THE ARDH KUMBH Mela, held from 15 January to 4 March this year, was attended by approximately 120 million people from across the world. In Prayagraj, the word 'Kumbh' brings to mind the picturesque vision of the Triveni Sangam " the sacred confluence of rivers. The chance to take a holy dip in the Sangam, to witness the chanting of Vedic mantras, the 'Shahi Snaan' of Akharas, Tatvamimansa by rishis, to listen to spiritual music are some of the reasons devotees are drawn to this event.
The Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj stands in contrast to the Kumbh at other places. The tradition of long-term Kalpvas (a month of prayers) is practised only in Prayag. The Triveni Sangam is termed the centre of the earth in a few scriptures.
It is also believed that Lord Brahma performed the yajna to create the universe here. The most important reason, however, is that the significance of performing rituals and tapas at Prayagraj supersedes the significance of pilgrimages and rituals at other destinations. It is said to bestow one with the highest virtue.
The word 'akhara' is a distorted form of the word 'akhand', whose literal meaning is indivisible. Akharas are concerned with social order, unity, culture and ethics. Their main objective is the establishment of spiritual values in society. A sense of unity prevails, though Akharas are divided into various organisations.
Naga sages are usually associated with an Akhara, and these Akharas hold special significance.
Akharas are of three types: Shaiva Akharas, where the favoured deity is Lord Shiva; Vaishnava Akharas, where Lord Vishnu is the favoured deity; and Udaseen Akharas, whose founder is said to be Chandra Dev, the son of the first Guru of the Sikh community.
THE JUNA AKHARA is the oldest and largest of the 13 sects that set up camp at every Kumbh to pray, offer lectures on religion and bless their visitors. In 2019, there was an addition to this Akhara " the Kinnar Akhara, composed of trans and intersex people and hijras. They refer to themselves as Kinnars " neither men nor women.
After centuries of ostracism, the Kinnar community's challenge to the Hindu establishment reached fruition.
In 2018, trans activist Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, who is the spokesperson of the Kinnar Akhara, stated that she and her community will be participating in the 2019 Kumbh Mela. This decision was set in motion after the Supreme Court's historic judgment striking down parts of Section 377.
Being part of the Juna Akhara gave these queer people the right to take the holy dip (Shahi Snaan) on auspicious days.
More than 40,000 visitors thronged the Kinnar Akhara. Having seen them on various social media platforms, in the newspapers, and listening to them on the radio, everyone was keen to get a glimpse of Mata Lakshmi, a kinnar.
Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, who was the face of this fight to be part of Kumbh, and Bhawani Maa, a Kinnar, are looked at as Mahamandaleshwars (leaders of a religious group/province).
Kinnars are deities in themselves. They are often considered divine in our country and in our religion. Many of them talk about how the people who earlier used to shut their doors to them, today come seeking blessings from them. How the community, once despised, is today being worshipped and the Kinners considered as demigods in the religion. The people of the city of Prayagraj opened up their arms, hearts and gave a very warm welcome which in so many years has never happened in any Akhara, they say.
In the Akhara, various performances took place " from singing, dancing, various plays " while people waited in long queues to get a glimpse of the Kinnars and seek their blessings. People came with their families and discussed personal and work problems, asking for solutions. It was a sight to behold.
PAVITRA NIMBHORAKAR, who looked after the administrative duties and ensured the comfort of the order's roughly 2,500 members " mostly transgender women " during the Kumbh, comes from a small village in Maharashtra and had opened up about her identity to her family in 2003.
She says that the young kinnars come and join the community to seek guidance from the Mahamandaleshwar. She talks about how their families should support their identity and not discourage them; how they shouldn't live in makeshift homes, shouldn't beg or get into prostitution. They should live a happy and peaceful and follow the path of righteousness, she says, adding that they should be granted freedom to live and work wherever they want like any other human being and should be treated equally.
Damini, who is 32 years old and lives in Mumbai with her family, has been associated with Kinnar Akhara for the last five years. She talks about how at the age of four she felt that she was born to be a girl as she used to play with girls, dress up like them. She later did confess to her family about her identity, who supported her.
Priya, who is 31 years old and lives in Kolhapur, talks of a widely different experience. She realised she was different from the others at the age of 10, the same year she was also raped by a couple of young boys. She was devastated as she did not have anyone to share her problems and her family did not support her. She left her home and her school. She is now a Lavani dancer who dances at various social gatherings and works in and around Maharashtra. She also believes immensely in God and is very devotional. She is also extremely proud to be a Kinnar.
THE AGHORI PUJA was performed at the cremation grounds at midnight by the Kinnars for the entire duration of the Kumbh Mela. Every night for two hours, Bhawani Maa, the Mahamandaleshwar of Uttar Bharat, dressed in her attire with a garland of skulls around her neck and chanted the name of the Lord.
This Puja is the worship of Goddess Kali, who resides in the cremation grounds. She is aptly referred to as "Shamshaan Kali".
The Kinnars differ from other sages in their practice of the Aghori Puja.
While sanyaasis perform it for self-fulfilment, Kinnars pray for the good of the world. Lay people are not allowed to attend the Puja, but the Kinnar Akhara gave them the opportunity to witness the proceedings.
The Puja normally necessitates an animal sacrifice, but the Kinnars do not believe in it. Instead, they perform it by pouring havan samagri (a mix of herbal roots, leaves and other sacred items dried and mixed in specified quantities), pumpkins and cereal into the fire.
All photographs courtesy of Rashi Arora