The Cynic, The Believer And The Firangi: Three Perspectives On The Kumbh Mela

A disaffected Delhi journalist, a spiritually keen Chennai writer and a British photographer provide three diverse accounts of their week at Allahabad.


A disaffected Delhi journalist, a spiritually keen Chennai writer and a British photographer provide three diverse accounts of their week at Allahabad.    


 The Cynic’s MAHA YAWN


By Gokul Das


 One look at him and I was reminded of my mother. No, the ascetic who sat virtually at the gate of the camp of the Juna Akhada—the Shaivite or Shiv worshipping seminary that is based in Varanasi—didn’t look like the old mater. Nor did his withered right arm, held erect for 24 years (or “two Mahakumbhs”, as a particularly eager disciple told me) but now resembling a fit candidate for rigor mortis, remind me of her.


The only reason my mind shot back to my mother was a line she used on me fairly often all those many years ago. “Don’t mock another’s faith,” she used to say, half in caution, half in admonition and entirely in exasperation at having produced a pesky, cynical brat.


Unfortunately, the moment I saw the Upright Arm of the Juna Akhada, I knew I was going to disappoint my mother again. Instead of genuflecting in awe, I found myself muttering, “But what’s the point? Why’s the old bugger doing this? Where’s the miracle?”


Nobody around me seemed interested in my prattle. As far as the throng encircling the old man was concerned, he didn’t have to work any miracles, he was the miracle. “Oh you have suchhh an interesting country,” cooed the epigone of the hippie brigade. “Stupid white trash,” I muttered again, being doubly careful not to be heard. Vertical Arm and his folk wouldn’t like it if I offended their chief guests, would they? Anyway, the star of the day was visibly enjoying himself, the centre of the media’s attention.


While his right arm did pretty much the same thing—which was nothing—the left arm clutched different objects for changing spectators. If it was the chillum and the great Indian dope trick, it must have been the Stern photographer. I wonder who the cell-phone pose was for—the correspondent from the Nokia in-house magazine?


It was beginning to irritate me almost as easily as it was enthralling the backpacker pilgrims and enriching sundry ash-smeared fellows who chanted “bumb bumb” while calling for donations. Maybe this was what they called hash cash. “Oooh this is so lovely,” gushed another voice, “the Kumbh is so lovely, it is just like India.” Well, I couldn’t argue with that one. The Kumbh, “the biggest gathering of human beings coming together for a single purpose”, was certainly India, the world’s largest freak show, in microcosm; Bharat, the globe’s most ancient tradition, in miniature; Hindustan, the planet’s most wondrous flea bazaar experience, compressed into a 44-day “shop for your soul/pressure cooker” event.


There were five-star “(other) gods and Indians not allowed” camps for the East Coast smart set. The Himalayan Institute, which operates out of Rishikesh and Pennsylvania and appears dedicated to the moral purification of the lapsed WASP, was a case in point. From Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to the Ramakrishna Mission, the Vishva Hindu Parishad to the Sai Baba centre, the Loknath Baba camp to all hermits big and small, the Kumbh was the cult fiend’s Disneyland.


Naga sadhus—the sentinels of a hermitage, inclined towards shastra (weapons) rather than shaastra (scriptures)—arrived from Bareilly to Bengal. I kept track while they marched to the tunes of Ganga Tera Pani Amrit and Hindustan Ki Kasam. The incongruous music was provided courtesy Allahabad’s brass bands, no doubt celebrating the lengthening of the wedding season. Alongside was the more mundane market, the glitzy village haat—bangles for the wife, utensils for the kitchen and a tractor for the farm. You had to be an “awesome” Yank or a journalist particularly hard up for ideas to be impressed.


Frankly, much of the Kumbh was beginning to leave me cold. I was here to do a job all right. I had to write about the damn thing; so if there wasn’t a stream of passion flowing from the cockles of my heart, I had to bloody well invent one. I could perhaps delve deep into the faith of a peasant woman from Bettiah or Bastar or appreciate the native capitalism of the roadside performers from Calcutta or Jalandhar (as it happens, I met all four) and pretend it changed my life. In reality, it was as everyday an occurrence as lining up at the neighbourhood milk booth.


