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Puff of piety
The Naga Sadhus on Mauni Amavasya, the most auspicious bathing date at this yearís Kumbh Mela

It was 6.30am and we were on a boat. Wrapped in our woollens, we were on our way to Sangam. Not the beauty parlour that ‘has no branches’ (did we hear ‘oh god’!) but the god of all holy places — the meeting point of the Ganga and the Yamuna at the Kumbh Mela in Prayag. It is held every third year at one of the four places by rotation — Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain — and this is where believers come from all over the world to take the holy dip to be cleansed of all sins.

This year was particularly auspicious because the Maha Kumbh Mela takes place once in 144 years. The “largest human gathering on earth” saw a crowd count of around 3 crore, including us.

“Rs 1,200,” quoted the boatman, pointing to a boat, a little over 10ft in length that could ferry around 6-8 persons. Business was tough this year as only 1,100 boating licences were issued against the 2,500-plus in 2011. We brought him down to Rs 600 and set off.

The soothing splash of the oars and the faint chanting of ‘Om’ were the only sounds that reached our ears, and it was a relief to be far from the madding crowd on the banks. Hundreds of Siberian birds swooped into the water, some perching themselves on neighbouring boats, others balancing on stranded barrels.

The friendly Mallah boatman, from the traditional fishing community in Uttar Pradesh, explained the ritual of “doodh, phool aur nariyal” that people offered to the gods before the snan. “How can the middle of the river be so shallow, allowing people to stand, when the rest is so deep?” we asked. “Chamatkar ko namaskar” he smiled.

Call it chamatkar or river silting, I was certain that I had not committed enough grave sins in my life to peel off my woollens and plunge headlong into the freezing river like countless other believers were doing around me.

Yet just as we reached Sangam, where the yellow water of the Ganges merged with the blue of the Yamuna, the sun burst forth through the clouds. A beautiful large white bird with flapping wings gently settled on our boat. And for no reason I can still explain, I knew at that moment that I must take The Dip.

Boats ferried devotees from Saraswati Ghat to Sangam — the sacred spot of the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna

THE HOLY DIP

I knotted my kurta around my waist and climbed into another boat, where a pundit made me repeat mantras and then handed me three coconuts. I stepped onto a wooden plank and joined a family that had come from Mathura.

“What do I do with these?” I asked one of the ladies, sitting on the plank, legs dipped in the water. She was in her 40s, remarkably thin and wore a sari. I learnt later that she had pneumonia and had been forbidden to take a dip. “Release them into the water, ask for forgiveness and vow never to sin again,” she said gently.

I sat down beside her and tested the water with my feet. It was freezing. I smiled at her as she watched me, took a deep breath and slipped in. It was only as cold as that first mug of water during a non-geyser bath in winter, and then no more. I released the coconuts, splashed around like a child in a pool, and laughed along with strangers. It was serene, sublime, peaceful and surreal.

Feeling cleansed and calm, I climbed out and was making my way back to my boat when I heard a cry and a loud splash. I looked back and saw that the lady had jumped in — her family members loudly reprimanding her for her foolishness. She flashed a smile at me from the water and I laughed back.

POP-UP CITY

The day before the holy dip was our first insight into the vastness of the Kumbh Mela. We woke up at 4.30am and hurried to the Shashtri Bridge so we could see the mela in all its splendour as the sun rose. Thousands of yellow lights lighting up thousands of tents, it was like a pop-up city erected on a flood plain! Early risers were washing utensils and if you peeped into a tent, there were families huddled together, each one unfolding a new story.

Naga Sadhus dance before taking the holy dip

BUTT NAKED BUT NO ONE’S BOTHERED

One can walk around for hours, soaking in the myriad moods, never getting bored. The first thing that strikes you at the ghats is the nakedness. The second thing that strikes you is that no one really cares. Fresh from a bath, a man in his underwear buttons on a crisp white shirt. Next to him, a lady peels off her sari and stands top naked, oiling her breasts. “There are people from all castes and classes and though there are ‘VIP Ghats’, no one really bothers to find one. Kumbh is a great leveller,” said Amit Somani from Haryana, as he got ready to bathe with his wife and son.

Look around and as the sun rises, a man sits cross-legged, swaying and chanting oblivious to the blaring loudspeakers. A son helps his aged father change his clothes; children stand far apart holding each end of their mother’s sari, waiting for it to dry. There is so much happening.

On the main bathing dates of the festival — January 14 and 27, and February 10, 15 and 25 — the crowds swelled. February 10, in particular, saw the largest footfall of faith — 30 million, according to reports. February 15 was the last date for the Shahi Snan and thousands of naked monks from 13 akharas (monastic orders) ran into the Ganga for their holy dip, with chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Har Har Gange’.

