The Kumbh Experience

After I returned from the Paush Snan at the Maha Kumbh Mela 2013 in Allahabad, I have been bombarded with questions regarding my Kumbh experience. Well to say the least, it’s gigantic, unlike any human gathering I have seen in my life. I have witnessed a crowd of more than 45 lakhs people by the ghats of Sangam ready to take the holy dip. I have seen Sadhus, Babas, Maharajs, Mahants and every other kind of religious preacher with names of universal proportions starting with Shri and ending with Ji, and in between, bombastic words describing all their spiritual achievements throughout life. I have seen Naga sadhus- ash smeared and completely naked. Overall, I have been a witness to how big an organised religious event can be and how people can flock and follow blindly the rituals thrown at them by faith.

My basic intention of going to Kumbh Mela at Allahabad was to see for myself why this event is touted as the biggest human show on earth. I made the plan with a close friend of mine- a travel hungry adventure seeking guy- who also shared the same intentions. We were travelling in a 3 tier AC compartment from Ranchi and in our coup were two interesting co-passengers. One was an aged lady from Cuttack who ran a gas packing company of her own, and the other, a middle aged Bengali gentleman from Delhi, who originally hailed from Allahabad. Both of them were honestly surprised when we said that we were going to the Kumbh Mela. With a grin, the lady asked me, “Kumbh? So early in life?” I smiled and explained to her that, we were not some frustrated lost-in-life youth who were going to the Mela in search of either spirituality or hashish.

The gentleman told us about his lack of knowledge or interest about Kumbh very clearly. He said that though he was born and brought up in Allahabad he had never been to any of the Kumbh Melas. He was rather interested in describing to us, the non-Delhiites, the nuances of living in a big city like Delhi and how the software company he works for functions. He discarded Kumbh Mela as somewhere where just a huge crowd gathers, and spoke at length about the police fallacies in the Delhi gang rape case.

In India it’s very difficult to generalise something, because of its immense population and demographic variations. But still one can safely assume that there exists a urbane upper middle class population which can never be a part of such religious events or ponder upon why and how such mass mobilisation take place in the name of faith. This class is simply not bothered.

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We got down at the Allahabad station at sunrise. The station was crowded. Pilgrims from all over the country were scattered in the platform, waiting for their trains to return home. We took a shared auto-rickshaw from the station up to Sangam. From where the auto dropped us, we, along with hundreds of pilgrims, walked on for more than 2 kilometres till we came to the huge Allahabad fort built by Akbar in 1583. If you stand at the ghat by the fort, the Yamuna will come from your right lapping against the fort boundary and the Ganges will be on your left, and their confluence, the Sangam, somewhere in front of you. And myth maintains that there is Saraswati also which joins the confluence, and makes it a holy Triveni Sangam, where, if you take a dip, all your sins will be washed away. You can hire a boat and go up to the exact region of confluence to take a holy dip. However on the auspicious bathing dates the main confluence area is barricaded off and pilgrims mostly bathe near the ghat.

The boats sailed from the ghat to the confluence region, and stalled there for the pilgrims to perform their Puja. At the Sangam you can clearly see the difference between the colours of the two rivers- Yamuna was muddy green and the Ganges, bright blue. A large flock of white migratory Siberian Black-headed Gull settles on the Sangam region in the winter, adding to the beauty of the place. When the oars of the hundreds of boats plying around Sangam, carrying tourists for the holy dip, strike the bluish green water, these birds fly apart with a sweet chirp

After the Sangam, we walked a few kilometres to the Kumbh Nagri-the temporary township that comes up at the time of the Kumbh Mela on the banks of Sangam. Ajay Uprety wrote in The Week that it is of the size of “3000 soccer fields” - a world in its own.

The first camp that we entered was of an ashram from Ujjain. At the entrance of the camp, a huge gathering of pilgrims were seated to hear from a Baba who was sitting on a raised platform, chillum in hand and deep in thoughts. The audience was waiting for him to speak but he was pondering upon something for a long while. After sometime he scratched his groin putting his hand under the saffron dhoti, and rather absurdly began, “Sirf nari ko pativrata hone se nahi hoga....pati ko bhi narivrata hona padega” and went on to cite some examples from our societal issues to prove his point.

Next we went to another camp where there was no gathering of pilgrims, just plenty of loin cloth wearing, ash smeared and pot smoking holy men. On asking if I could photograph them, they agreed, posed and later checked out the pictures on the camera display. In another camp we found out that free food was being distributed among the pilgrims who chanted the name of the Maharaj ji of that ashram before beginning to eat. In another camp of an organisation from Gujarat, the sadhus were very friendly. They showed us around the entire camp-their makeshift mandir and kitchen, their cooks and cleaners.

The Kumbh Nagri is such structured that lanes break into ten lanes and those ten again break into twenty. If you go visiting one camp after another, without taking note of the turnings you have taken in your path, it’s quite possible that you get lost in this mega bhulbhulaiya of tents and camps. We returned from the Mela premises to return again in the evening.

