Documenting devotion in the East

The Maha Kumbh Mela (the Great Nectar Fair), considered by the Guinness Book of World Records to be “the greatest recorded number of human beings assembled with a common purpose,” has been taking place in India for the last 2,000 years, but not many people in the West seem to know about it. This provoked two filmmakers to travel to the festival and, with a prep time of one month, attempt to capture its essence on film.

It is estimated that anywhere from 30 to 70 million people attend the event, which happens every 12 years in North India at the confluence of three rivers: the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati, the last of which is mythical.

The attendees of the Kumbh Mela consist of sadhus, babas and gurus – all names for authoritative spiritual teachers – and those who seek their spiritual guidance. The vast space is divided into camps led by the different babas, who provide free food for all the pilgrims present.

Much of the movie is focused on the discourses of these spiritual leaders, many of which are given in English. Many of the spiritual leaders spoke directly to directors Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day. The two were led through the festival by a Hindu monk, Swami Krishnanand, whom they met shortly after their arrival in India. In addition to introducing most of the spiritual leaders, Krishnanand provides much of the translation as well.

Some of the babas and gurus focus on the “truths” of the world, many of which seem tailored specifically to Americans – such as the importance of love over money and material possession and the lack of “the inner journey” of the self in the West. Others talk of worldly peace and unity.Although many of the idealistic messages sound cliche, the movie makes an effort to keep the authenticity of the gurus in check. For example, revered young female Silu Acharya claims that of all the holy men in India, only 20 percent are legitimate.

One of the people featured in the movie, Dyan Summers, a nurse practitioner from New York City, found she could immediately tell if a guru was “spiritually connected.” Others, she said, just “want to put on a show,” such as Avadhoot Baba, who walked on shoes made of nails, sat on a swinging chair made of nails and walked on a bed of hot coals, in the name of world peace. Summers and a few other Westerners gave their own perspectives about the festival and India throughout the film, which helps keep the attention of the American viewer, who may feel bombarded by India’s vast cultural differences.

Despite the differences in culture between East and West, the film demonstrates the convergence of the two cultures by, for instance, showing the prevalence of the Internet in India. Internet pavilions are present at the festival, complete with access to Yahoo! and Hotmail, as one pilgrim points out, adding that it’s a great way to post marriage ads.

Some spiritual leaders present at the festival and thus featured in the film are not exclusive to India. The Dalai Lama made an appearance and discussed the importance of religious harmony and human tolerance. Kali Baaba, an African sadhu from Tanzania, provided a short discourse about the duality of the world.

The movie lends itself to the passion within these spiritual seekers and devotees. The directors caught pilgrims and gurus spontaneously breaking into mantras, chants and dances as an expression of their devotion. The grounded cinematography allows the viewer to temporarily step into the festival and encounter its enchanting personalities.

In one scene, the chanting of spiritual leader Deveraha Hans Baba inspired one pilgrim to fall into a trance. Perhaps in an effort to give a cultural translation of what is taking place, techno beats are added as a background to the baba’s chanting. This makes the scene relatable to some Westerners who may have had similar transcendent experiences in a rave or club setting.

After the chanting, the baba says in English: “I am blessing you” and “I live in your heart and everywhere.”

The film, available on DVD, does an incredible job of painting a portrait of the abundance of faith within the devotees at the Maha Kumbh Mela in a simple and easily understandable way. It’s a sharp glimpse into the East and will captivate anyone interested in the cultural and spiritual wonders of India.