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The Maha Kumbh

Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal


Faith. Salvation. Sin. The holy Ganges . The naked ascetics with ash-smeared bodies. The hermits with matted locks. The believers with prayers. The agnostics with questions. The curious. The bystanders. Nearly 55 lakh people, one river and the Maha Kumbh that comes every 12 years. The mythical duel between the gods and the demons and the churning of the milky ocean for the kumbh (pot) of amrit (elixir of immortality). That one drop of holy nectar which fell on Haridwar. The diktat of Adi Shankracharya and the beginning of Kumbh Mela in the 8 th century… On way to Haridwar for the Maha Kumbh, the vignettes, the metaphors kept running in my head like a faulty diskette, the inner allegory distracted by large hoardings on the dusty streets - of politicians, sadhus, godmen/women welcoming everyone to the Dev Bhoomi (Land of the gods) for the Maha Kumbh, of colossal posters spewing gyan on global warming and everyday billboards written in appalling English. A day before Maha Shivratri, the first Shahi Snan, the streets seemed laden with faith and honking furiously, vehicles stuffed with people were hurrying past; I could see wrinkled faces wrapped in faith; young men in fake D & Gs and hair streaks gone horribly wrong, girls in chandelier earrings and ill-fitting jeans and even security commandos with necks and guns craned out of a gleaming car. Countless people. One road to Haridwar. One reason: Salvation.

That evening Haridwar was almost fortified, vehicles had to be parked beyond the city limits. I looked at my stilettos and baulked at the thought of walking through the narrow lanes lugging my bags. Thankfully, the rickety scooter of Kali Shankar, the manager of Leisure Hotels Maha Kumbh Camp, came to my rescue. Riding pillion and holding on to my nerve as the two-wheeler cut through thousands of devotees, I sighed when the scooter screeched outside the painted arch of Lahore House; beyond its gigantic wooden door, a bonfire, a gurgling Ganges and my luxury tent waited. But faith was still lingering as a question – what is it that drives millions to take a dip in the Ganges ? What?

The Maha Kumbh had started on January 14, but the first Shahi Snan (royal bath) fell on Maha Shivratri (February 12) and the entire world seemed to be milling towards Haridwar, which literally translates into Gateway to Gods. Noga and Yehuda Sameach from Ness-Ziona , Israel , wanted to soak in the spiritual moment. Frail and cragged, Shanti Anjan Pal was sitting by the bridge, keeping an eye on her bare belongings. At 70, Pal’s eyes were riddled with pain; she had come all the way from Kolkata - all she needed was salvation and she knew the Ganges would not disappoint her. Saraswati Das, 65, came with 250 other women from Nadia district of West Bengal. Renu Kataria had driven 200 kms to take a dip – she knows not about sin and salvation. “I love the Ganga , that is all I know,” she adds affably. Joy Thakar, a dapper travel agent from Surat , delves into astrology to rattle off the importance of the Maha Kumbh. In crocs and Sophia Lauren sunglasses, Mimmi Bartoli flew in from Milan because she believes India is her mother (this is her 10 th trip to India ), while for a balding Maurizo Parravicimi, an Italian HR Manager, with beads around his neck and sparkle in his eyes, Kumbh is a spiritual step. His friends call him a ‘Spiritual Man’; Parravicimi dimples and laughs off the tag. In the crowd of 55 lakh people, each one had a convincing reason. My reason: I could not name one. Other than the regularity of an assignment, in Haridwar, I wanted to face, comprehend, understand, discern, deconstruct faith. What is it that drives millions of people to the Kumbh? Salvation? Faith? Fear? What?

The night before the big day was shortened by a bureaucratic decree – at the Har Ki Pauri, Haridwar’s most famous ghat, ordinary mortals could bathe in the river only between 4 and 8 am; the rest of the day was reserved for the sadhus of various akharas (organization of the different sects of Hindu ascetics; literally, wrestling arena). Four weeks into the Mela, nearly 50,000 sadhus of seven akharas had pitched their tents in the city. All night, the bells clanged, loudspeakers blared instructions, the city resonated with the guttural whoops of Har Har Mahadev and I lay sleepless under the white duvet.

