint.
Holding a trident, the most benevolent of all deities, yet the fierce Shiva rode a bull, and accompanying him were a peculiar lot of his closest companions and most ardent devotees.
When the dancing celestial damsels, and gods and goddesses in all their magnificence hurried to precede Shiva’s procession in their aerial cars, thinking the bridegroom to be unworthy of their grand procession, the large-hearted Lord extended an invitation to all his attendants in the world.
They rose from the graves and flew from crematoriums, ghosts of every order, in all the strangest forms to partake in the revelry. Some of these creatures had several heads, some none at all, there were others with many eyes, and others still who had eyes placed in the stomach. Some had heads of mules or pigs or dogs but with human bodies; such was the enormous troop of spirits and goblins.
The story goes that in the Himalayan kingdom where Goddess Bhavani had been born, King Himachal and Queen Maina were stunned to see the marriage party. However, sages such as Narada came and counselled them about the reality of the bride and groom being the parents of all that is contained in the cosmos. The depth of eternal truth dawned on the simple folk of Himachal and with great joy and affection, the wedding ceremony was performed.
As the Mahakumbh in Allahabad culminates on Mahashivratri, I remember the festival and all its oddities and draw parallels with the fete.
Mahakumbh is in a sense also full of rare peculiarities. The scale is one that is never seen anywhere in the world with hundreds of millions descending on banks of the Sangam at Prayag.
Attending the Kumbh mela, I was awestruck at the entire construct. The flow of the river had been contained to reduce the width of the stream so as to use the riverbed to pitch durable tents and lay roads made of iron sheets.
The planned symmetry of all dwellings and widespread amenities served a gigantic assembly of humanity. Much like the guests during Shiva’s marriage, the attendees at Mahakumbh made for a colourful hotchpotch that was as heterogeneous as it can probably get in the real world.
There were the photo-op characters; the naked sadhus, the mendicants wearing bizarre attires, or massive dreadlocks and abnormally sized rudrakshas. There was the brazen lot that could run on fire, others who never sat, or stood only on one leg or with an arm always suspended in the air.
There was the other horde of curious foreigners, many being photojournalists and researchers – this year Harvard had sent a team.
There were all the akharas which had set up large pavilions with colourful flags denoting their sect and provided shelter, where hymns were chanted and congregational singing took place. There were preachers who recited stories related with God and astrologers who promised to predict the future.
In the midst of the colossi was the simple folk – much like the inhabitant of Himachal in Shiva’s tale. With only devotion in his heart and with a promise of fulfilling an auspicious religious duty, he treaded hundreds of miles to perform puja and bathe in the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati.
He may be overwhelmed by all the events in his life, but the promise of union with the Lord is a great motivator, lending enthusiasm and verve.
Like Mahashivratri, Mahakumbh is more ancient than antiquity and both thrive in perpetuity. The first account of the Mahakumbh was found in the notes of Chinese monk Hsuan Tsang in 629-645 AD when King Harshavardhana ruled. But even before this, references of the congregation can be found in our holy texts like the Bhagavata Purana.
References of Mahashivratri are of course found in several of our religious books including the Shiva Purana.
Both the festivals depict a convergence of different people, classes, sects, languages but more importantly, they reflect a deeper meaning, the keen desire of the ordinary human to obtain godly heights. The ambition to break the stranglehold of ordinariness through penance and ritual to tread variegated paths, so as to achieve the single ultimate goal of life.
Mahashivratri and Mahakumbh are finally and above all the symbolic marriage of our shraddha (devotion) with our unwavering vishwas (faith).