Every 12 years, millions visit the river that runs through the city of Nashik, where an ancient religious lineage meets the modern world of high-tech industry and trendsetting fashion

SINGAPORE (Feb 18): My guide Anis, a thin, reedy man, recounted how, in 2015, he had walked the same road we were driving on. The road had been closed to vehicular traffic then and the car had to be parked many kilometres outside the city. The rest of the journey had to be done on foot.

His guests were Hindus from Russia who had come for a once-in-a-lifetime event. Anis had walked with them and the hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims, heading for the sacred spot in the city, along with tens of millions. It was, and still is, the single largest religious gathering in the world called the Kumbh Mela. A tent city springs up literally overnight to cater for the millions who come to where the gods had once bathed.

In Hindu mythology, one of the best-known episodes is the churning of the primordial oceans for the nectar of immortality, amrita. So coveted was this elixir that gods and demons put aside their rivalry, working together to churn the oceans with a mountain as the churning rod and a snake god as the rope that was pulled to and fro.

After all the hard work, a fierce battle broke out between the gods and demons for the precious nectar, which was held in an urn (kumbha in Sanskrit). To prevent it from falling to the demons, a god flew away with it and four drops were spilt over four sites, imbuing them with spiritual significance. These sites are the cities of Allahabad, Nashik, Ujjain and Haridwar, where the Kumbh Mela is held on a rotational basis once every three years, so each city gets to host the festival once every 12 years.

I was in the city of Nashik. In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, the deity Rama, his consort Sita and his brother Laxman were exiled for 14 years. One of the places they visited was Panchavati in Nashik, where Rama and Sita bathed in the Godavari River at Ramkund, where Anis was taking me.

Ramkund is the focal point of the Kumbh Mela. Even during my visit, when there was no festival, the banks of the green river were crowded. There was a festive air, with stalls selling snacks and religious tokens. Besides devotees visiting the temples, it was a place of commerce, with an outdoor vegetable and fruit market and vendors selling household utensils and plastic goods. And there were a few people bathing in the river.

There is a Triveni Sangam, which signifies the confluence of three rivers, although only the Godavari is evident. The other two traditional river tributaries, the Aruna and Varuna, are variously described as “mythical” or conveniently “disappeared”, although they may have been diverted or dried up (as the Godavari itself has, on occasion).

A constant stream of people were visiting the temples by the river. I joined the pilgrims, entering the magnificent 18th-century black-stone Naroshankar Temple. A nandi (stone bull) at the entrance signified that it was a Shiva temple. Trickles of milk and flowers garlanded the nandi. Inside were the sweet smell of incense and flowers, a concentric-circle receding ceiling, richly carved stone walls and pillars cold and smooth to the touch and a priest dispensing blessings to the faithful.

During the Kumbh Mela, millions bathe in the river to wash away their earthly sins. The festival is held over a period of three months, with the dates being determined by the signs of the Zodiac. The main tradition is the ritual bathing on certain auspicious days, but there is an order and timing as to the time of ritual immersion, led by holy men and women from different sects, or askaras.

Yet, in the distant past, there had been an alternative religious narrative in Nashik.

On the outskirts of the city is a small hill covered with forest. Vendors hawk their wares at the dusty car park area at the base and a flight of stairs leads up into the forest. I walked up one evening and arrived at a terrace that offered me a view of Nashik city in the late afternoon sun. Then there were the Buddhist Pandavleni Caves, carved out of the rock face of the terrace between the first century BCE and the third century CE.

The exterior of the prayer hall, the most elaborate of the Pandavleni caves

Less than 1% of the population of present-day India is Buddhist, but Buddhism was once widespread across many parts of India. Travellers and merchants spread it far beyond, hence the great Borobodur in Java, the Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, China, and the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, among others.

Although the caves in Nashik are a mere shadow of the stunning Buddhist caves at the Unesco World Heritage site of Ajanta, also in Maharashtra state, the Pandavleni Caves give one a peek into the religious beliefs and traditions of yesteryear.

Most of the 24 caves are living quarters that comprise a large hall with side chambers or monastic cells. These are not rough excavations — they are large, with straight lines, smooth surfaces and pillars, the result of considerable architectural and engineering expertise and sheer manpower.

One of the caves, far more elaborate than the others, is a prayer hall, with a high, vaulted, ribbed roof simulating a wooden construction. A stupa stands at the far end of the hall where monks once congregated for prayer.

The stupa within the ribbed vaulted hall of the Prayer Hall cave at Pandavleni

Several of the caves are elaborately decorated with figures of Buddha and other celestial beings, as well as ornamented pillars. In front of some of the caves are reservoirs, which had been commissioned by kings as well as wealthy families and merchants.

Its religious significance and ancient traditions have not held Nashik back. A city of over a million people, it is a hub for high-tech industries, notably aerospace and IT.

It is also gaining a reputation among the younger generation as a spiritual capital of a different kind. I could scarcely believe that I was in India, looking down at acres and acres of vineyards from the balcony, with soft music in the background. The vibe was more Californian than Indian.

Vineyards and winemaking in India? Winemaking is in its nascent stages in the country but Nashik has long been known as the “grape capital of India” due to the soil conditions and climate. Its luscious, elongated grapes are sold at local markets and exported to other parts of the country and abroad.

Sula Vineyards, about 40 minutes’ drive from the city, is one of the best-known winemakers in the Nashik area. It has the largest market share in India, with about 70%. It was founded by a returnee from the US and produced its first wine in 2000 with the help of a Californian winemaker.

Sula produces a variety of red and white wines from 3,000 acres. There are wine tours with wine-tasting opportunities and a bar with a view of the vineyards also serves food. Sula also hosts a mass gathering — the annual Sulafest — which is not of a religious nature. The two-day music festival, now in its 10th year, attracts thousands of people with its sounds, food and drink.

In this ancient, holy city, there are two worlds coexisting with no sense of irony or confused identities. One is of an ancient religious lineage, steeped in mythology where millions congregate, while the other is a torchbearer for the modern era, in both technology and social trends.

Lee Yu Kit is a contributor to The Edge Malaysia