There were options. I could sigh in delight or simply pretend to when an Israeli interlocutor excitedly told me, “Prayag with Varanasi is Jerusalem of East.” “But Jerusalem is in the east,” I pointed out. My objections were waved away: “Yes, yes, but it is associated with the West.” Oh well, religion needn’t know geography. After all, there was this New Yorker I met who was video-graphing the Kumbh only because her French mother had dreamt of the “spiritual east” (by now, the phrase was giving me ulcers) and, being too old and ailing to make the journey herself, had commanded her daughter to, “Bring India to me.” Isabella and Columbus, what?


So were there only great unwashed Indians and reasonably-to-never-washed foreigners at the Kumbh? Were there any Indians like the sort who read (or write for) this magazine? Of course there were: either day trippers, or whole hordes of journalists.


India’s oldest extant religious event goes back to the times when the Gods and Demons formed a loose JV to draw nectar from the primordial ocean, a deal that ended profitably for the Gods, enabled by a sort of proto-historic honey trap laid by Vishnu dressed as a damsel. The mela was in many ways the phenomenon the media wanted it to be. Consider for instance if the Gujarat earthquake had occurred 15 or 20 days before it did. Would the media circus still have moved to Allahabad? Would bored journalists have written spectacular stories of how the “Kumbh economy was worth Rs 4,000 crore”, a figure and a suggestion even they didn’t believe?


The Kumbh was lucky in that it came bang in the middle of an unseasonal silly season. It was, for two weeks, a cute little diversion. That’s why newspapers, magazines, TV channels and dotcoms declared the Kumbh open on January 9, Paush Purnima (the full moon in the Hindu month of Paush). Fastidious non-media types kept protesting that the first big snan (bathing ritual) wasn’t till January 14, Makar Sankranti. The journos couldn’t be bothered. Details shouldn’t come in the way of deadlines and editors, should they?


Yes, what the Kumbh represented was scale. The 70 million visitors to the mela over a 44 days period—January 9 to February 21, Shivratri—made for an average far higher than the 200,000 who bathe in the Ganga’s waters at Prayag every day. Reasonable civic management—the odd altercation between Hindi heartland policeman and Hindi heartland journalist notwithstanding—kept reporters sufficiently bored. Damn, there wasn’t even scope for that “Oh what a lovely stampede” story everybody was dying to write, shoot or do the piece-to-camera for. In its absence, you just made up any old emotion and wrote an “impressionistic piece” or produced its television equivalent.


What is the great argument this diatribe is trying to make? It’s this: there is a lazy sameness to the way we—the media and its clients—approach events such as the Kumbh. It’s the same contrived search for “colour”, the same tortured pop-sociology of “India meets Bharat”, the same condescending political correctness of “understanding tradition” and placing it “in the context of modernity”, the same unearthing of wisdom where none exists. How many of the participants in this pseudo-discourse actually believe the bilge they serve up or routinely swallow? Not too many, I suspect. It’s a sham but nobody wants to admit it.


In cold accountant’s terms, what did my week at the Kumbh do to my knowledge bank, what did it teach me? It told me that Indians are religious, “god-fearing” people, that they can form queues—even if the poor sods doing so are Bihari and UPite gaonwallahs with a strong tradition of suffering oppression and being told to fall in line—that being a sadhu is among the best jobs in the gainfully unemployed business.


Was there anything here I didn’t already know? What was the whole big deal about the Kumbh? Ma Ganga kept her mouth firmly shut.




WATER’S EMBRACE for The Believer


By Scharada Bail


Weeks before the actual departure, the inner journey has begun. Dreams of water, of large gatherings where the horizon is liquid and blue, begin to appear with some regularity. They are symptoms of the tremendous significance this trip to the first Mahakumbh Mela of the millennium will have for me. One particular dream is awesome. For a few moments, the millions of gods who have been immersed in visarjan ceremonies over hundreds of years, rise up out of the water in a towering, multi-coloured mountain of godly forms. As we stare at them in dumbstruck amazement, the mountain returns to the depths, and we bystanders are left to reflect on shore. All the ingredients of what I am to encounter some days later, are already present in my psyche, reminding me that the seeds of what happens to us always sprout from within.


