Kumbh Mela: The enigma of faith

“I was at the Kumbh Mela among 3 crores of people to learn, to marvel at faith that seemed unreasonable yet enigmatic”


I was among 3 crores of people who arrived at Allahabad, in overcrowded trains, buses, carts, horses and camels. I stayed awake for more than 24 hours, walked for over 7 hours amidst the sea of men, women and children. I walked over the temporary pontoons constructed across the 22 ghats, across the fascinating 4,784 acres city of tents.

 

Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.

― T.H. White, The Once and Future King

I was at the Kumbh Mela to learn, to marvel at faith that seemed unreasonable yet enigmatic. I wanted to believe. I hoped to comprehend what drives the common man to live life passionately, like it were a penance; to embrace the risks and dangers of such unflinching trust and hope, to exhibit resilience in adversity and to embark on such an incredible journey with great fortitude and vulnerability.

Ram Bharose and his wife at the Kumbh Mela 2013, Allahabad

Ram Bharose and Ram Bharose ki patni (wife) had walked continuously for more than 20days to reach Allahabad on the Mauni Amavasya day, the 10th febraury. They had left Kishanjganj barefoot, carrying tattered bags stuffed with razaai on their heads. They had food once in a while, and slept by the railway platforms and roadside dhabas on days that the blisters on their foot got worse. Ram told me in simple articulate hindi “Bharosa hai to hum hai” (We trust, therefore, we exist) and that kind of summed up the spirit of kumbh mela for me.

I was among 3 crores of people who arrived at Allahabad, in overcrowded trains, buses, carts, horses and camels. I stayed awake for more than 24 hours, walked for over 7 hours amidst the sea of men, women and children. I walked over the temporary pontoons constructed across the 22 ghats, across the fascinating 4,784 acres city of tents.

When I started walking towards the last stretch of the road leading to Sangam at 2am, I was clearly lost. Along with that sense of curiosity and zest, a nagging dread of the crowd caught on to me, this place was nothing like what I had remembered it to be as a child growing up in Allahabad. But the fear of the unknown soon slipped into oblivion as I befriended the mob. I love crowds, I always have. The energy and the singular sense of purpose of crowds always leave me in awe.


While trying to navigate the maddening roads across the 14 sectors, I was slowly attempted to make sense of the statistics that stared at me; a tentative city of 20 million square meters, 30,000 security personnel, 14 medical units, 22000 street lights, 150 km of temporary roads, 18 pontoon bridges, and 35,000 toilets with sewers.

When I eventually reached the Sangam, I was to be greeted by a crimson golden light shimmering on the river, colorful flags dancing in anticipation of the dawn, a million lamps, loud mellifluous chants and the shivering crowds clinging onto each other’s clothes lest they get lost.

Scriptures and records point out that a war broke out between the Devas and Asuras over the elixir of immorality that they churned out of the ocean. During the war of 12 days (12 human years) the nectar from the kumbh (pitcher) was spilled at Allahabad , Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar. And every 12 years it is believed that the forces that nourish our nature lifts the lid of this vessel, making the elixir available to humankind which the pilgrims flock to partake.

However, this only seems to be a more recent discovery considering the mela finds a mention in the Mahabharatha or later in chinese traveller, Huan Tsang’ s journal in 640 A.D. where he spoke of a large gathering of half a million pilgrims.

When I climbed up the media stand and got an aerial view of the entire crowd at Sangam, it was more than astounding to imagine that this ritual of pilgrims congregating for the Kumbh mela, has been passed on over many centuries and generations.

The key ritual, of course, is to bathe in the sacred rivers at the auspicious time on the designated bathing dates to absolve oneself of all sins. Before the common man takes a dip, the nude and ash smeared Naga sadhus armed with their axes swords and deadlocks march to jump into the icy waters of the Sangam, followed by their leaders.

When the march eventually started, it seemed to me that I was witnessing a grandiose procession of the ages; the chariots, elephants, palanquins, saints and the exuberant screams of the cheering crowds. The Naga sadhus from the different akhadas arrived, and so did the chiming bells, distant Vedic hymns, blowing of the conch shells, trumpeting of the elephants and the beating of the drums.

“They look like Zombies”, a French photographer exclaimed at the first sight of the huge number of ethereal Naga sadhus running to the Sangam. I explained to him that incidentally sadhus are considered to be dead unto them and maybe even required to attend their own funeral, before following a guru for many years. “Why would these millions pray to these men”, he asked. “Because they pursue a life of renunciation described as the fourth stage of life in the classical Sanskrit literature of the Hindu tradition and are on their path to achieve moksha.” “And why do they wear such fanciful trinkets?” “Well, these are the 17 shringars (adornments) designated as per the ancient ascetics rituals. The holy ash, kada, roli, tilak, Chandan, dhuni are some of the 17 shringars they must adorn before they can pray to the rivers with great reverence.”

This spectacle of snan (bath), procession and march continues on different bathing dates – Basanth Panchami, Rath Saptami, Maghi Poornima etc. Millions continue to arrive at and leave Allahabad.

I took long walks, on chilly midnights and sunny middays, observing the crowds, chatting with the pilgrims, and sleeping at the times by the roadside. “Eat the dust and grime, swallow your pride. Keep walking” I had told myself. I lost track of my group of friends and wandered alone at times, but always found Samaritans who looked out for me. I came very close to drowning in the Sangam and was saved more than once by a kind policeman that decided to keep an eye on me. On a sunny day when fatigue and dizziness hit me, a group of Rajasthani women gave me the last sip of water they had saved up for their journey.

While the rains Gods behaved well initially, they let loose a few days later. Thunderstorm, cyclone like rains and lightning caused havoc. Tents collapsed. More than 20,000 were left homeless.

On one such day I stayed up in my tent, listening to the pitter patter of the rains, smelling the mud and having surreal conversations about faith and God. That’s when I met an Italian couple that had walked more than 10 kms with backpacks on their heads and then, crossed the Yamuna on a boat to get to my camp. Their tent camp had collapsed unable to withstand the fierce rain. “We love India”, they had said in an uncharacteristically buoyant spirit.

 

A spirit that I had begun to notice everywhere I went. In every conversation I had – with the globetrotter that paid quick visits, the photographer abuzz with curiosity, the non-sartorial Naga saint at the Akhadas, travelers from the western world, the frail old nonagenarian grandma, the Ram Barose, or that irreverent cynic who wants to question status quo.

A spirit that kindled my soul. In hindsight I even had my profound moments of transformation. In my quest to perceive and embrace faith, I had walked a few miles.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

(Lord Alfred Tennyson)

 


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sindhuja P is a freelance Travel and Social documentary photographer. In her other life she works as an educator for an IT major. Gifted with a high restlessness quotient, she has dabbled in varied fields including theatre, playing the ‘veena’ and counselling. She constantly tries to bring her interests in travel, photography, education and psychology together to impact societal change. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sindhuja P is a freelance Travel and Social documentary photographer. In her other life she works as an educator for an IT major. Gifted with a high restlessness quotient, she has dabbled in varied fields including theatre, playing the ‘veena’ and counselling. She constantly tries to bring her interests in travel, photography, education and psychology together to impact societal change. more

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