This January, over 600,000 pilgrims swarmed onto Sagara island, just off the Eastern Coast of West Bengal, India, to take a holy dip where the river Ganges meets the ocean. Some had traveled thousands of miles for the sacred event – Ganga Sagara Mela.
The story goes that in a previous age, King Sagara of Ayodhya decided to confirm his sovereignty by performing an Asvamedha Sacrifice. As per custom, he let the sacrificial horse loose to gallop freely through neighbouring kingdoms. When the kings of these lands saw the horse, they knew they had to either accept Sagara’s supremacy, or capture the horse and fight his many formidable sons, who followed the animal’s path.
When the horse wandered into the ashrama of the sage Kapila, an incarnation of Krishna, Sagara’s sons presumed that he had captured it, and began to harass him, disturbing his meditation. Incensed, Kapila cursed them and burnt them all to ashes.
Time passed. Many years later, Sagara’s great-grandson, Bagiratha, prayed to Vishnu to send the heavenly river Ganga down to earth to wash the bones of his ancestors and thus liberate them.
Today, spiritual seekers from every lineage and background wash in the heavenly waters, hoping to gain their own liberation. It’s a dizzying, colorful mélange of diversity – there are sky-clad devotees of Lord Shiva covered in ash, saffron-robed sannyasis, and sadhus clothed in leopard skirts, turbans, red robes, dhotis, and saris worn in every imaginable fashion.
Who knows what you might see at these holy Hindu festivals?
In the midst of all this stands ISKCON Mayapur’s “Pandal” tent, its flaps open to any pilgrims who care to enter, no matter how outlandishly outfitted they may be. This year, one hundred devotees from the Mayapur community, including MIHET (Mayapur Institute for Higher Education and Training) and Gurukula students, registered to volunteer their services at the Mela.
Alysia Radder is one of the volunteers. She first met devotees at a Rainbow Gathering in the US, and has attended Hare Krishna festivals for many years. But she says she’s never seen anything like this one. “It just took things to another level – it was pretty darn first class for an outside camp.”
Vaisnavis chop up the veggies for the distribution of sanctified foodstuffs.
Food for Life volunteers worked around the clock to distribute a record 100,000 plates of Krishna Prasada over the course of the five day festival. “They were the camp’s most impressive feature,” Alysia says. “I saw things you wouldn’t believe. I saw people so expertly wield the most bizarre tools in the world – foot knives – that they could chop and peel a six-foot mound of cauliflower and zucchini in a matter of minutes. And I’ll never forget the size of those pots!”
Pilgrims were thankful for the hot, nutritious meals, as well as for the night shelter and medical aid provided. On the holy “Makara Sankranti” day, January 15th, stacks of blankets and clothes were distributed to the sadhus.
Every afternoon, students from the Mayapur Gurukula, a brahmical school for young boys, held traditional Vedic fire ceremonies, invoking auspiciousness and wowing the crowds with hundreds of Sanskrit mantras. Video shows and bhajans entertained guests every evening. Krishna-Balaram deities were kept inside the tent and worship was offered daily. And still, devotees managed to find the time to visit Kapila Ashram, where the divine sage once lived, and pay their respects.
Students from the Mayapur Gurukula hold a traditional Vedic fire ceremony.
Chanting processions throughout the Mela may have been the most electrifying activity, however. “Every day, for four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon, we would parade down to Mother Ganga playing accordians, mrdangas, djembes and cymbals,” says Alysia. “Then we’d circle up onto the beach, and invite everyone to join in. It was the ultimate dance party.”
This blissful festival-goer [name unknown] danced for 8 hours a day during the festival.
Alysia, and all the other ISKCON volunteers who came with her, are unlikely to ever forget their Ganga Sagara Mela experience. “Where else can you wake up at two in the morning to hike down to Mother Ganga with tens of thousands of pilgrims?” she says. “To take bath in the company of calves, sadhus, gurus, coconuts, marigold flower garlands, floating candles, and millions of sticks of incense, burning and lighting up the river.”
“It was a pleasant surprise; it was an amazing adventure.”
For more pictures and video of Ganga Sagara Mela 2008, visit www.mayapur.com.