My trip to the Kumbh did not originate in a rush of curiosity about the inexplicable meeting of millions. It was not out of some intellectual process of analysing the socio-politico-religious forces in Indian society that I went. In these new age times, when peace of mind and relief from stress is near at hand in the form of Reiki, Vipassana, the Art of Living and whatnot, the personal quest for meaning is under threat. Why insist on making sense of your life when guides and gurus abound to show you the way? And yet, if you have decided to learn about Life from the actual living of it, as I have, nothing but first hand experience will do. I went to the Kumbh because, for my very personal quest, it was important to rub shoulders with pilgrims, walk in the dust of river sand, and stand before the sun at the meeting point of three water strands. I wanted to know how it feels.


Arriving at Allahabad from Chennai, your first glimpse of water is after Naini, when the train moves slowly over the bridge across the Yamuna. I was supposed to see this in the dark, with the train reaching Allahabad at dawn. But many hours later, on the afternoon of Mauni Amavasya, I saw the river with both banks crowded with tents, blue water glinting in the sun. A dust filled haze enveloped everything. The sheer numbers of people walking towards the bathing spot created a thin coat of dust which settled over everything you wore or carried within minutes. There was no intervening space visible on roads filled with human heads. The platform at the railway station was packed end to end with people standing—no space even for the squatters and sleepers which are such a feature of normal times. Struggling even to reach the end of the station, I was grateful for this introduction. If I was to make any sense at all of what lay ahead, I first had to understand the numbers.


Mingling with thousands of people, all of whom have gathered at the appointed hour for a tryst with divinity, is something which gives me the equivalent of a New Year’s Eve high. I have wandered among the lakhs of women who gather outside the Attukkal Bhagavathy temple in Trivandrum in February, and cook ‘pongala’ for the Goddess in earthen pots on wayside wood fires. I have walked on a remote countryside road near Tindivanam in the light of the full moon among thousands of others, all wanting a glimpse of Vakrakaliamman. I have stood with thousands of others and watched the chariot of Lord Kapaleeswar and his consort Karpagambal roll ponderously down a Mylapore street, pulled by hundreds of willing hands. Every lurch of the vehicle, accompanied by enthusiastic roars, is sure to find an answering echo in one’s own person.


So the continuous stream of people, with children on their shoulders, belongings on small bundles on their heads, heading inexorably towards the water, was immensely reassuring. Later, in the mela Kshetra, the Kumbh Nagar officially created for the event, I noticed the defining character of this vast crowd. It was a quiet, focused, disciplined crowd, no pushing, shoving, or volleys of abuse. This by itself is much more remarkable than anybody can imagine. Take a rickshaw ride through the streets of any UP town—Agra, Lucknow, even Varanasi. In minutes you will stumble upon a fight. Raised voices, men held in check by their avid supporters, women’s shrill imprecations adding their mite, and the b__and g__and m__words in full flow. But in the entire time I spent in Kumbh Nagar among numbers which are more than the populations of whole towns, I did not hear a raised voice, or a single one of the dreaded words. I had to go to an ordinary street to buy batteries to witness a full-blown domestic row.


The ingenuity, the sheer humble resourcefulness of the Mela devotees, took myriad forms. Leaders of village groups carried tall poles festooned with coloured ribbons which they held high above the bobbing heads. Their fellow villagers just kept glancing up at this as they walked. Other groups had encircled themselves with a rope which they all held with one hand. This was solidarity expressed in an especially fluid form—in constant movement. The officials designated for Mela duty seemed to have received special training in courtesy. The boatmen who solicit you at the banks on ordinary days had all been removed to Saraswati Ghat. And yet, my desire to go out to the centre of the flow made me question a policeman as to where I could get a boat. He looked at me for a few seconds with a mixture of pity and curiosity. Then he said, with exaggerated gentleness, ‘Why is an educated person like you wandering about like this, when every arrangement has been made for you to bathe at the most significant Sangam spot?’ He pointed the spot out to me along with his words, and I would have left, but another man butted in, ‘We also want a boat, where can we get one?’ he asked. The policeman did not change his sugared tone by an iota. Hunching his shoulders at the man, who had heard part of his reply to me, he said, ‘Now I won’t say any more, my head is aching.’ His ‘Ab hamara sar dard kar raha hai’ had a regal ring to it.


