The river Ganga which originates in the Gangotri glacier in the snow clad Himalayas, descends down the mountains, reaches the plains at Haridwar, flows through ancient pilgrimage sites such as Benares and Prayag, and drains into the Bay of Bengal. Sagar Island, at the mouth of the river Hooghly in Bengal (accessed from Diamond Harbor), where the Ganga breaks up into hundreds of streams, and drains into the sea, is honored as a pilgrimage site, signifying the spot where the ashes of the ancestors of Bhagiratha were purified by the waters of the Ganga.
The Kapila muni temple at this site is a center of worship. The origins of this temple are obscured in antiquity - the current structure being a recent one, housing a stone block considered to be a representation of Kapila Muni; there are are also images of Bhagiratha, Rama and Sita.
A dip in the ocean, where the Ganga drains into the sea is considered to be of great religious significance particularly on the Makara Sankranti day when the sun makes a transition to Capricorn from Saggitarius and this town becomes home to vast fairs, drawing visitors and recluses (sanyasis) from all over the state. The village priest leading his horde of devotees chants sab teerth baar baar, Ganga Sagar ek bar. You can go to all the holy places, but a pilgrimage to Ganga Sagar equals them all. A dip means redemption for all wrong done. This place is Sagar Island, on the confluence of the Ganga with the Bay of Bengal. The day “Makar Sankranti” or the last day of the month of Paus (December).
Legend has it that, before joining the sea, the Ganga watered the mortal remains of King Sagar’s 60000 sons liberating their souls once and forever. It was standing on the Sagar Island that the mythical Kapil Muni condoned th sins of the sons of King Sagar who had dared to stop the horse blessed at Lord Indra’s Aswamedha Yagna and tied it to a post near his temple. It is this legend that attracts people to this little island in a remote southern corner of West Bengal.
The Ganga Sagar mela (fair) is the largest annual assemblage of devotees in India. The greatness of the mela can be assessed from the fact that over a million pilgrims come from far-flung corners of India and beyond, speaking different languages and belonging to diverse castes and creeds, for a sacred dip at this holy confluence. For this, no invitation is given. No propaganda is carried out and overall no authority exists for carrying out the mela.
The journey can be tiring but religious fervour of the pilgrims overcomes all hardships. Kapil Muni ki jai, Kapil Muni ki jai, (Hail Kapil Muni), the din rises above the grinding motors of the launches ferrying the pilgrims across the Ganga and the countless buses plying between Calcutta and Namkhana. The problem of traveling doesn’t deter even the weak and vulnerable. Old people in their eighties, and village women carrying babies and little children in tow are a common sight.
The never ending stream of pilgrims keeps pouring in throughout the day and night before the auspicious day and occupies any available space on the sandy beach. They move about the place in groups, many displaying saffron and red flags, identifying the religious Akhara (group) they belong to as well as acting as beacon to the members who stray out of the group.
People walks to the sound of the bells, blowing conch shells and chanting prayers. Strains of devotional songs can be heard from far and near. And, the ceaseless din of loudspeakers. An array of shops, stacked with heaps of vermilion, rudraksha, colourful beads, conch shells line the pathways. Many a visitor stands wide-eyed before the shops selling everything from food stuff, household utensils to remote controlled toys.
People crowd around the naga sadhus (naked ascetics) without whom the Ganga Sagar mela is incomplete. Sitting naked in little huts near the temple and enjoying a chillum of ganja, (cannabis) they are also the target of tourists’ camera.
While devotees jostle in front of numerous temporary shrines of Hindu deities to pay homage, Kapil Muni’s temple remains the chief attraction. The temple of Kapil Muni, as we see it today, is by no means the spot where the sage meditated. It went under the sea millennium ago followed by the many others built in its place, which subsequently was also swallowed, by the advancing sea.
The present one was built only a few decades ago, quite a bit away from the sea. The tall dome of the temple is visible from a distance. In the temple, three images engraved in stone are displayed, the one in the middle is that of Kapil Muni. The sage is seen in a jogasana; his eyes wide open, looking towards the sea with millions of devotees before him. The idols of Ganga and King Sagar flank Kapil Muni and the horse of the sacrificial yagna stands at a distance.
The typical Ganga Sagar pilgrim is a country rustic, generally elderly, hardy, remarkably disciplined and fervent in his devotion. His dhoti seldom going below his knees, a cloth bound packet, containing everything needed for survival, on his head. And, of course, his women – heavily tattooed and clad in colourful saris.
