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Phuket Media Watch: Hindu pilgrims stream to mythical river in their millions for Maha Kumbh Mela

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Phuket Media Watch: Hindu pilgrims stream to mythical river in their millions for Maha Kumbh Mela | The Thaiger
PHUKET MEDIA WATCH
– World news selected by Gazette editors for Phuket’s international community

Millions take to the Ganges at largest Hindu festival
Reuters / Phuket Gazette
PHUKET: Upwards of a million elated Hindu holy men and pilgrims took a bracing plunge in India’s sacred Ganges river to wash away lifetimes of sins today, in a raucous start to an ever-growing religious gathering that is already the world’s largest.

Once every 12 years, tens of millions of pilgrims stream to the small northern city of Allahabad from across India for the Maha Kumbh Mela, or Grand Pitcher Festival, at the point where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet with a third, mythical river.

Officials believe that over the next two months as many as 100 million people will pass through the temporary city that covers an area larger than Athens on a wide sandy river bank. That would make it larger even than previous festivals.

After a slow start, police chief Alok Sharma said 1.5 million people had gathered by 8 am local time (9:30 am Phuket) today, with more on their way.

Two dreadlocked men riding horses emerged from thick camp smoke before dawn, followed by a crowd of ash-smeared and naked holy men, or sadhus, one incongruously wearing a suit jacket. At exactly five minutes past six (7:35 am Phuket), they yelled and dashed dancing into the river.

That the ancient festival grows in size each time it is held partly reflects India’s expanding population, but is also seen as evidence that spiritual life is thriving alongside the new-found affluence of a growing middle class.

The ritual “Royal Bath” was timed to match an auspicious planetary alignment, when believers say spiritual energy flows to earth.

“I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,” said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold. He said he gave up a career as a senior civil servant 40 years ago to become a holy man, travelled on foot and for decades ate only nuts and fruit.

The festival has its roots in a Hindu tradition that says the god Vishnu wrested from demons a golden pot containing the nectar of immortality.

In a 12-day fight for possession, four drops fell to earth, in the cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujain and Nasik. Every three years a Kumbh Mela is held at one of these spots, with the festival at Allahabad the holiest of them all.

More than 2,000 years old, the festival is a meeting point for the Hindu sadhus, some who live in forests or Himalayan caves, and who belong to dozens of inter-related congregations. The sects have their own administration and elect leaders, but are also known for violent clashes with each other.

Some naked, some wrapped in saffron or leopard-print cloth and smoking cannabis pipes, the holy men hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated with coloured neon lights, where they are visited by pilgrims who proffer alms and get blessings.

Techno Babas
Despite their asceticism, the sects, known as akharas, are moving with the times. Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji, who leads one of the main groups, has a Facebook page. Some gurus advertise on billboards and posters to attract followers, others drive trucks and chat on cellphones.

At the riverbank, men with dreadlocked beards to their feet vied for media attention with yogis supporting heavy weights with their genitals, while others holding golden umbrellas, flags and swords rubbed sand on their bodies after the dip.

“I feel pleasure,” grinned Digambar Navraman Giri,” who said he had not sat down for a year, even sleeping on foot. “This is why I became a sadhu,” he said, steam rising from his body in the cold air and wearing nothing but two rings on his fingers.

Baba Ram Puri was given to his guru by his parents when he was barely one year old. At 31, he is now a young spiritual leader himself and says Indians with disposable income want to support traditional holy men.

“They earn a lot of money but they don’t get peace, so they turn to spirituality,” he said, sitting on cushions by a smoking fire. “That’s why we continue to grow in strength.”

Jim Mallinson, a Sanskrit scholar and expert on sadhus, says that, while exact numbers are hard to come by, it appears the sects are growing in strength and size, and the fair is becoming more religious.

“I suspect it is because the emerging middle classes are more than happy to spend their surplus cash on sustaining the sadhu tradition,” he said.

Mobile phones and better roads also make the festival more accessible, while a thriving Indian media make the festival well known all across the country. There is even a smartphone app to guide pilgrims around the site.

“I won’t become a sadhu, I want to be a cricketer,” said Gaurav Vashisht, 21, a business student from New Delhi, whose family gives money to support one of the sects. “It’s very important that this should survive, it’s a great Indian tradition and has been going on for so many years.”

The festival attracts global followers too, with a number of foreigners ordained in the hierarchy of sadhus, including Baba Mangalannand, who is also a popular trance music DJ under the name Goa Gil. He first came to the festival in 1971.

To cope with the flow of people, authorities in the state of Uttar Pradesh have installed 35,000 toilets, laid 550 km (340 miles) of water pipes and 155 km (95 miles) of temporary roads at the riverbank site.

Mostly, though, the festival’s spirit does not change. Pilgrims make their way there without advertising, announcements or buying tickets. The sadhus show off yogic feats, catch up with old friends and discuss scripture, just as they always have.