The spectacle of the Mahakumbh was the theme which was played out the most in every single account. The awe-inspiring processions of the Mahamandaleshwars, as they leave for their shahi snan, the leaping Naga babas, the pre-dawn dips of the devout, and the international audience for the Kumbh, had all been described in print and on the net, and captured with a zillion cameras. But any regular day in Kumbh Nagar had its own share of lesser spectacle—blind minstrels with one stringed ektaras singing for their fare back home, cowherd boys with red cheeks and their cows covered with blankets returning home after a day’s earning from godaan. They supply the cow that a pilgrim catches by the tail and donates, during a ceremony for his ancestors. Buddhist monks, Sikh sects wearing peacock feathered headdresses, and other exotic denominations were all seen in the Mela embrace.


Being a part of the collective yearning for union with God is definitely to be a recipient of Grace. One feels it somewhere deep inside, a humming of contentment that is a constant accompaniment to all one’s outward actions. When a Guru in human form emerged in my life, long after he had left his body, I became aware of a renewed urgency in my search for meaning. My quest is still deeply personal, but now it is powered by Grace, by the blessing which manifests itself in various forms, and one of the forms is companionship.


A scholarly farmer, a family man committed to final renunciation: it is possible to describe my companion in Kumbh Nagar in several different ways. This was the perspective of the ‘other’ I needed, the complement to my own impressions, which was still in sympathy with my quest. We entered the largest akhara, the hectares of tents occupied by the Naga babas from the Juna akhara. It was impossible not to notice the Boleros and the Sumos, about which there had been such wide mention. Also impossible to miss the pink eyed groups of foreigners who hung on to the words of Naga baba X, sitting narrow eyed against the smoke from his chillum. We passed without comment to a queue, where my companion suddenly turned to me and asked me to join the line. It was the queue to receive prasad, in this case, four gulab jamuns and a cup of tea per person. As we stood together eating this some minutes later, my companion said, ‘It is important to stand and receive prasad like this, to hold out one’s hand and ask. In the annihilation of the ego, it is vital to assume the role of receiver.’ It is not only through charity that one achieves spiritual growth, but also through being its recipient. Could I have learnt this sitting at home, feeling comforted by my donations to various worthy causes?


We made our way through exhilarating satsang, the joyous rendering of God’s name, past pedlars of every form of Hindu spirituality—no guru or group with over a dozen followers was unrepresented—the VHP rubbed shoulders with the Brahmakumaris, and Osho and Gita Press, Gorakhpur drew equal crowds. We slowly reached the meeting of the three rivers where the afternoon sun was giving some warmth. Down the straw covered slopes of the river bank to the moment itself—the dip in the waters.


The very first time I felt Ganga’s embrace, in the icy waters of Haridwar, great fierce sobs had risen out of nowhere and engulfed me. Now I stepped into water that rose first with one brown wave of the Ganga’s stream, then with one blue wave of the Yamuna’s. My toes felt the stony shelf of the bank receding, till I reached a deep enough spot. Then I was looking up at the sun, and going into the water, once, twice, thrice.


Everybody who heard I was going to the Kumbh had asked me to think of them, or take a dip for them. I myself had many important issues to place before the cosmos in this defining moment. But as I stayed suspended in water that was colder than what my fridge can achieve in Chennai’s summer, my eyes winking up at the sun, my mind turned completely blank. A great big smile was beginning somewhere inside me. There was no sign of the tears I had felt at Haridwar. It was sheer bliss—I was exactly where I was meant to be.