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Like much of Uttar Pradesh, Allahabad is replete with history. Be it the university campus or the lanes filled with old book shops adjacent to it, Motilal Nehru’s Anand Bhavan or Alfred park where the freedom fighter Chandrasekhar Azad shot himself during a gun-fight with the British police to avoid arrest, Sangam or Akbar’s Fort, everything brings to you a deep sense of heritage and historical legacy.

We did a quick tour of the city and returned to Sangam in the evening. The full moon of Purnima had by then risen boldly against the night sky over Sangam. The next day was Paush Snan- the second bathing date of Kumbh 2013- and pilgrims had started pouring in. We visited the shopping arena which was almost like a mini trade fair in itself. The shops sold a wide variety of garments, winter wear, Khadi wear, ladies fashion accessories, home decor items, indigenous food, and what not. Foreigners and Indians flocked alike. Polythene is strictly banned in Kumbh and the shopkeepers were very particular about it.

I walked over the makeshift floating bridges laid out over huge pontoons on the Ganges and reached the tents on the other side of the river. The mood in the tents was more colourful than in the morning. In every camp some sort of a cultural performance or the other based on the Hindu religion and its mythologies was going on. Along with it, puja and aarti, religious discourses and reading from the scriptures, kirtans and bhajans, and Ram Lila presentations were also going on. On the ghat pilgrims had started taking the auspicious Purnima bath and performing all the associated rituals, as the powerful yellow lights made Kumbh Nagri glow. Due to the heavy traffic regulations on the roads leading to Sangam, we walked for more than 3 kilometres to catch an auto up to our hotel.

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We had seen Sangam and roamed through Kumbh Nagri as much as possible. What made us reach Sangam before Sunrise the next day was an expectation to see the crowd of the Paush Snan day at Kumbh Mela. How more than 45 lakhs people would come and with a hope to wash away all their sins, take a dip in the river. And believe me we were not betrayed. As the warm orange Sun rose against the misty Kumbh Nagri, people started pouring in. Hindus of all caste and creed came carrying their bedding and luggage, holding their children and dragging them, in groups and alone, from every nook and corner of the country. The Sangam area was barricaded off the limits of boats and people had to bath by the ghats.

Wandering amidst this unbelievable crowd- heads and heads till your vision blurs at the horizon- and trying to capture a few unique moments through my lens, what struck me most about Kumbh Mela is that, it’s not only about the Nagas and Tantrics, with their weird practices and appearances, neither is it only about the Maharaj jis and Baba jis who move about in posh SUVs and have set up their Ashrams with following in millions, nor about the feat that the administration is pulling off in such a mega set up. The Kumbh Mela is primarily about the millions and millions of pilgrims belonging to the lower-middle economic class who come from all across the country pulled by the power of faith in the Holy bath at Sangam; it’s about the women who take off their sarees and take a bath in full public view without a moment’s hesitation, the toddlers screaming at the top of their voices scared of the crowd and elderly people gripping their walking sticks strong and striding ahead; it’s about people who get lost in this huge crowd and then go to the announcement centre and in a heavy voice call out for their near and dear ones to pick them up from there; it’s about the beggars who are mercilessly chased and thrashed by the policemen’s lathis; about the media-wale who walk sluggishly carrying their heavy cameras and also about the foreign documentary makers and photographers who have travelled thousands of miles to capture this event of mammoth proportion.

An American tourist, with whom my friend had begun a friendly chat, told him, “In the US, even if you pay people to come and attend a ceremony, you wouldn’t get such a huge crowd.”

While shooting at Kumbh, I got into altercations with the policemen three times. Two of three were uncalled for, but one was quite interesting and insightful. On the night before the Paush Snan, on one of the main roads leading to the Sangam, a group of Sadhus clad only in their loin cloth sat and smoked pot right under the nose of four policemen. I fixed my tripod and asked one of the Babas if I could shoot the scene. At that precise moment, a senior police officer came up to me and said, “Aap media wale bhi naa....In ganjeri walon ka photo leke kya hoga...faltu log hai sab”. I politely requested him to allow me to shoot and interview the Babas for a few minutes but he wouldn’t listen. I gave up and walked on without taking the footage.

The policemen’s plight was understandable and so was their apathy for these religious men. Here they were, working under tremendous pressure and controlling the crowd, maintaining law and order and thwarting possible attempts by miscreants, and then, there were these Sadhus and Babas, their Akharas and retinue of aides and followers, their preaching and pot smoking.

But that is not the end of my story. I was to travel back to Ranchi in the General compartment, and so, had put everything including my camera bag inside my backpack and carried one compact luggage to avoid any hassle and possible theft- and that was unfortunate. Why?

Well, because few minutes after leaving the Allahabad junction, our train passed over a rail bridge over the Ganges that served as a vantage point for observing the entire Kumbh Mela setting. As our train barged through the iron railings of the bridge, everyone on the train witnessed something that would be etched in their memory forever. We could see thousands of tents with its typical triangular tops till our vision blurred, lined and arranged into rows and columns bordered with yellow lights, on both sides of the bridge. Dust and smoke emanating from the surface gave the whole scene a rustic look. There were bright yellow lights along the ghat also, and they made Sangam glitter like gold.

Had I decided to take out my camera from the backpack and shoot, I might have missed the scene all together. So I decided to leave that and rather capture something for eternity on my mind.

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