“The Indian people don’t change their attitude to spirituality overnight, we’re not like the West,” Ram Puri said, laughing. “That’s why in India the spirit is strong.”

— Phuket Gazette Editors

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Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

Thailand

Cannabis could generate 8 billion baht for Thai pharmaceutical industry by 2025, expert says

Caitlin Ashworth

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Cannabis could generate 8 billion baht for Thai pharmaceutical industry by 2025, expert says | The Thaiger

Cannabis could become a major cash crop in Thailand. An expert says the cannabis-based medicinal products could generate up to 8 billion baht for the Thai pharmaceutical industry by 2025. Medical cannabis has been legal in Thailand for the past couple years, but recently the government agreed to allow parts of the plant with very, low traces of the “high-inducing” component tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to be in medicinal products and food.

Cannabis-based medicines have been used as palliative treatment for some cancer patients in Thailand. Last year, nearly 1 million patients used cannabis-based medicines, according to an economist at Kasetsart University’s Agricultural and Resource Economics Department, Ravissa Suchato.

Around 1.2 billion baht worth of medical cannabis was consumed last year, according to Ravissa, who led a recent study on the economic impact of commercial cannabis cultivation in Thailand. If the average consumption rises as expected, medical cannabis could generate 8 billion baht within the next 5 years.

“We believe marijuana has great potential as a cash crop because more patients will start using marijuana-based drugs soon.”

In the past, Thai officials have discussed the opportunity to tap into the global cannabis market by exporting medical cannabis, but Ravissa says Thailand still has a way to go.

“Globally, the recreational use of marijuana has risen a lot faster than pharmaceutical use, so the prospect of exporting marijuana-based medicines from Thailand is still a long way off.”

Parts of the cannabis plant that are rich in THC, like the buds, are still illegal and classified as a Category 5 narcotic. Trafficking the plant is still heavily criminalised. Just over the past few days, border patrol police in the Northeastern province Nakhon Pathom seized hundreds of kilograms of dried, compressed cannabis believed to have been trafficked across the Mekong River from Laos and destined for the South, possibly to Malaysia.

SOURCE: Thai PBS

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Crime

Another drug bust near the Mekong River, 500 kilograms of cannabis seized

Caitlin Ashworth

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Another drug bust near the Mekong River, 500 kilograms of cannabis seized | The Thaiger
PHOTO: MGR Online

In another drug bust in Northeastern province Nakhon Phanom, police arrested a man and seized 500 kilograms of compressed cannabis. Just yesterday, border patrol police in the province seized 920 kilograms of compressed cannabis from a boat on the Mekong River. In both cases, police suspect the cannabis came from Laos, just across the river.

Police say they searched a black Nissan Navara pickup around 1am in the province’s Na Kae district. Police opened the truck’s bed cover and found 12 sacks with 500 packages of dried, compacted cannabis. Each package of cannabis weighed 1 kilogram, similar to the previous bust on the river.

28 year old Saravut Butngam was arrested. Saravut previously worked in construction, but has recently been unemployed. He allegedly told police that a man called him with an opportunity to make 50,000 baht. He was told to drive the pickup truck from a petrol station in the Na Kae district to a specified location in the neighbouring province Sakon Nakhon, police say. From there, another driver would take over.

Border police commander Sippanan Sornkhunkaew says he suspects the cannabis seized in the province was trafficked from Laos across the Mekong River. He says he believes the cannabis was planned to be trafficked to Southern Thailand and then smuggled across the border, possibly to Malaysia.

On Sunday morning, police confiscated 920 kilograms of cannabis from a boat on the Mekong River. When police approached the boat, men jumped off onto a smaller boat and fled the scene. The dried, compacted cannabis was wrapped in 1 kilogram packages.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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Drugs

Police seize 920 kilograms of cannabis smuggled across the Mekong River

Caitlin Ashworth

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Police seize 920 kilograms of cannabis smuggled across the Mekong River | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Thairath

In a major bust on the Mekong River, notorious for drug smuggling, border patrol police seized 920 kilograms of dried, compacted cannabis from a boat along the Nakhon Pathom riverbank, bordering Laos.

Police were tipped off about a large shipment of drugs being trafficked across the Thai-Laos border. Police spotted a boat around 4am yesterday. When police moved in, men onboard the boat jumped onto a smaller boat and sped off. Police found 23 sacks filled with 1-kilogram packages of compressed cannabis.

Police seize 920 kilograms of cannabis smuggled across the Mekong River | News by The Thaiger

PHOTO: MGR Online

In the recent months, police have seized more than 5 tonnes of cannabis. While the Thai government has been loosening measures on cannabis, allowing parts of the plant with low traces of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to be used in food and medicinal products, trafficking cannabis is still illegal. Cannabis with high amounts of THC is still classified as a Category 5 narcotic.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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