Foreigners gather at India’s religious Kumbh Mela festival

A record 22.5 million people, including foreigners, plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 22 January 2019
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Foreigners gather at India’s religious Kumbh Mela festival

  • Foreigners too are among the ascetics, saints, sadhus and spectators thronging the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers
  • A record 22.5 million people plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last Tuesday

ALLAHABAD, India: At the Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest religious event, millions of Indian Hindus are not the only people bathing in the sacred waters to wash away their sins.
Foreigners too are among the ascetics, saints, sadhus and spectators thronging the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers in northern India for what is billed as humanity’s biggest gathering.
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati grew up in a Jewish family in California but moved in 1996 to an ashram in Rishikesh — the town made famous internationally when the Beatles visited in 1968 — and changed her life and her name.
“I was on holiday with a backpack and when I got to Rishikesh, on the banks of the sacred Ganges, I had a very deep, very very powerful spiritual awakening experience which made me realize where I need to be, where I need to spend my life,” she said.
The 47-year-old is among the worshippers taking a dip at the Kumbh, which is expected to attract well over 100 million people over the next seven weeks.
“The reason we take a bath in the sacred waters is to achieve immortality ... immortality of the soul,” she said.
“It felt amazing, it always feels amazing... Normally only the body gets wet but here you actually feel like your inner self is getting wet, your heart, your soul is getting wet, your spirit... The depth of my being is being touched.”
A record 22.5 million people plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last Tuesday, according to local officials.
Nearly 30,000 police helped by drones buzzing overhead have been deployed to oversee crowds and prevent stampedes.
A vast tent city with restaurants, roads and marketplaces has sprung up along the river, with pilgrims camped out across a sprawling 45-square-kilometer (17-square-mile) zone.
Westerners who have immersed themselves in Hindu spirituality include Baba Rampuri, who claims to be the first foreigner to be initiated into India’s largest and most ancient order of yogis, the Naga Sannyasis of Juna Akhara.
The surgeon’s son — reportedly born William A. Gans — grew up in Beverly Hills and moved to India in 1970, and like Saraswati is active on Facebook and Twitter.
“I am not a great believer in modern technology, or the consumerist messages being sent out through the medium, but we have to make people aware that we exist,” he told the Indian Express.
Another is Sir James Mallinson, the dreadlocked fifth baronet of Walthamstow and British academic ordained as a mahant, or Hindu priest, in 2013. He also runs a paragliding firm in the Himalayas.
Many of the foreigners at the Kumbh are simple tourists though, keen to see the ash-smeared, pipe-smoking Naga sadhus, naked except for beads and flower garlands.
One ascetic has had his right arm raised for seven years. Another has been standing for eight months and aims to do so for another 43 months.


Saudi crown prince’s visit to Pakistan raises hopes for trade boost

Updated 22 min 51 sec ago
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Saudi crown prince’s visit to Pakistan raises hopes for trade boost

  • Experts say the strong strategic and defense relationship needs to be extended to trade cooperation

ISLAMABAD: The Saudi crown prince’s visit to Pakistan must be utilized to open new avenues of cooperation between the staunch allies, Pakistani analysts said.

Mohammed bin Salman is expected to bring with him a record investment package, including a $10 billion refinery and oil complex in the deepwater Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea.

Former Pakistani diplomat Javed Hafeez said bilateral relations have so far mostly revolved around defense and strategic cooperation, but there is a need to “diversify” and focus on trade and economic cooperation.

“Trade between both Islamic countries is minimal, and this needs to be enhanced to the fullest,” Hafeez told Arab News. 

There is huge potential for Pakistan to increase its exports of food items, garments, medicines and sports goods to the Kingdom, he said.

“The crown prince’s visit is good news for Pakistan, as this shows Saudi Arabia’s close association and love for our people,” Hafeez added. 

The crown prince has emerged as “one of the most influential figures in the Muslim world,” and his visit to Pakistan will “definitely open new avenues of cooperation between both countries,” Hafeez said. 

Last year, Saudi Arabia agreed to give Pakistan $3 billion in foreign currency support for a year, and a further loan worth up to $3 billion in deferred payments for oil imports to help stave off a current account crisis. Pakistan has so far received $3 billion in cash.

Rasul Bukhsh Rais, professor of political science, said the crown prince’s visit is a “welcome move at a time when Pakistan is struggling to improve its image as a peaceful country in the international community.”

Rais added that Islamabad should include Saudi Arabia as a third partner in the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which aims to turn Pakistan into a major route linking western China to the world.

“Saudi Arabia can easily connect to China and Central Asian states by using Pakistan’s strategic location in the region,” he said. “Wider economic cooperation between these countries will help the whole region prosper.”

International affairs analyst Zafar Nawaz Jaspal said the crown prince’s visit will help expand bilateral relations and accelerate much-needed trade and economic cooperation.

“The crown prince’s visit … will help materialize numerous investment projects in Pakistan,” Jaspal added. “In today’s world, mutual economic association and bilateral trade … are considered to be a yardstick to determine the depth of the (Saudi-Pakistani) relationship.”