The Ardh Kumbh is in progress in Allahabad. It is perhaps not as grand as the Mahakumbh of 2001. The crowds are less formidable. The sadhu samaj is not on full display in all its dizzying eccentricity. Yet, the first smudge of dawn over the Ganga is still as pure. That primeval chemical equation under the water still as strong. The cold hard penance of the kalpvasi (pilgrims who live by the river) still as impressive.
My tryst with the Kumbh Mela began in 2001, when I went to cover the Mahakumbh and like all other sceptical, rationalist, secular journalists, I watched, astounded, as millions of people became ennobled and enhanced by river and sun. I had expected raucous crowds, filth, stampeding multitudes and ghastly conditions. Instead, among the dirt-poor pilgrims who moved towards the sangam, I found dignity, introspection and a deep quiet. Among the rogues and trickers in the sadhu samaj, I found philosophers, graduates in physics and chemistry, for whom God was a quest for the ancient energy that started Earth.
I found out how the political Hinduism of the VHP, which was holding its ridiculous dharma sansad at the Mahakumbh, was nothing but a joke, scorned and laughed at by the kalpvasi who walked past it. Confronted by the magnificence of the Ganga, dwarfed by the enormous embrace of the Kumbh, the peddlers of perverted hatred became nothing but a foolish caricature. The VHP was a grotesque gate-crasher, a crude, uninvited visitor, under the mellow sunlight of Makar Sankranti.
This year, the sunlight was equally soft, the touch of the water feather-light, yet buoyant, the faith of the pilgrims still as unobtrusive and as grand. All 13 main akharas or Hindu monasteries were there: Mahanirvani, scholarly and serious, which always bathes first at the time of the holy bath or shahi snan. Niranjani comes next and is supposed to be the most charitable of all akharas. And then there is the third and most ancient akhara to bathe during the shahi snan: Juna akhara. Juna are the Hell’s Angels of the Kumbh. The nagas or naked sadhus of the Juna are the most fearsome, the most athletic, many of them ganja-addicted athletes capable of stunning physical feats. “Juna ka atank,” whisper pilgrims as the raging, bad-tempered, ash-smeared men rush past, brandishing their swords and lances or on horseback. Juna akhara is the star of the Kumbh, dazzlingly horrifying sadhus who are notoriously cantankerous, totally intolerant of polite society, formidably unconcerned about rules and regulations of behaviour and whose favourite enemies are the media and the VHP.
Ashtkosal Nandkishore Bharti, mahant of the Juna akhara, who is able to balance himself on his trishul and also somersault into the Ganga, says he will spear a VHP or Bajrang Dal member if they dare to come near the Juna akhara. “Those who seek to make politics from dharma will be hung by me personally until there is no breath left in their cowardly bodies,” he says sternly.
Ashtkosal Sudarshan Bharti, another member of the Juna akhara, is equally vehement about politicians. “If I had been in Gujarat, I would have taught a lesson to those who are the killers of women and children.” The politicians of the Hindu Right can heap scorn on the pseudo-secularists, they can pour venom on Macaulay ki aulad and those English-speaking, rootless Leftist folk who can’t understand their commitment to Bharat. But at the Kumbh Mela, the extremist proponents of Hindutva would find themselves staring at the trishul of the Juna akhara.
Why does Nandkishore Bharti live like a naga baba? The answer is simple. “It makes me happy.” Would he not prefer grihasth ashram? Another simple answer: “Nice food? Nice drink? But isn’t that temporary and short-lived? The truly happy are those who stretch themselves towards a daily challenge, those who stretch themselves towards the impossible, towards challenges that look more formidable than our own capacities. They are the ones who are really happy.”
Ashtkosal Nandkishore Bharti is illiterate, dirty and foul-mouthed. He ran away from home because he was an orphan and the sadhus took him in when he was found almost dead with fever in a Himachal town. He’s a non-entity, a member of a community branded as freakish and absurd by the rest of us normal people. Yet, he can turn double somersaults by simply leaping off the ground and into the water. He can balance himself on one arm on his trishul. And he can run across a tightrope as if it was a wide platform. In New York or London, Ashtkosal Nandkishore Bharti would have been an international star. At the Kumbh, he is simply one of the more troublesome members of the Juna akhara, and his delinquent talents will die with him.
Perhaps sometimes, Mother India scorns her most talented sons. Instead, she raises to eminence her meek and well-fed sons who ride about in convoys of cars, have no talent and accept her suzerainty unquestioningly. Those sons who challenge Mother India’s pre-conceived notions are relegated to the dust.
Who form the akharas of the Hindu religion? According to G.S. Ghurye’s comprehensive book, Indian Sadhus, the naked nagas are remnants of private armies that temple establishments maintained in India for centuries for protection and privacy. The earliest travellers to India have commented on the band of naked ascetics who wandered the countryside. Naked warriors bore arms, were trained in the art of warfare and cleared the way for pandits and mandaleswars during their travels. India’s nude ascetic warriors were supposed to gain their strength and ability for battle from their brahmachari way of life and their long penance in the mountains. With the coming of the British, the naked ascetics warriors were outlawed and became marginalised freaks. But until today, most akharas have a lance planted in the ground in front of their gates that remind of their warlike ancestry.
There is another heartwarming aspect of the Kumbh. In many ways, it is nothing but a giant village fair where the poorest of the poor can access a welfare system. In a country without a social security net or without dole or a welfare scheme, it is the religious orders that take in the poor and needy and shelter them. Little boys from impoverished families bring flutes, peacock feathers, threads and paper windmills for sale here for a bit of extra money in a life of wage labour. There are no big brands at the Kumbh: only Big Babool toothpaste and Medimix soap. Although many rich temples and gurus set up ashrams at the Kumbh, it is also a festival of the poor, where a share-cropper from West Bengal can watch a Hema Malini dance performance for free.
The Kumbh Mela is much more than an extraordinary spectacle. It is a living embodiment of the India that has lost out in mainstream discourse and development choices. Yet, like the ancient chemical equation under the polluted water, there is a strange sustaining power. And among the pilgrims walks a familiar figure. I saw him almost clearly. He was wearing a loin cloth and little round glasses and carrying a walking stick.