A dip in the Sangam at the time of the holy Kumbh never excited me but during the last grand fair in 2001, I happened to be in Varanasi.
Sitting in a showroom of Mr Pande in the busy Nichhi Bagh market, I was drawn to a funeral procession, in which a band playing a religious tune led six people on foot, whose heads were all shaven except a long, flowing pigtail; whose dress was dhoti and vest; and who carried the body on their shoulders.
Another 50 people trailed them, chanting: "Ram naam satya hai; Hari ka naam satya hai." For a man who lived in Chandigarh, it was an unusual experience. I observed seven funeral processions pass by that shop within 30 minutes. "Isn't the death rate too high in Varanasi?" I asked Mr Pande. He first laughed, and then took a pause, and then he was ready to reply. "Mr Sood, not all bodies are from Varanasi," he said. "The road leads to a very holy cremation ground about 100 kilometres far. It is believed that people cremated there find heaven."
"But Pandeji," I said, "Is it not too much to carry bodies over such distances for last rites, especially when we know that it is only our karma (good deeds) that lead us to heaven."
My words must have disturbed him, for he gave me a wry look. "It's a matter of one's faith," he said. "Living in this workaday world, all of us do many acts we later regret. We want those to be washed off to not come in the way of our ultimate goal of salvation. Holy men in all religions have addressed this issue by creating special cremation grounds, classifying a few rivers and mountains as holy, marking special occasions and places for holy dip, and patronising shrines and dargahas in difficult and remote terrains, so that people make time to visit the places in the spirit of penance."
"Suppose you have to reach the 25th floor of a skyscraper that had stairs as well as elevator," he said. "What would you take? Lift, no doubt. Consider the designated holy spots to be the lifts to heaven." I appreciated his art of putting argument. "Pandeji," I said, "who can afford to disagree with the Pandas of Varanasi, who for ages have command respect for their wisdom and erudition."
I was about to leave, when Mr Pande stopped me. "Sood Babu, what's the rush? Take lunch first," he said. "Thank you," I said. "Now when I have understood the importance of lifts, and Allahabad being close, I will take a dip in the Sangam on Kumbh." Unaware that I still disagreed with his views, Mr Pande had stretched his smile to a triumphant grin.