As the night, pregnant with the auspicious moment, descends, all wait for the precise hour to take the dip. The sandy track to the water’s edge is crowded with people who sit around fires before proceeding for the bath, chanting devotional songs and prayers. The seaside presents a spectacle in the darkness before dawn with the large bonfire lit by the bathers to keep off the cold.
At midnight, the high tide drives the pilgrims back. The biting cold wind of mid – January from across the sea lashes the bare body. But there is a confidence on their faces and a kind of fire in their eyes. The confidence in God and the fire of earnest faith makes them brave the chill.
The stars in the sky have quite a long time to fade when the moment of truth comes. As soon as the priest announces, the auspicious pre-dawn hour, the crowds surge forward to meet the tide with a loud chorus Kapil Muni ki jai and plunge into the sea. Suddenly the place is charged with the extraordinary power of the believers.
After taking their holy dips, the shivering devotees trudge the one kilometre expanse leading to the brightly lit temple of Kapil Muni, where prayers were performed. Coconuts, flowers, vermilion, sweets, and money are offered to the image of the ancient sage.
The bustle of activity continues for quite sometime in the morning as the pilgrims perform a series of rituals including the symbolic godan to Brahmins. A calf is symbolically handed over to the Brahmin priest by the devotee. Many perform the symbolic crossing of the river of blood, baitarani to attain moksha or transcendation. It is interesting to observe the people, clutching the tail of a cow and wading through a puddle a few paces. Many people shave their heads and perform the last rites of departed relatives.
According to the legend, King Sagara of the Ikshvaku dynasty ruling at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh had two queens, Keshani and Sumati, but neither had a child. Sagara performed severe austerities before his wives could produce sons. But whereas Keshani gave birth to a son called Asmajas, Sumati bore 60,000 sons. Sagara performed the Ashwamedha Yagya sacrifice to declare his suzerainty over the neighbouring kingdoms. According to the prevalent custom, the sacrificial horse was let loose and allowed to wander into the neighbouring kingdoms. If the horse was caught, a battle ensued and the outcome decided the winner. The 60,000 sons of Sagara were following the horse when they saw him enter a cavern where sage Kapil Muni was meditating. Not seeing the horse in the cavern, they presumed that Kapila had captured it. They did not kill Kapil Muni as he was a sage but they started disturbing his meditations. Annoyed at being disturbed, Kapil Muni with a curse burnt the 60,000 sons of Sagara.
Time passed and later Bhagiratha, the great grandson of Sagara, chanced to come across the bones of his dead ancestors. He wanted to perform the shraddha of his ancestors but there was no water available for the ceremony. Agastya having drunk all the waters of the ocean, the country was passing through a severe drought. Bhagiratha prayed to Brahma, the Creator, to end the drought. Brahma asked him to pray to Vishnu, the Preserver, to allow the heavenly Ganga, issuing from His big toe, to come down to earth. Vishnu when prayed to by Bhagiratha agreed, but asked him to request Shiva, the third member of the Hindu trinity of Gods, to allow the torrential rain to fall on his head before it came to the earth as the river was very forceful and if she were allowed to come down unchecked, her fall would split the earth. Shiva agreed to take the gigantic weight of the cascading Ganga on the matted hair piled high on his head. This ensnared and delayed the progress of the river which, in meandering through the labyrinth of his hair, lost its force and then gently descended to the Himalayas from whence it flowed to the plains bestowing its waters on the parched earth. And that is why the anthropomorphic image of Ganga is shown in the matted hair of Shiva who is also called Gangadhara. Being born in the Himalayas, Ganga is considered the elder sister of Parvati, who is also a daughter of the Himalayas
Kapil Muni was the son of Kardam Rishi and Daksh's daughter Devahooti. He was Avataar of Vishnu. Kardam Rishi had nine daughters also. After the birth of Kapil, Kardam Muni went to forest for Tap. Later he preached Saankhya Yog to his mother.
Once he was sitting in Samaadhi in his Aashram, that Raajaa Sagar's 60,000 sons came there in search of their father's Yagya horse. They found it tied with a tree nearby him, so they thought that Kapil Muni had stolen it. They started telling him some bad words. Kapil Muni opened his eyes and all of them were burned to ashes.
Then Raajaa Sagar sent his grandson Anshumaan in search of his 60,000 sons. He traced his uncles' footsteps and arrived at Kapil Muni's Aashram. He saw a mound of ashes near his Aashram. He understood everything. He greeted him and came to know the fate of his uncles. He asked him as how he could give them Mukti (emancipation). Kapil Muni suggested him to bring Gangaa on Prithvi so that her water can give them Mukti.