India’s Kumbh Mela (literally, “Pitcher Festival”) is mind-boggling in scale. The largest gathering of humans in one time and place, the event is held every three years, roving between four locations across India. While all four of the events are “mega” in scope, the Maha Kumbh Mela, held on the twelfth year in Allahabad at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers, is the granddaddy of them all.
“The Maha Kumbh Mela is above all an extraordinary spectacle,” Namit Arora, a documentary filmmaker who attended the 2013 Kumbh Mela, told The Diplomat. “Some of its locations, such as the bathing areas and the camps of the Naga ascetics, are full of intense human drama and sociological complexities.”
So great is the size of the gathering that the crowds can purportedly be seen from space. The Maha Kumbh happened to fall in 2013, starting from January 14, and goes until Sunday. On February 10 alone (the main bathing day) an estimated 30 million people, from ash-covered holy men to earnest pilgrims, filed into the Ganges River to take a dip in its frigid waters in the hope that the act would wash away their sins. Photos of this immense bathing ritual can be seen here, while some of the diverse characters populating the event can be seen here.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In his introduction to River of Faith, a documentary he produced from his time at the Maha Kumbh Mela this year, Arora wrote that “ascetics, sadhus, saints, gurus, yogis, sunyasis, bairagis, virakts, fakes, misfits, and crooks of various sects of Hinduism… camp out in tents on the riverbank, lecture and debate, drink milky-syrupy chai, smoke ganja and hashish, and are visited by pilgrims seeking spiritual renewal.”
The dedication earnest pilgrims need to reach the sacred spot is not to be taken lightly. In an academic essay titled Seeing, Being Seen, and Not Being Seen: Pilgrimage, Tourism, and Layers of Looking at the Kumbh Mela, Dr. Kama Maclean, associate professor of South Asian and world history at the University of New South Wales, cites a litany of problems and dangers that may befall visitors to the Kumbh Mela, as originally proposed by British sociologist John Urry.
These include: malaria, Giardia, tuberculosis, food poisoning, water contamination, being trampled by Naked Sadhus (as happened at this year’s Kumbh Mela on February 10, leading to 36 deaths at Allahabad railway station), hepatitis, typhoid, rabies, Japanese encephalitis and plague.
“While hazardous travel is styled among some travel subcultures as valiant (think: backpackers’ circuit or the hippies’ trail), this remains an impressive and not entirely exaggerated list of perils to face,” Maclean writes in the paper.
Faced with these risks, armchair travel is an appealing alternative to the real thing. Responding to this need to visit events like the Kumbh Mela virtually, photographs, text and video (like National Geographic’s Inside the Mahakumbh) documenting the scale, drama, color and occasional tragedy of the event have flooded online media outlets during the past two months.
If anything, the spectacle of up to 100 million pilgrims gathering near the bank of the Ganges has attracted perhaps too much attention from both domestic and global media organizations. As a result, the Kumbh Mela has become saturated by and transformed by media coverage to a degree we may not yet comprehend. One result of this media hype can be seen clearly on display at this year’s Maha Kumbh Mela: The festival has become intensely commercial.
“The Kumbh Mela has certainly become more commercial in recent decades,” Arora told The Diplomat. “Not so much due to its coverage by the Indian media, which mostly focuses on urban middle-class lives…. Far more central to the Mela's commercialization, in my view, is the wider penetration of the market economy and associated aspirations across small-town and rural India.”
This push, which Arora calls an “appeal to the masses” – domestic in this case – has not been limited to India. Western travelers toting copies of Lonely Planet dutifully make their way to the Kumbh thanks to the hype that now surrounds the event in the Western imagination. In Seeing, Being Seen and Not Being Seen, Maclean notes that the event is on the list of 100 Things to Do Before You Die, a consumer’s guide to adventure travel.
“The backpacker’s bible, Lonely Planet, recommends that the intrepid traveler endeavor to hire a boat at the sangam ‘with Indians on pilgrimage’ on board, so that their experience of the mela is as ‘authentic’ as possible; there is no consideration of how this might impact the pilgrims, who in all likelihood have traveled long distances at great expense to perform their rituals.”
Alas, not even a boat ride with real pilgrims guarantees an authentic experience at the Kumbh Mela today. According to an article in Pitch – which offers reduced figures of 80 million for this year’s Maha Kumbh Mela, resonating with Maclean’s assertion that accurate data is hard to come by – marketing ran amuck at this year’s Kumbh. “A sea of brands have taken a holy dip at the festival; each vying for the crowd’s attention through innovative branding and advertising,” the article reads.
