Wordsleuth (2001, volume 34, 3): The Kumbh Mela

Linda P. Collier
(Terminology Update, Volume 34, Number 3, 2001, page 37)

In January of this year, pilgrims by the tens of thousands streamed into Allahabad for the festival of the Kumbh Mela. Every twelve years, worshippers from every corner of the world gather in India to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges. Whether they come seeking absolution for past transgressions or to celebrate, all are awed by the sights and sounds of the festival. The words heard and spoken at the Kumbh Mela are part and parcel of this cultural and religious experience that brings us closer to other peoples and gradually enriches our own language.

The following is a collection of passages containing examples of words relating to the Kumbh Mela experience. For our Francophone readers, I have included French equivalents found on the Internet, and in dictionaries and other sources. In some cases, spelling variants are given.

In one of the most famed akharas (the 16 religious camps in which militant renouncers are organized), amidst a heavy haze of hashish, the Juna holy men play to gawking onlookers who seek signs of holiness and the . . . presence of the divine. (1)
French equivalent: akhara (n.m.) (2)

The sangam, during these hours, is thought to be positively charged by the electromagnetic radiation of the Sun, Moon and Jupiter, so that the water—bathed in, drunk, carried home to fertilize fields—has the healing properties of the amrit, the divine nectar. (1)
French equivalents: amrit (n.m.) (2); amrita (n.m.) (8, 9)

On its banks, they [the pilgrims] sing bhajans (devotional hymns) that evoke and engage the power of the Ganges. The river is alive and redemptive, a goddess. This divine presence is not transcendent or distanced from daily life, but rather evident in the earth and water in their hands. (1)
Spelling variants: bhajjan, bhajana (7)
French equivalents: bhajan (n.m.) (8, 9); bhajana (n.m.) (9)

The sight of India’s holy men—and they are nearly all men—is awe-inducingly arresting. As the living embodiment of the divine, to merely see one is to obtain some of his spiritual energy. The sadhus "give darshan"—they show the divine through their self-imposed austerities. (1)
French equivalents: darshan (n.m.) (4); darshana (n.m.) (9); darsana (n.m.) (5)

As son blesses mother, thus reconsecrating the piety of family relations, so the family is caught up in a living theology of devotion. For a few precious minutes this family lives effortlessly and experiences the truly real at the centre of the world. But, as well, they have performed a ritual of dharma—the duties of right living, adherence to which confers religious merit. (1)
Spelling variants: dharm, dharmma, dherma, dhurm (7)
French equivalent: dharma (n.m.) (4, 5, 6, 9)

At the riverside [of the Ganges], the faithful bathe three times a day, assume yogic postures, recite holy hymns and offer alms of ghee (butter) in pitchers to saints and pundits. Hundreds of small boats ply the sangam, taking bathers out to the centre of the kilometre-long confluence. (1)
Spelling variants: gee, ghi (7)
French equivalent: ghee (n.m.) (5)

The 22 million pilgrims crouching at the riverside are here to re-experience a great battle between the gods and demons over a kumbh (pitcher) containing amrit (divine nectar). . . . The demons seized the pitcher, but Lord Vishnu retrieved it and handed it over to Jayant, the son of Indra, who used Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s winged mount, to flee the pursuing demons. On four occasions, Jayant was forced to repel the demons, and each time, a drop of nectar fell from the kumbh to the earth. Jayant’s travels took 12 days and, since each day of divine travel is one human year, the battle, the gods’ final victory over the demons, and the recovery of the power of immortality, are commemorated every 12 years at the four sites where the immortal nectar fell. (1)
Spelling variant: kumbha (10)
French equivalents: kumbh (n.m.) (2, 8); kumbha (n.m.) (9)

Twenty-two million pilgrims attended the Kumbh Mela, crowded into an area of 50 square kilometres. The heroic proportions to which organizers controlled the gathering attests to the achievement that is India. (1)
Spelling variant: Kumbha Mela (10)
French equivalents: Kumbh Mela (n.m. ou n.f.) (8); Kumbha Mela (n.m. ou n.f.) (5, 9)