Kumbh means business for brands
A devotee puffs chillum

GOD OF BIZ THINGS

“What are you going to do with that?” the chillum-seller asked a bunch of foreign tourists buying chillum, the conical pipes used for smoking tobacco. Another tourist stopped to ask him where ganja would be available and he promptly replied, “In Daraganj.”

The sidelines of the Kumbh turn into a bustling bazaar where babas and their devotees are customers.

On the flood plain, people lay out their wares — from sindoor to beads. A child, barely five, dressed as Lord Shiva to attract alms, wails after hours of standing. A crowd gathers around him. “Where is his mother?” they ask angrily, while others cannot help but smile at the godly little Shiva turned human with his tears.

A child dressed as Shiva to attract alms begins to bawl

We stop for chai and ask the tea-seller how much money he makes in a day. “Around Rs 400, except on February 10, when there was no milk available because of great demand by devotees who pour it into the river,” said the man who lives in a place 40km away from Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.

Around 2km from the Sangam ghat is a giant food zone, complete with Domino’s Pizza! It is a case study in itself to see how big and small brands market themselves here — Lifebuoy stamps on roti, Fountain Coke for Rs 5 and yes, “Maharani chai ke saath biscuit free, free, free!”

The swarm of devotees at Kumbh

HATE CROWDS AND CHAOS? IT’S HEALTHY!

Crowds, noise and dirt are detrimental to well-being, right? Wrong, says a research involving 543 pilgrims before and after the Mela! “Mass gatherings (e.g., carnivals and religious festivals) can be joyous occasions and involve a sense of intimacy even between people who do not know each other,” says the Plos One research conducted by academics from nine universities in India and the UK. Despite the rudimentary living and sanitary facilities, pilgrims felt “better” as compared to a sample of people who did not attend the Kumbh. “The remarkable finding coming from our studies is that participating at the Mela increases kalpavasis’ (those who spend their time in silent prayer) physical and mental well-being. The experience of being a part of this pilgrimage means that they receive and provide support from and to other pilgrims. This increases the pilgrims’ sense of coping with life’s challenges. Unsurprisingly, this confidence brings benefits to their well-being,” said Gozde Ozakinci, one of the researchers, via email.

The findings of the research rang true when we spoke to Rekha Sirohi, 25, doing her PhD in agriculture from the University of Allahabad. “One wonders how there are no reports of diseases despite so many people living in such proximity. Coming here makes you feel like you’ve done something special. My parents who could not join me told me that I must have done something good to be able to come here. After taking the dip, I felt so spiritual, so relaxed. We spent more than half an hour in Sangam. It’s definitely a happy feeling, as if god was overpowering us.” Amen.

A group of women at Kumbh are tied together by a rope so they donít get lost

MANAGE THE MELA

Managing something of this magnitude is all but mission impossible and casualties are almost bound to happen. The worst stampede was in 1954, the first Kumbh Mela after Independence, that claimed between 350 (Time magazine, 1960) and 800 (The Guardian, 2003) lives. This year, 36 died in a stampede at the Kumbh railway station. During the 55-day festival, the entire city is locked with traffic jams. Yet, residents of Allahabad barely complain. “At a mass gathering like this, casualties are bound to happen despite security and safety measures. Yes, there are traffic snarls and it may take us twice the time to reach work but we are proud to host an event of this magnitude and significance,” said city dwellers Sunil Mishra and wife Kshama, at Kumbh.

The New York Times carried a story titled ‘Lost and Found at the Kumbh Mela’, a theme found in many Bollywood movies! If at the last Kumbh in Prayag in 2001, the police had landlines and one digital camera to take pictures of missing people, this year they were using WhatsApp to share information and had created an online photo system.

Signboards remind devotees to keep the Mela clean

Every minute there is an announcement for a missing person. “Rishu ki mummy, please come to the announcement tower” blared a man in Hindi through the loudspeakers, voice heavy with anxiety. Many devotees are too poor to own cellphones and families walk tied together with a rope so they don’t get lost. Conditions have improved, but cleanliness is not yet godliness at Kumbh. A visit to the Indian-style toilets in the makeshift shed almost made us cry out ‘Holy Shit’. But otherwise, labourers are always at work keeping Kumbh as clean as they can.

“Twenty years ago, there were no facilities, no water, no toilets, no lost-and-found tent, no shops,” said Vishram Saket, a mochi, from Riba in Madhya Pradesh. How many chappals does he repair in a day here? “Around 10-20, because people cover several kilometres by foot.”

At Kumbh, you keep the faith... feet first.

Text: Karo Christine Kumar
Pictures: Pabitra Das and Karo Christine Kumar

Have you been to the Kumbh Mela? How has it changed/ not changed your life? Tell t2@abp.in