Despite hardships, kalpvasis go back from Kumbh ‘in bliss’: Indo-British study

An Indo-British study has shed light on the lives of kalpvasis, who are generally believed to be the core that goes into the making of a Kumbh Mela, or even the annual Magh Mela, which is held on the banks of Sangam here. And the study concludes that, despite hardships like extreme cold, "crowding" and having only basic infrastructure to survive for a month, kalpvasis return home with a better sense of well-being.

The study says that this is primarily because of a sense of shared identity, bonding with the fellow kalpvasis and the fact that they are able to live out their beliefs in a community framework, where each supports the other.

A kalpvasi is a person, mostly from the rural areas of northern Indian states and generally belonging to the higher caste, who leaves his family and worldly trappings to spend one entire month of Magh on the banks of Sangam. He or she eats once a day, bathes twice daily in the river, keeps away from spicy food, abjuring onion and garlic and focuses on listening to spiritual discourses. They keep away from gossip. Many of them take the pledge of spending this annual one month for 12 years, hoping to attain salvation.

Thousands of kalpvasis spend an entire month on the banks of Sangam every year during the Magh Mela. These numbers are estimated to swell into several lakhs during the Kumbh Mela. The month of Magh this time will be starting on January 27.

The study, which was released officially on Thursday, was conducted by a team of the Allahabad University and at least four British Universities - Dundee University, Exeter University, Queen's University and University of St Andrews.

One of the team leaders, Prof Stephen Reicher of University of St Andrews, said: "Generally, our perception about crowd is negative. We do not want to hear cacophony. We do not want people jostling for space. But for kalpvasis, this turns out to be a blissful experience. It is because they are not competing with the other. They all have the same goal and each helps out the other. In our jargon, this can be explained by three things — shared identity, relationality and collective self-realisation; all of which culminates in a positive experience."

Prof N Srinivasan, head of the Centre for Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences, said: "We put the kalpvasis through two types of cacophonous sounds — one from the mela, which included bhajans — and the other was that of the city sounds. The kalpvasis liked the previous sounds, feeling bliss."

What started out as Indo-British collaboration on the subject in 2005 later gave way to a full-fledged research between 2007 and 2012. A sample size of around 400 kalpvasis, before, during and after the Magh Mela (and the Ardh Kumbh Mela of 2007), was studied. The team also studied over 100 of those who did not attend mela as kalpvasis. According to Prof Srinivasan, collating the data generated from two sample sizes, the researchers were in a position to say that the kalpvasis went back with a better sense of well-being. Some of the findings of the research have been published in reputed journals like Lancet.

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