The sadhus . . . show the divine through their self-imposed austerities. And show they do, especially the nagas, militant renouncers who have renounced even their clothes. The nagas are followers of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and re-creation. (1)
Spelling variant: Naga (7)
French equivalent: Naga (n.m.) (2)

. . . the sight of intimate gatherings of pious family members at the riverside, conducting their pujas—lighting a wick inserted in ghee in a bowl of leaves to float into the river, singing bhajans, throwing marigolds into the river—gives evidence of a way of living in the world with gratitude and reverence, where quiet worship and wonder give pause to inflated western ideas of self-sufficiency and control. (1)
Spelling variants: pooja (3, 7); poojah, poujah, pujah (7)
French equivalents: puja (n.m.) (4); puja (n.f.) (9)

Yet for most people, myth and experience require concrete validation if they are to be compelling forces in life. Enter India’s holy men, the five-million strong rishis and sadhus who, as sannyasin (renouncers) wander the land naked and without possessions, reminders of an unsullied world prior to the degraded form into which history has thrown the world. (1)
Spelling variants: rishee, richi (7)
French equivalent: rishi (n.m.) (4, 6, 9)

Radhey Puri Baba has not sat down for nine years, and is draped over a cushion suspended by ropes from the top of his tent. He sleeps standing. Three other sadhus have adopted the same self-mortification. One famed sadhu has dreadlocks that are 23 feet long, like Lord Shiva’s whose dreadlocks are believed to be the tributaries of the Ganges. (1)
Spelling variant: saddhu (3, 7)
French equivalent: sadhu (n.m.) (4)

Another way of reading the myth . . . is to see the gods as the divine consciousness awakened by a guru, and the demons as the seductive temptations that prompt humans to strive for permanence in an impermanent world. The churning ocean is the ocean of consciousness, and the rope is the wrestling site where the swirl of passions can be either a conduit to the blissful merging with the Absolute, or the bonds that enslave to the painful world of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. The gods who suspend the churn from above represent consciousness reaching to the Absolute; the demons who anchor it from below represent the infinite repetition and futility of history and time. (1)
Spelling variant: sangsara (7)
French equivalent: samsara (n.m.) (4, 6, 9)

All the boisterous clamour and striving, and the tales of hardship and challenge converted to self-congratulation, come to an abrupt halt when the pilgrims reach Allahabad’s treasure: the unique confluence, or sangam, of India’s three holy rivers—the Yamuna, the Ganges and the mythical Saraswati. Here, in the eternal ebb and flow of the water’s tide, possessions and achievements . . . dissipate. Tens of thousands of pilgrims are awed and rendered silent by the sight, and many are visibly lifted as if into a timeless void. (1)
French equivalent: Sangam (n.m.) (2)

. . . India’s holy men . . . sannyasin (renouncers) wander the land naked and without possessions, reminders of an unsullied world prior to the degraded form into which history has thrown the world. (1)
Spelling variants: sannyasi, sanyasi (3)
English plurals: sannyasin, sannyasi, sanyasi (3)
French equivalents: sannyasi (n.m.) (8, 9); sannyasin (n.m.) (9)

  1. The Ottawa Citizen, 2001, February 11
  2. Le Monde, le 21 janvier 2001
  3. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 1998
  4. Glossaire pour le catéchisme hindou de Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami
  5. Grand Larousse universel, 1995
  6. Le Robert électronique
  7. The Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition)
  8. Le Kumbh Mela (pèlerinage d’Allahabad 2001)
    Webzine Eurasie (http://www.eurasie.net/webzine/index.php?lang=fr)
  9. Dictionnaire de la sagesse orientale, 1989
  10. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1987, Vol. (Terminology Update, Volume) 7

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