Archive for February, 2001

Kumbh Diary

Monday, February 5th, 2001

Feb 05, 2001

The Magic Sea

The people. The number of them. The sheer jaw-dropping innumerability of them, walking in an endless stream; calm, orderly, silent, devout, determined, stoic, and above all joyous, from dawn to dawn: young, old, blind, lame, infirm, athletic, cloth bags packed with food and blankets on their heads, two unbelievable crore of them on one single day, the holy Mauni Amavasya, and if all of them stood in single file, the line would have stretched from Allahabad to Miami, and if you disregard the seas in between from Allahabad around the globe to Allahabad again, all these people, in garments of every primary colour, entire villages walking in tight formations, holding on to one another by the shirt tails and saree aanchals, some groups with dholaks singing the praises of the Hindu pantheon throughout the journey, sadhus of all possible ilk, sect, cult, belief, dress code, women who have never stepped out of their villages in their entire lives, the rich and the poor indistinguishable from one another in this greatest Indian adventure of all, two crore of them coming in for a dip at that confluence of two great (and one mythical) rivers, to taste the drops of amrit that Garuda (or Jayanta, son of Indra, according to some Puranas) spilled during his flight from the asuras, to wash away their sins, to commune with a benevolent higher force, to pray, to plead, to weep, to atone, to expiate, to demand, to negotiate with God, for to come to Prayag during the Kumbh is to have done all possible pilgrimages, and the Mahakumbh is the once-in-144-years mother of all Kumbhs, all these people, each with their private fears and agonies, dreams and demons, each alone, each a necessary part of the whole, all free here, utterly free, to do what they want, to commune with God in any way they can think up, in the largest congregation of human beings in history, and in an ecstasy of freedom that is the hallmark of Indian civilisation.

Stand on the river bund at three in the night, look down at the measureless streams of sleepless pilgrims entering a vast brightly-lit temporary city exuding the joy of life and teeming with the simplest dreams in the world, but the roar of that city drowned out by the heavenly voice of M.S. Subbalakshmi singing the story of the dasavatar, and do not feel ashamed if your spine tingles. This has nothing to do with your particular brand of religion, faith or atheism.

Back in Delhi, every time I close my eyes, I see the people walking past.

Good Riddance

Day and night, the public address system blares messages about people lost and people found. One shudders to imagine the thousands who would have been lost in every Kumbh before electrical communication systems were invented. Especially the women—illiterate, penniless and with little worldly experience, what happened to them? When I wonder about this, my friend Charu kicks in wry womanly insight: “A lot of men would possibly have brought their wives and mothers here to lose them. Hassle-free process,” she says. And quite possibly true.

The Rule of Awe

Every time some city or the other hosts the Olympics, preening officials flood the media with paeans to their organisational skills and the enormity of the logistics. If any of them were let loose in the Mahakumbh for a day, they would be reduced to gibbering nervous wrecks in a few hours’ time. The Mahakumbh is history’s biggest logistical exercise of its type, and it is organised amazingly well. Kumbhnagar is spotlessly clean, from roads to public latrines, the garbage is invisible, the officials are polite and efficient, and it’s a miracle that the policemen on duty are not cracking up by the dozens every day.

The officials are of course helped by the fact that every visitor is well aware (and overawed) by the magnitude and complexity of the event, and clearly knows what could go wrong, easily and disastrously. So everyone sticks to the rules. Every visitor on any of the big bathing days would have had moments of pure panic, caught in the crush of bodies on a pontoon bridge over the Ganga, but you would also know that staying calm is the only way out. Your first gasp at the size of the Kumbh instills that knowledge in your head.

Or are the crowds so orderly because the vast majority of them are poor rural folk, conditioned for centuries to obey hierarchies and accept their destinies unquestioningly?

Cosmic Communion

On the day before Mauni Amavasya, the mobile telephony network of Allahabad finally gave up. This was bound to happen, with thousands of cellphone-toting visitors, officials and policemen rushing around, and the consequent manifold rise in traffic. No one could get through to anyone; every caller got the cryptic message that the person called was outside the network coverage area. But these were small tribulations. This was the Kumbh, who gave a damn about the underperformance of small plastic things that anyway give you cancer if you use them more than 16 hours a day for 40 years running?

Salvation of the Ribald

The setting sun casts an eerie light on a thousand young men, heads shaved, wearing only the tiniest of loincloths, squatting beside the Ganga. After years of the most rigorous penance and training, they are now ready for the final initiation into an order of Naga sadhus. Created in the middle ages as a class of fierce warlike monastics to guard Hindu saints, it is the image of these naked monks that springs to mind first at any mention of the Kumbh. What is little known, however, and which my colleague Prashant tells me, is that they also perform the role of cosmic jesters—bawdy nose-thumbers at the timidity of the multitudes, the cowardly pettiness of average humanity, the cattleherd instincts of common devotion. They are the fearsome fools whose duty is also to remind shallow salvation-seekers that the universe demands a belly laugh.

They sit there, these to-be-initiates, waiting out their last few hours before all vestiges of their societal history vanishes. Their wet bodies reflect the sun. They are perfectly still. The silence of a thousand resolute men on the cusp of profound change reverberates.