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FATAH: Kumbh — the world's largest gathering of humanity

Author: Tarek Fatah
Publication: Toronto Sun.com
Date: February 13, 2019
URL:      https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/fatah-kumbh-the-worlds-largest-gathering-of-humanity/amp?__twitter_impression=true

Imagine if all the people of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and New York City collected at one place, all 20 million of them in an area of 32 sq. km with one objective — immersing themselves in a literal lake formed by the confluence of three rivers.

This was the scene last Sunday in India on the banks of the mighty River Ganges as it embraced the Jamuna, its sister tributary from the Himalayas at a place where the ancient Saraswati river (now dried up) met. This amazing religious festival and gathering of humanity is known as the “Kumbh Mela.”

An incredible mass of humanity moved slowly, singing hymns and chanting ancient tributes to the Gods of Hindustan in a tradition going back thousands of years and today recognized as the world’s largest gathering of people. Yet, there was no chaos as an ocean of people moved, back to back, each occupying no more than a square metre around them with not even a hint of commotion.

It was in the footsteps of these Hindu pilgrims that I too took the road to Kumbh on Tuesday. I don’t know of many Muslims who have taken the path, but then I owed this pilgrimage to my Indian ancestors who until the mid-1800s were also Hindu until they converted to Islam.

Forty years ago I had performed a similar pilgrimage involving holy water and absolution. This one was in Mecca — the Hajj. The sight of 2 million souls, all attired in white, removing all distinction between the powerful and the pauper, had left a deep mark on me despite my secular skepticism of religions.

At the Hajj in Mecca, Muslims came and have been coming for more than 1,400 years to absolve themselves of their sins with a purpose to start afresh with a clean slate. In Mecca too, water from an earthly source, the well that produces what we Muslims refer to as “Aab-e-ZamZam,” the nectar of life, is said to cure the body and cleanse our souls.

But there is no question, the Kumbh Mela of the Hindus dwarfs the Muslim Hajj not only in the number of people, but also the colour and festivity that separates the two. While the Hindus open their pilgrimage to all of humanity — atheist to Buddhist, Christian to Muslim — the Hajj is strictly for Muslims with non-Muslims prohibited from even entering Mecca.

There is wisdom in both, but Kumbh is the king of all religious events that involve water, whether it’s a dip in the River Jordan in Israel, the Zamzam well in Mecca or the Ganga-Jamuna confluence in the city of Prayagraj, a 5,000-year old tradition that is recognized by UNESCO as a Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

At the “Sangam” (meeting point of the rivers), I walked for miles meeting and chatting with “Naga Sadhus,” holy men of Hinduism who keep their distance from worldly people and appear only at the time of the Kumbh festival and then retreat only to appear 12 years later when the sun, the moon and Jupiter are in the right astrological alignment.

Mark Twain visited the Kumbh Mela in 1895 and had this to say: “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”
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