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HindustanTimes Fri,25 Apr 2014

Maha Kumbh: the great urn of faith

Text & Photos: Kanika Johri, Hindustantimes.com  New Delhi, February 15, 2013
First Published: 12:46 IST(15/2/2013) | Last Updated: 12:08 IST(18/2/2013)
In the light of the recent mishap at the Maha Kumbh mela, this possibly seems like a piece going against the current, but this is the story of faith, of the millions of people who come to the Kumbh religiously (literally!)

Whoever said that visiting the Kumbh mela was a once-in-a-lifetime experience was wrong! Just like the Taj Mahal, going here once is just not enough and you find yourself compelled to visit again and again. And if you’ve been there once, it’ll only whet your appetite!
Kumbh Mela: a cultural milieu

DISCLAIMER: I don’t consider myself a particularly religious person and the Maha kumbh is more of an awe-inspiring experience for me rather than a cleansing one. Given the background of my profession, I think you’ll excuse me for being a little tilted towards the cynical side. And yet, I felt something...

Having my family staying in Allahabad means that I’ve already been to the Triveni Sangam several times, first to see it for myself and then made the countless trips where we take visitors around on exactly the same tour.

For the uninitiated, the Triveni Sangam is the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati, which unite to form the larger body we know to be the Ganga that which eventually flows into the Bay of Bengal.

The sheer expanse of the rivers is vast

The routine is that you take a boat ride, get mesmerised by the sheer vast expanse and the breadth of the Ganga, and exclaim about it loudly when you’re sheepishly informed by the boatman that the emerald-coloured waters you float on in fact belong to the Yamuna. So, you hold your breath and eagerly await the darshan of the Ganga. But in all my past experiences, we have never really been able to get close enough to the Ganga and that’s due to a technical issue.

You see, the point at which the Ganga and Yamuna are supposed to converge has a very interesting quality , the strange and vast difference between the banks of the two rivers. So, apparently while the Yamuna at this point is some 70 feet deep, the Ganga is way too shallow with merely calf-deep waters! This basically meant that our boat could never go in close enough to the Ganga, since the sand from the banks could clog the engine, thereby shutting it down.

So all the previous times, we’d just go a little close and satisfy ourselves by looking at the ‘Sangam’ from a distance, which is just a line from the distance that forms due to the changing currents of the two converging rivers. This time, however, it was going to be different but we’ll come back to that later.

We rowed over to one of the banks called Arael ghat where the evening aarti was scheduled to commence soon. From a distance, we could hear the ‘lyrically altered’ versions of ghazals like Ghulam Ali’s Dil Mein Ik Lehar Si Uthi and that’s when the ghazal connoisseur AND the journalist in me began smirking. Was this going to be one of those Chanchal kind of renditions that go like ‘Hello Hi Chhodiye, Jai Mata Di Boliye’? Thankfully, I was proved wrong.

Evening aarti at Arael ghat

Just as I got off the boat on to the ghat with the smirk on my face, the scent of fresh marigold filled my nostrils, at once taking me back to all the poojas and religious occasions I’d ever been to. A heady vibe filled me from within, evaporating some of the cynical fumes.

We seated ourselves on the ghat steps, where the crowds had gathered and the Triveni sangam troupe was singing bhajans in praise of the Confluence. Soaking in the atmosphere, I looked around and noticed some tables kept in the water, atop which sat video and still cameras on tripods. ‘So that’s how they shoot the pravachans on Aastha and other such channels’, I thought in my head, the smirk was returning... As the mandali singers sang with gay abandon, you were expected to join in the chorus Jai! Initially, my jais were soft and mumbling but then as the aarti gained momentum, I found myself singing as loudly as the self-proclaimed bhakts!

Crowds gather for the evening aarti, while the mela across the river lights up the opposite bank

Across the river, I could see the opposite bank illuminated in a way that is characteristic of sacred river ghats lit by night. The sky was stretching for miles ahead and so was the water as well as the crowds.
I had to admit the entire experience was...divine.
A generous serving of gaadha doodh waiting to be served in a kulhad

Once the aarti was over, we proceeded to the actual mela that was set up on the opposite bank. All the excitement and the enormous hours since lunch had made us hungry, so we found ourselves a place which served us piping hot samosas, chaat, gulab jamun, aloo bonde and of course some delicious pakoras. And we washed it down with a delicious glass of gaadhaa doodh (thickened milk), needless to say the thought of calorie-consciousness didn’t even enter minds.

At this point you may be wondering, so, what is the big deal about Kumbh or the Maha kumbh for that matter? Well, according to the Bhagvata Puraan and other sacred texts, the myth of the Kumbh goes as follows. The Devtas (Gods) who had lost the Amrit (nectar), and the Asuras (Demons), who wanted it rather badly were made to churn the great ocean, better known as the Sagar Manthan.