From branded roti (unleavened bread) designed to promote the HUL (Hindustan Unilever) brand of soap to more than 15 Coca-Cola vendors dotted across the festival’s grounds, consumerism was fully entrenched along the mighty Ganges this year.
While it’s easy to be hypocritical in judging these things – after all, the Western world is responsible for inventing the bulk of consumer culture that has overrun traditional events like the Kumbh Mela – it’s a sobering indication of the true extent of consumerism’s reach.
Religious festivals play an intrinsic part in people’s lives the world over, but their environmental impacts can be far from ethereal. We look at what actions are being taken to green some of the biggest events in the world’s religious calendar.
Hajj: tread kindly
Nearly three million Muslims head to Mecca in Saudi Arabia every year to complete the Hajj pilgrimage. However, the event’s spiritual benefits come at an environmental cost, with litter and transport-related emissions high on the list of impacts.
Muslim pilgrims can now obtain advice on how to reduce their environmental footprint in the Green Guide for Hajj. The guide is available in English, Arabic, Hausa, Bengali, and Bahasa Indonesian.
Published by the UK-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation, the booklet encourages pilgrims to take jute or cloth bags and prayer mats to Hajj and to use reusable drinking bottles instead of plastic equivalents. They are also advised to select travel agents based on their sustainability credentials and to purchase only eco-friendly products in preparation. When visiting the holy sites of Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat, pilgrims should ideally ditch their cars and travel by the Mecca metro rail service instead.
Mecca is one of 30 or so pilgrimage destinations participating in the Green Pilgrimage Network. The network recently established an alliance with the R20 Regions of Climate Change initiative, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two groups hope that the region might feature in its list of model green pilgrim cities, to be published at next year’s UN climate change summit.
Kumbh Mela: river clean-up
From July to September 2015, an estimated ten million or so Hindus are expected to descend on Nashik, a city in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Their purpose will be to bathe in the sacred Godavari River as part of the festival of Kumbh Mela. Local environmental groups are already raising concerns about pollution levels in the river, however. Following a public interest case brought by a local NGO, a Bombay court has ordered the city’s municipal authorities to undertake a clean-up operation.
Efforts to green the Kumbh Mela form a key part of the city’s proposed plan. Among the ambitious goals recently unveiled by the city government is the elimination of plastic-based products during the festival. Pledges have also been made to deploy extra police on the Godavari’s banks in order to prevent people from throwing ritual offerings and material waste into the river. Nets will be fixed to pedestrian bridges with a similar pollution-prevention aim in mind.
In addition, the municipal authority says it will take steps to stop people washing clothes, animals and cars in the river. As part of the ‘Green Kumbh’, a major public awareness campaign about water pollution will run before and during the event too. Initial outreach in schools and colleges is already under way.
The tinsel is up in shop windows. That means three things are in the offing: Christmas Day, piles of presents and, come Boxing Day, mountains of rubbish.
But do Christmas festivities lead to an overloading the UK’s landfill sites? Not if we get recycling, green groups say. E-cards are a simple alternative to paper cards, and recycled cards such as those sold by Nigel’s Eco Store, are also better for the environment. Also, consumers can take their cards down to a local Marks & Spencer store to be recycled. Through a partnership with the Woodland Trust, the UK retailer promises to plant a tree for every 1,000 cards handed in during January.
Recycling schemes exist for other Christmas-specific paraphernalia too. Many local councils, for example, arrange specific collection services for real Christmas trees. The trees are usually shredded into chippings, which are then used locally in parks or woodland areas. The anti-waste campaign group Love Food Hate Waste, provides numerous recipe ideas for any uneaten turkey and other yuletide leftovers. Composting wreaths and paper chains is another recommendation from the government-backed initiative, Recycle Now. As for the tinsel? It’s not recyclable, so bin it or – better still – try to live without it.
Shmita: give consumerism a rest
Most religions have something of the counter-cultural about them, so reclaiming religious festivals from the clutches of mass consumerism is perhaps apt. It’s an approach much on the mind of some Jewish organisations in this Shmita (sabbatical) year, which began on 25 September.
In response, Jewish Social Action Forum is launching the ‘Give It A Rest’ campaign. As part of the initiative, the group is calling on the Jewish community to give to food banks during Mitzvah Day on 16 November.
The move builds on previous efforts to use events in the Jewish religious calendar to raise awareness around sustainability issues. In 2014, the Canary Wharf Group held a tree-planting ceremony to mark Tu B’Shvat, while in the previous two years the non-profit Big Green Jewish Organisation ran the Year of the Bagel (2012) and the Year of the Bike (2013) to highlight issues relating to sustainable food and green transport.
This year it is encouraging the Jewish community to ditch fast fashion in favour of sustainable clothing alternatives as part of its Shmita Fashion Campaign.
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