Multiculturalism runs deep in the social fabric of India. Among the several religions that are practiced along the length and breadth of the country, Hinduism is the largest, with 80% of the Indian populace adhering to it. The Gangasagar Mela (Mela-fair) is one of the largest Hindu festivals in India and is celebrated each year on the holy day of Makar Sankranti, which marks the shift of the sun into the Makara (Capricorn) and the end of the month with the winter solstice. Makar Sankranti always coincides with either the 14th or the 15th day of January. Every year, millions of pilgrims from across the world come to Sagar Island in West Bengal, a state in eastern India, to participate in the magnificent Gangasagar Mela. This is the most significant spiritual carnival in the country, second only to the illustrious Kumbh Mela in northern India, held from the 13th to the 15th of January.
The river Ganga flows into the Bay of Bengal at Sagar Island, located 140 kilometers to the south of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. The island boasts beautiful beaches where sunlight glistens off the silver sand, and the bright azure of the calm night sky makes you feel at peace. Along with spectacular natural beauty, Sagar Island has a profound mythological connection. According to Hindu mythology, it is at Sagar Island that King Bhagirath made the river Ganga descend on the Earth from the heavens, thereby releasing his 60,000 forefathers from the curse of the great Vedic sage, Kapil Muni. The water of the Ganga, deemed to be holy by the Hindus, is said to have hit Sagar Island on the day of Makar Sankranti. The Gangasagar Mela is held every year to celebrate this legend and has turned the island into a cultural landmark that is thronged by people, irrespective of ethnic identities, keen on witnessing the customs associated with the fair.
At the break of dawn on Makar Sankranti, thousands of people take a dip in the holy (and icy!) water of the river Ganga at its confluence point with the Bay of Bengal, to cleanse their souls off all sins. People also offer their prayers to Lord Surya (Surya-sun) and their forefathers. The overwhelming sound of the collective chanting of the mantras, the stunning sight of innumerable diyas (oil lamps) floating in the river, and the whiff of righteousness and unshakeable faith in the air, make for an elusive transcendental experience. The unmistakably elaborate rituals performed by the reclusive, ash-smeared, dreadlocked Naga Sadhus (Naga- naked, Sadhu- ascetic) add to the mysticism of the celebrations. Afterward, the Hindu pilgrims offer their prayers at the nearby Kapil Muni Temple to be absolved of their sins.
Sagar Island is located in the Kakdwip subdivision of West Bengal. You can board any Kakdwip-bound bus from Kolkata’s Esplanade bus depot, near the New Market area, to reach Harwood Point, commonly known as Lot no. 8, in about three hours. From there, a ferry ride across the Muriganga River will make you reach Kachuberia from where Sagar Island is an hour-long bus ride away. Buses also depart from the Babughat Bus Terminus which is about 2 kilometers away from the famous Prinsep Ghat. Alternatively, you can board the Sealdah Kakdwip Local or the Sealdah Namkhana Local from the Sealdah Junction Railway Station in Kolkata to reach the Kakdwip Railway Station. Harwood Point is about four kilometers away from the station.
More than 3 million devotees visited the largest spiritual carnival in eastern India in 2019. Is it crowded? Yes. Is it overcrowded? Probably, yes. Yet, is it worth it? A resounding yes. The Gangasagar Mela witnesses the second largest human congregation across the world annually! The various traditions of its diverse ethnicities make India stand out as a distinct global civilization. And the Gangasagar Mela on Sagar Island is one of the biggest religious and cultural festivals that holds pride of place in the culture of India. Take a dip in the Ganga with thousands of people, take in the sacred ambiance of the festival, spend some time with the people visiting from different corners of India, and take a long walk on one of the serene beaches. I assure you that your time spent at the magnificent Gangasagar Mela will be an experience of a lifetime.
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