While Lord Shiva drank up the vish or the poison that emerged from the manthan (making his throat blue and giving him the name Neelkanth), the devs and the daanavs were supposed to divide the amrit equally among them. But when the kumbh (urn) containing the amrit appeared at last, the two rival parties began warring over it again. This went on for 12 days, which in our mortal world equals to 12 years, until Lord Vishnu finally re-acquired the urn in the form of Mohini and left with it, spilling a few drops of the nectar in four cities, Allahabad (Prayag), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik, each if which is known to be Kumbh sthaan (venue).
The entire Kumbh complex smelt of a semi-burnt and partly cooled night, filled with a smoky kind of scent, it was like some kind of ‘holy smog’, just like the smoke after havans in the house stings your eyes.

The Maha kumbh, basically the baap of Kumbh melas comes only once in 144 years and is supposed to mark the end of one and the beginning of another era. This one is obviously a once-in-a-lifetime event.

So gloating over the mythological significance of where were and the smiling contentedly over the deliciousness of the snacks we’d just consumed, we proceeded towards places known as akhaaraas. No, these are not the ones where men practise there wrestling skills in, but are in fact the places where saadhus and babas put up along with their followers/sects.

The entire space is so huge that it’s like several maidans combined to form one mega-maidan! The entire locality smelt like a post-Diwali night, a semi-burnt, partly cooled and filled with a smoky kind of scent, it was like some kind of ‘holy smog’, just like the smoke after havans in the house stings your eyes.

The Mela is a melange of people, with all kinds present. The poor, the rich, the beggars, the businessman, the crafty, the simple, the concerned and the ascetics, all sorts! It was just too much to take in.

There’s one thing in common between the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad and a discotheque in Goa. Both are visited by smoked up people gazing dazedly into bright psychedelic lights and tripping on them. And you can’t blame them, the whole atmosphere is so intoxicating and contagious!

Shiny disco lights at the akhaaras

I looked and roamed around a lot, especially thrilled at the prospect of not having to hurry up for home. That was when I met them at last, for the first time ever.

Stark naked, squatting in huddles, their faces ashen (with the smeared raakh or ash), the dreadlocks falling on their shoulders, their glazed eyes stared back at me with a mutual sense of wonderment. There they were the Naga saadhus we’ve all heard so much about.

They live in another world mostly silent. They’re either very resilient or very oblivious to the harsh biting cold as well as the curious pairs of eyes of the million visitors staring at them.

One particular Baba among these had been sitting with his arm hung in a sling for the last 4 years as some form of tapasya. His nails had become talons, skin and hair coated while his eyes looked vacant.

One particular Baba among these had been sitting with his arm hung in a sling for the last 4 years, perhaps as some form of tapasya. His nails had become talons, skin and hair coated while his eyes looked vacant.

We moved on to many more such brightly awake and lit akhaaras and their passive inhabitants. After a while, we came to the tents we were supposed to spend the night in and such heaven it was! Cosy little tents with beds laid out and a warm vibe, such bliss! But we weren’t done yet and weren’t going to retire already!

So after freshening up, we left for the various exhibitions and stalls around, thrilled about the fact that none of the shops would close before 10.30 and that’s when I realised the thrill Walmart shoppers must feel! We explored almost all the shops of one of the complexes and yes there were many more of these!

Shopping at the mela has its own charm and there's something for everyone

Finally, our hungry stomachs decided it was time to return and we were on our way back.
The tents were home sweet home after the exhausting adventure

I’ve realised, on cold and adventurous nights like these nothing tastes better than a hot serving of Maggi (no, this is not an ad for the brand)! After relishing the food, we chatted around and turned in early, it was long day tomorrow too.

In the morning, we woke up to Krishna bhajans before heading out to the waters once again. We left and headed straight to the sangam this time from a different direction, which allowed us to go close enough to the converging water.

As we reached the pier, my father’s plan was to merely splash and sprinkle ourselves with the sacred water perhaps because the idea of taking off his socks and jackets was too daunting a thought. But then we got the better of the situation and decided to take the plunge, literally!

I can never forget the sensation of stepping into that biting cold water, the shrieking delight and then the calm numbness that followed. THAT is what makes this experience so worthwhile. Of course, there were the resourceful men who would wade in and sell you a thali containing the water of the Ganga ( which is diluted with some milk and promptly poured back into its source), lit camphor and some flowers but then these are the times you prefer to just go with the flow ( in this case of the water).

We finally left and this time we went right over the sangam and could actually see the changing colour and current! With damp feet, chattering teeth and broad smiles, we bid a farewell. And I silently made a promise of returning. This chapter was not over yet, I was going to return.

The sangam of the two rivers is evident. While the brown water belongs to the shallow and muddy Ganga, the bluish-green water is that of the Yamuna. Photo Courtesy: Ena Sinha

There are several things a sceptical person like me may find in a place like the Sangam that one could question, smirk at or even detach oneself from but the aura that envelops you in a place like this holds the potential to convert you. And whether it is blessings, faith, memories or even just anecdotes, no one ever leaves empty-handed.

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