(From top) A foreign devotee and a sadhu take dips at Sangam on the first day of the Maha Kumbh Mela on Monday; Shilpa Shetty takes part in a havan at a camp in Allahabad. (PTI and AFP pictures)
Allahabad, Jan. 14: As thousands of shivering pilgrims took a freezing holy dip early on the Maha Kumbh’s first morning, 19-year-old Rahul Srivastava was tucked up and fast asleep in his bed.
“No one from my family went to the Ganga,” said the first-year English literature student of Allahabad Government College. “We are not that religious.”
Except for one person. Rahul still remembers how his grandfather, the family’s oldest member, had braved the chill to bathe in the Ganga during the previous Maha Kumbh in 2001.
“We sometimes talk about it, but I don’t think anyone else in the family would ever do it,” Rahul said.
His college mate Nisha Trivedi, a biology student, spelt it out: the world’s largest religious congregation, mentioned by Hiuen Tsang in the seventh century, is for “granddads and grandmoms”.
“My grandparents went to the Hardwar Kumbh in 2010 but, you know, I shan’t go to a Kumbh mela even if my parents offer to buy me a plane ticket,” she said.
But millions of others who had travelled to Allahabad by bus or train got up before sunrise today and impatiently waited for the naga (naked) sadhus to finish their dip so they could start theirs.
First, at 5am, decorated chariots and palanquins carried the mahamandaleshwars (members of the highest body) among the naga sadhus to the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna (and the mythical Saraswati).
Thousands of naked monks from 13 akharas (monastic orders) walked along the chariots and then rushed into the waters, their chants of “Har Har Mahadev” and “Har Har Gange” sending flocks of startled birds flying out of the riverbanks.
Under the fog-dimmed lights of the five heavily guarded VIP ghats earmarked for them, the nagas descended into the water in a sequence that reflected their rigid pecking order.
Around 6, the hordes of devotees from the countryside, kept at bay by the administration till the naga sadhus had taken their bath, received their go-ahead. A sea of humanity surged towards the Ganga to observe a moment billed as “heaven on earth”.
But as news websites and TV channels began relaying these scenes after a couple of hours, another India — of Rahul and Nisha — looked on with the scepticism of a distant observer or made fun of what it saw as outdated practice.
“Oh, it’s better this way. Delhi is free now from these naked men, roaming around,” wrote Delhi-based “M.K. George, student” to an Indian newspaper’s web edition.
N. Vyas, a Mumbai bank official, tweeted: “It is fun to watch these curios from another world on TV but this holy mumbo-jumbo is not part of techno-driven scientific India.”
Deendayal M. Lulla, commenting on the website of The Daily Telegraph of Britain, sneered openly: “When you fail to get a job, be a sadhu. Religion is the only business which does not have recession, and it is tax-free.”
Ramesh Dixit, professor of political science with Lucknow University, said the cyberworld comments reflected a rural-urban divide.
“A large number of urban Indians cannot connect with this decaying faith system. Almost all those taking the bath out there are from rural India,” said Dixit, who himself watched the event on television from his living room.
Asked how many had taken the dip today, a mela official, M.K. Singh, put it at “about 20 lakh between 6am and 4pm” — which means the day’s total should be about 22-23 lakh.
According to tradition, a bath in the Ganga on the first day of the Maha Kumbh, observed once every 12 years in this city, can make one’s deepest wishes come true. However, only the most enthusiastic can brave the mid-winter temperatures: the rest will trickle in through the remaining 44 days before the Maha Kumbh ends on Maha Shivaratri in end-February.
Overall, some 10 crore pilgrims are expected, with the numbers peaking on auspicious days such as Basant Panchami, Mauni Amavasya or Maghi Poornima.