At the international media camp at the Maha Kumbh, Valeria Feroli sits relaxed and glowing, her auburn hair left uncombed after a bath. The hazel-eyed Italian sips coffee after taking a holy dip twice on a day when more than 30 million others bathed at the Sangam — the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers — in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.
“I took two baths and it is overwhelming… the experience is something that cannot be described in words,” she says proudly.
She stayed awake all night with countless others to catch a glimpse of holy men heading to the river in procession. These included hordes of Naga sadhus hollering ‘ Har Har Mahadeb ’ and saffron-clad monks blowing conch in collective frenzy. It was the day of the Mauni Amavasya snan, also called Shahi Snan or royal bath.
Undeterred by fears of stampede, Valeria is among 40,000 foreigners who are officially part of the grand carnival, which commenced on January 14 and continues until March 10.
India holds a special meaning for Valeria because she deals with herbal medicine and the country is a repository of that ancient knowledge.
“You guys should protect your patents for all the traditional knowledge,” she says. The Maha Kumbh was timed perfectly with her sixth visit to India. At the Kumbh Mela, she is one with an endless stream of people.
There are countless women from remote villages, many of whom carry their belongings in a neatly packed cloth bundle on their head.
Mamata Yadav of Katni, in Madhya Pradesh, huddles with daughter Lakshmi and husband Damodar in a camp of devotees listening intently to a woman preacher.
“We came all the way for the darshan of Ganga mai (Mother Ganga) and for the holy bath. The bath is one of wish fulfilment, my lifelong desire to wash away sins,” says Mamata, voicing the belief of countless like her who see the Ganga river as a purifying force.
At the akhara (camp) of a rather stoic-looking sadhu, a French woman was seated quietly, with just one wish in her heart — to make a godaan (gift of a cow) to the holy man. With the seer not showing any interest in accepting it, the woman wanted to know what she should do to make him agree.
“Do I send it from Paris by air?” she asked at one point. The holy man merely smiled and asked her to be patient.
Beside her a bunch of Americans and Frenchmen were seated. One of them, Olivier Duhamel, is a doctor from Paris.
“I am moved. I am moved by what I see and feel here,” he says.
“I discovered spirituality in the real sense here. I learnt to see inside, and I want my family back in Paris to know what it means to be at Kumbh.”
The Kumbh at Prayag (Allahabad) is considered the most significant, as according to Hindu belief this was where creation began. According to the Matsyapuran, bathing at the Sangam during the Kumbh is equivalent to crores of pilgrimages. Prayag is believed to be the place where one drop of the amrit (immortality nectar) fell after the gods and asuras (demons) fought over it during the samudra manthan (churning of the milk ocean). Three more drops fell at Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, respectively - the other sites for Kumbh melas.