Kumbh Mela as Experienced by a French-Canadian Indophile


By Manu Shah

HOUSTON: Ancient seers would have said that Mathieu Boisvert, a Canadian, has a karmic connection to India.  He not only speaks Hindi and Sanskrit but also has a diploma in Pali and has been to the Magha Mela five times and twice to the Kumbh Mela.

Touted as the largest human congregation on the Earth, the Kumbh Mela draws people from all over the world with the tantalizing promise of freedom from the earthly cycle of birth and death. An entire city, the size of Athens is constructed and deconstructed in weeks to accommodate a population that swells to that of Texas. Lasting 55 days, the Kumbh Mela of 2013 drew a record breaking million people who came either as the curious onlooker, the researcher or the faithful pilgrim.

According to the Vedas, during a waging war between the demigods and demons for the elixir of eternal life, a few drops fell on four places that are today known as Prayag (the site of modern day Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik.  It is believed that these drops gave mystical powers to these places and it is to make oneself gain these powers that the Kumbh Mela has been celebrated in each of the four places for as long as one can remember.  The normal Kumbh Mela is held every 3 years, the Ardh (half) Kumbh Mela is held every six years at Haridwar and Prayag while the Purna (complete).  Kumbh mela takes place every twelve years at four places Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik, based on planetary movements.  The Maha Kumbh Mela is celebrated at Prayag after 144 years (after 12 Purna Kumbh Melas).

Pictures from the kumbh mela of Allahabad.

Pictures from the kumbh mela of Allahabad.

Mathieu’s journey to the ghats of Allahabad began when he received a grant from the Shastri Indo Canadian Institute in 1999 to conduct research on Hindu ascetics. As Professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal with a Doctorate in Religious Studies, Mathieu’s focus was Hinduism, Buddhism as well as the phenomenon of pilgrimage and transmission of traditional knowledge. Little did Mathieu realize how this journey and the stunning display of faith by pilgrims towards the Ganga would forever change his life.

Mathieu was fortunate to stay with one of the chief Purohits of the Kumbh Mela – Pandit Sharma with whom he developed a deep abiding friendship. With this ringside view he witnessed the reversal of roles between the pilgrims (kalpavasis) and the ascetics (sadhus) during the period of the mela.

 The kalpavasi or pilgrims who pledge to come for twelve consecutive years to the Magha Mela for an entire month, to drink, cook and bathe only with Gangajal, religiously reciting the Ramcharitamanas are householders (grhastha)  temporarily living the life of an ascetic.  On the other hand, the sadhus live as householders with the gurubhai, with their “family”, enjoying good food and communal life during the period of the mela.  He did however notice that the pilgrims tended to keep their distance from the sadhus fearing their siddis or magical powers.


Mathieu did get to mingle and talk to several ash smeared, matted haired sadhus boasting supernatural powers during the melas but they left him unimpressed.  What moved him was the dedication, devotion and the heart felt faith of the pilgrims towards the life giving force of the waters of Ma Ganga.  Did he brave a dip in the Ganga?  The answer is several times, in fact every time he goes to Allahabad.  However Mathieu draws the line at drinking gangajal despite pilgrims telling him that it’s just that his faith isn’t strong enough! Visiting the melas as many times as he has, he could not help but absorb some of the deep reverence the pilgrims foster towards Ma Ganga.

Since 1999, Mathieu returned to Prayaga several times as a scholar, a researcher as well as with his older brother and two sons in order to introduce them to Ma Ganga. Mathieu also takes groups of graduate students to Gangotri and Gomukh every two years so that western students can study and witness the devotion that so many hold towards that river they deem sacred. Presently, Mathieu is on his way to Gangotri with a group of 14 students from Quebec for the sixth time.