It was still dark and the wind frosty when I stepped beyond the gigantic wooden door to join the crowd on Maha Shivratri. The lane was lit, the shops open and I could see hundreds walking back after a dip in the river, most shivering in the cold, clutching their wet clothes and pail of water from the river. By 8 am , more than 5 lakh people had taken a dip in the Ganges . It was now the turn of the akharas and first in the queue was the Juna Akhara, the largest of all akharas and one of the seven established by Adi Shankracharya in the 8 th century.

The security was stringent and without a Press pass I could barely step beyond the rope cordon. I walked back into the den of the Naga sadhus, the naked ascetics, who were still preening for the Shahi Snan behind the saffron concrete walls near Dam Kothi. “Koi vastra nahin pehenga (no one will wear clothes),” the Mahant was screaming brusquely. It was freezing cold and the wind ready to bite the bones, but the Naga sadhus cannot defy diktats. By the silver idol of Sun, they shed their saffron loincloth. In a corner lay a sack of ash, in another a pile of spears and batons. An old sadhu was puffing tobacco in his chillum while Sadhu Ramesh Anand picked hot ash off the bonfire and rubbed it on his ebony frame and matted locks. “Jaldi karo, jaldi karo (hurry up, hurry up),” came another hurried order for the sadhus. They had only 15 more minutes to spruce and line up for the march to the Har Ki Pauri. Caparisoned horses and music troupes with gleaming trumpets and garish brocade uniform were waiting languorously. In the sea of ash-smeared naked sadhus, the only colour was the orange of the marigold – the garlands were the sole embellishment for the ascetics.

A few more hurried instructions later, the sadhus were lining up, some brandishing sharp swords, some taking turns to hop onto the horse for a photo-op, still others clinging to the silver staff, most empty-handed. The first to step out was the idol of the Sun God in a flower-bedecked palanquin, followed by the head, Acharya Maha Mandeleshwar, on a pick-up truck turned into a shahi swari (royal vehicle). The unclothed ascetics, at the bottom of the hierarchy, were the last to walk out, their chant hitting a crescendo and their naked ash-smeared bodies so anomalous amidst the clothed devotees who had lined up the streets seeking blessings. Thousands walked behind the sadhus – old, young, hip, rustic, a man carrying his mother on his back, an Italian woman in a tight ponytail, kohl in her eyes and a brown Chihuahua wrapped in her striped shawl.

Not too far away in the Juna Akhara, Mahant Prahaladanand, who left home at the age of 24, stuffed weed in the chillum and explained what it is to live for another, what it is to be an ascetic and what is it that makes him closer to god while I stay trapped in my mundane existence. I listened patiently, the smoke from the chillum was hurting my eyes but the Mahant talked relentlessly about the goodness of the weed. He excitedly pulled out some weed, rubbed it on his palm to separate the chaff, puffed it vigorously and joked how I could get high even on curly smoke rings that were dangerously wafting towards me.

Perhaps he was high on another reason – it was June Akhara that was the first to take the dip on auspicious Maha Shivratri day. No one breaks rules, the akharas adhere to their bathing hierarchy – the bosses go first with their favoured disciples; the Nagas are the last on the roster but they are the ones who create the spectacle that Kumbh is so synonymous with. Their war-like whoops are deafening and their aggressive hollering enough to scare the gulls away. That moment Har Ki Pauri is their fiefdom and they do not tolerate intrusion. The ordinary mortals can stay content as onlookers, for that moment the sadhus claim the Ganges as their own.

Having walked all day with the sadhus, my knees had gone wobbly, my hair in a tangle and my soul still searching for an answer. What is it that drives millions to Maha Kumbh? After the sun walked down the Ganges , the loudspeakers fell silent and the hermits curled up in their tents, I sat by the hawan kund in the pink courtyard of the Leisure Hotels camp. I could see the Ganges gurgling by, Minutes later I walked down the stairs for a dip in the river. Was I seeking salvation? I don’t know. Perhaps she, the holy Ganges, knows.


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