According to Hindu mythology, the great protector Lord Vishnu once scattered the immortal elixir Amrita from his overflowing kumbha (pot). Each drop fell upon four sacred locations throughout India.
Every three years, Hindu pilgrims and revered holy men converge on these hallowed places to take part in the largest gathering on Earth: the Kumbh Mela.
Conks and brass horns bellow amidst the throng of humanity. Thousands of men – saffroned sadhus and naked naga covered in ash – march to the water’s edge.
The air vibrates to a song of devotion, the harmony of millions, gathered for one cause; to rejoice in the presence of the Gods. Truly an astonishing site to see.
Yet with all the theater and pageantry, one may easily overlook what must become glaringly obvious.
The sequestering of women. Where were they? What role did they play within this spiritual society?
For many women attending the mela, it was a simulacrum of their lives outside of it: tending to chores and managing the children while their husbands, sons and brothers handle matters beyond the camp.
For this reason, their presence felt understated. But despite the restrictions in autonomy, they walked daily to Sangam, the confluence of the three holy rivers, to pray and offer pooja. Generations of women, hip deep in the river qua deity Ganga, partaking in that which they held most sacred.
So as round after round of sadhus now cleansed of ash begin their triumphant stride back to camp another final wave arrives. They stand, adorned in the iconic yellow and orange. Yet they lack the telltale beards.
This akhada (group of sadhus) is made entirely of women. Proudly, they step into the water, and while man-made laws prohibit them from removing their clothes, they know this step reveals much more than what remains hidden. [kes]