Journeys are an integral part of the quest. It is as if one has to step outside the stultifyingly familiar, to better acquaint oneself with one’s true home. For the millions of people whom I joined at the Mahakumbh, the event may have already receded into the distance, as more gruelling mundane tasks engage them once again. But within the realms of spirit from which faith springs, there will always be the memory of the moment, a moment when the ultimate union seemed possible, and words became extinct.




­HEAVEN (AND HELL) for The Foreigner


By Sean Harding


To try and define the Kumbh Mela is to define the indefinable. No amount of words, no photograph or piece of film can accurately convey the feeling of what it was like in person. For the Mela will indeed be a unique experience for every individual who visited. We can get an idea of such events from the media and from the people who have made the pilgrimage but that is as far as it goes.


Therefore to write about the Mela and to give an accurate account of what it was like to be there would not only fill this magazine many times over but it would still never accurately portray the various sounds, sights, noises, etc.  What one can do, however, is to give a couple of examples from my own experience and along with the many more reports and accounts you will no doubt read on the subject, hopefully you will get an idea of what it was ‘really like’.


Up until the point where I left England for India I had seen very little in the media about the Kumbh Mela. In fact the only snippets of information had been courtesy of a friend who was planning on going to the Mela from start to finish. What information I had was minimum. I only knew that it was an important festival for Hindus which was attended by many people. Therefore I was to come to the Mela quite blind, not really having a clue of what to expect.


The commercial side of the Mela was something I was completely unprepared for. I had seen the extent to which advertisements were erected in and around Indian towns and cities, hoardings all around the country selling everything from hair loss cream to ‘panties and bras’  but here at the Mela it just didn’t really seem right. Whatever you wanted it seemed possible to buy here. Stalls selling every type of kitchen utensil imaginable competed for the attention of the ever-moving crowd with shampoo companies, shoe shops, washing machine firms and tractor showrooms. Well I suppose even the most holy amongst us needs to wash his clothes and hair. It was at times like being at the biggest trade fair in the world. I forget the amount of times I was asked to ‘just look’. I was sorely tempted but the cost of getting a tractor back to the UK would have been extortionate.


What shocked me most however about the commercial side of the Mela was the amount of marquees that had been set up by cigarette companies. All the Indian leading brands were represented, as were the ‘continental’ brands. In the week or so I had been here, I was getting used to hearing lectures by prominent yogis extolling the virtues of a healthy lifestyle; about how our body is a temple to be looked after and worshipped. All positive stuff. So what were the representatives of one of the world’s biggest killers doing here?


One of the hardest things about the Mela was actually getting around. Due to its simplistic layout navigation after a couple of days was never really a problem. The difficulties lay in the sheer size of the place and the rigors of walking continuously throughout the day on sand. What at first would seem like a casual 1 km walk to get some food would inevitably leave you feeling like one who had covered 25 km of the Sahara desert. At times the only thing that would keep you going would be the need for food and the sight of a poor cycle-rickshaw-wala struggling with all his might with a family of 4 middle-class Indians on his rickshaw, the sand one quarter of the way up his wheels. It made the desire to complain somewhat trite.


The assault on the senses however is something which I am sure I will remember for a long time to come. An incessant noise from the hundreds of speaker systems relentlessly played throughout the day would perforate your eardrums. Recitals from the Bhagavad Gita competed with the chants from the Hare Krishna movement. A classic Hindu bhajan could scarcely be heard above the scream of the official public address system. And come nightfall there would still be no respite. As the hours rolled on so would the hundreds of invisible tape machines, playing sermons or songs, subconsciously entering the psyches of scores of pilgrims as they slept.


Every evening after the sun had gone down the Mela became a festival of light. Ashrams that would not have looked out of place in Las Vegas were suddenly emblazoned with the brilliance of hundreds of coloured lights; enticing passers-by with the lure of ‘spiritual enlightenment’ rather than winning ‘the jackpot’. Shops, food stalls, internet cafes, STD booths, were all standing in a blaze of light, advertising their wares.


Smoke emanating from the thousands of bonfires used for warmth and cooking however is something that will remain with me for a long time. Mingling with the low fog which descended almost every night, the smoke would be almost suffocating. Water would stream from your eyes, a stinging which was almost unbearable would stay with you until you had reached the relative safety of your tent. Although this would often be just as bad as the people we were staying with undertook all cooking duties inside.


Generosity was in abundance. Whatever anybody had it seemed was there to be shared. Whether it was due to the fact that I was a Westerner I do not know but at times we were treated as if we were visiting royalty. At times this could often lead to embarrassing situations. Take for example the following. I and two others were walking past an ashram when a gentleman of about fifty called us over. As soon as we had reached where he was standing he forcibly sat us down and told us that we would be eating there tonight as ‘to give to the less fortunate would result in a better rebirth’. I know I had not showered in three days at this point but I did not think I looked that bad.   


What we had in fact been requested to join was a ‘soup kitchen’. There was a line of pilgrims numbering about forty, all waiting patiently for their food. A few unlucky ones at the front of the queue would then have their plate unceremoniously taken from them to enable us to eat. Now while I was very moved by this outward showing of generosity and kindness it was a somewhat uncomfortable feeling, although this feeling was obviously not shared by the ever swelling crowd who had stopped and were now surrounding us, staring quizzically at the comical sight of three Westerners covering themselves with rice and dal attempting to ‘flick and roll’ the same. I was not really sure whether we were generally being looked after and made welcome or in fact we were being used as an example to all those waiting in line to be fed, as a lesson in the virtues of generosity.


This generosity was exemplified by the people in whose camp we were staying. Under the watchful eye of Indira Gandhi (at the entrance to this particular camp there hung a four feet poster of Mrs. Gandhi) we camped down with two bank clerks whose ‘hobby’ (their description not mine) was seeking a union with god. These two guys personified for me the definition of generosity and patience. In all the time that we stayed with them never once did they eat before us. We would more often than not have to eat second helpings (and sometimes a third) before we had satisfied them that we had eaten enough and they should go ahead and eat themselves. Only then, with some reluctance would they have their food. (Maybe they were just waiting to see if the food was safe or not and on seeing that we were still alive and well would then feel it was safe to eat.). After three weeks of this unrivalled hospitality they would not take so much as a single rupee for food or accommodation even after much insistence on our part that they should at least accept a small donation. They informed us through an interpreter that they were merely doing their duty, sharing what they had and expecting nothing in return. The Mela was an opportunity for them to share, to show acts of kindness to complete strangers and above all I suppose to gain ‘good karma points’. 


Looking back on the few weeks spent at the Kumbh Mela it is hard to put a finger on one single incident or experience and say ‘that’s what the Mela was all about for me’, the experience was just too immense. I’m not a Hindu and my understanding of the significance of the nectar, urns and parting of the oceans is not too deep although I do find it interesting. Therefore I could never begin to understand how it must feel to be at the Sangam at dawn for a peasant farmer from Uttar Pradesh for example.


What I do know though is that my experience at the 2001 Kumbh Mela will remain permanently etched in my memory. I still feel somewhat ‘shell-shocked’ (analogies with war could be easily made when trying to describe what the Mela was like as indeed the site did resemble a war zone at times) as I have only just returned to normality, so it is a bit early to try and define what the everlasting effects of the Mela are on me.


I will remember the extent to which capitalism existed at the Mela. As with most things in modern society it is inevitable that at any large gathering of human beings (religious or not) there will be a commercial side to it. Although at the Mela it was something I hadn’t really expected or thought about, it did not actually come as any big surprise as I am pretty much used to it living in the West.


Obviously the sights and sounds, the sensory overload are the things I will be telling people about in the future. But most of all the Mela for me was about the people. After all this was the ‘people’s festival’. The generosity and kindness shown to strangers, the freaks, the laughs, Sadhus, hermits, peasants and the rich all coming together in celebration. People from totally different backgrounds, intermingling and laughing as one, leaving prejudices behind. It was this that for me was the true embodiment of the Kumbh Mela. Sharing ideas, philosophies, jokes and stories with complete strangers, not knowing the background of the  people you were talking to and not wanting to, or needing to, just happy to talk and share.


This article was first published in the March 2001 issue


Image courtesy: Shutterstock 

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