“I have booked my tickets and I am going” my father was full of excitement as he entered my room to make this announcement. Every month he travels to Rishikesh, and announces it in a flat monotonous tone so I wondered what was different this time.
“The Maha Kumbh”. I almost jumped out of bed. I was least expecting this. A little excited myself, I aksed, “Kumbh. Really?” The crowd, the people, everything that I have always hated came rushing into my mind. But before I knew it, I had booked my tickets as well. I don’t know what came over me I think my mind went like this “people come from all over the world to watch this event. And people travel all over from India to participate. It has to be a one time experience.” I was met with a barrage of incredulous comments from friends: “Kumbh really? Didn’t know you were a believer” to “are you sure? remember you hate crowds.” To wishful ones from family: “we also wanted to go. You are so lucky you are going”. To plain excitement from some: “Yeah! one has to go atleast once to see what’s it like.”
Being a passionate traveller and a believer in “try everything once”. I was soon off to this holiest of the holy melas.
First weekend of March saw us boarding a night train from Delhi to reach Allahabad. Surprisingly till a day before both Dad and I were doubtful. However, keeping aside all panic, we decided to go ahead anyway. I was travelling in a night train after ages. Sleep was a foregone conclusion and added to that a group of people who obviously did not have reservations decided to sit and talk, and listen to music without earphones right below my seat. I thought karma seemed to have kicked in even before I reached the holy river! Finally after much switching on and off of lights and arguments when the people with rightful reservation came in, I manged to inform the erstwhile group that some of us would not want to hear the strains of Kishore Kumar at 1 am.
But I must add that since the Kumbh was ending, we had a decent crowd in the train. It made me hopeful. Though I hadn’t decided on taking “the dip” as yet. I saw myself tossing and turning, wanting to see the famed crowds of Kumbh and also Allahabad, a city where my grandfather grew up. Though he passed away few years back, I had never been to this city before.
After a brief stop at a Government Guest House, we took a change of clothes, and headed off towards the river. We were a group of 4.
Allahabad surprised me. Neat, compact and yet ancient, I was intrigued. Since I have seen Lucknow and other cities of Uttar Pradesh, I was surprised to see Allahabad not only cleaner but less congested. I don’t know if it was because of the weekend, or because half of India is caught up in the annual school exams, which keeps children and parents both at home. Whatever the reason it served me well.
Eventually we reached a banner welcoming us to the holy city of Kumbh. I held my breath and then just like an anti-climax we reached rows upon rows of empty tents. We had managed to reach Kumbh when the crowds had gone back. Just a week ago there had been a stampede at the Allahabad Railway station. And within a week empty.
Was I disappointed? A little. Was I relieved? A lot. We could see toilets and police stations at regular intervals. The Government seemed to have really organised it well this time. They also have years of practice!
We managed to reach the river and after parking our cars started to mill with the thin crowd near the banks. People wet, people drying themselves, people waiting to go and all the while smiling at each other and us. They seemed to say “you have come too? welcome to the sin-less club!”
After navigating the crowd checking on each other, since we could hear constant announcements of lost people, we reached the bank. Where a patient policeman, “a rarity”, explained that this part of the bank is cordoned off and that that part is VIP. You have to drive/ walk 2-3 kms and then take a boat to the Sangam.
Really? VIP banks? I was amused. The river is one and so is the bank, carrying everyone (and their dirt) along, washing over each other and so are the banks. But as is wont for us humans, who never tire to divide, whether lines between countries or hearts, we had divided the indivisible bank.
Resigned we trudged back to our car through a small Mela: People selling bangles and sindoor and priests sitting with happily munching cows.
Half and hour later, hiring a boat which we bargained to have just carry the 4 of us, we headed towards the center. The river was beautiful, silent, majestic, reflecting the sunlight with seagulls trailing us. A Fort was on its banks. Taken over by the army one couldn’t go inside, but one could imagine and that I did during the long boat ride. What is it with nature and history that despite a crowd you can feel alone, on your own and at peace?
We had managed to get a chatty captain who regaled us by tales of crowds and stories about how over the years other groups have traversed these waters. Sometimes he would stop rowing and just turn around explaining things. He had found an audience and I thought at this rate we will reach tomorrow thoroughly sunburnt!
Eventually we reached the Sangam, the point where Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati blend. I had finally been convinced to take the dip. On a float made of boats and floating logs(??) we got off to be taken to a priest. With amusement we saw our boat captain, speak to a group of Tamilians in Tamil, despite being a north Indian, warning them to remove their hands from the edges, chided like children they instantly reacted, even as our boats collided. We asked him “you know this language?” With pride he said I also know Telugu and English. Enough to warn people off ! 🙂
Finally on a rocking boat, the priest blessed us, rattled off a few verses and then handed us some coconuts. Then began what has been the source of my disillusionment for years. Haggling of price for puja and the coconuts. My only question to the priest: “Will someone retrieve them or our we polluting the river with impunity?” Sufficiently chided by my father I begrudgingly picked up the coconuts. You see I had fallen in love with the river. I did not want to dip and wash off anything more in it. But to my surprise I saw 2 people on a boat with retrieved coconuts. So I was not the only one, maybe the Government for once was doing something constructive.
Finally, I plunged in the river. At that point the river is not too deep and you can stand in the water. I felt strange. Few years back this is where we had said our final good-byes to my Grandfather and immersed his ashes. And a few years later here we were. I prayed for some peace in this world, and for the river. Thanking it for “washing away our sins for centuries” And the final dip for my mother. My dad was with me.
As we got out, me shivering since there were people changing but I couldn’t bring myself to. We waited for our remaining group to regroup. As I sat shivering in the boat and gazed at the mass of “dipping humanity” I felt conflicted.
When did this custom begin? Did anyone ask the river whether it wanted to wash off our sins? Or is nature so magnanimous that it forgives our follies and waits for our understanding and cooperation. As I looked at the people dipping to wash away sins, some of whom were from villages, I marveled at the way people across strata of society had become one. Does it take a festival like this to bring humanity together? Rich or poor in the end we are all looking for salvation. We are all one. And then a part of my heart went out to these people. I almost wished this worked and it would work for them. So that they become happier. I wanted to ask: do you feel better or different? Will you behave differently now? control your anger or behave differently or whatever is your vice. Will this dip make you richer? and the final one if someone like me with half faith or no faith dips would it still work for me? Does this change anything?
I hope it does.
What did it change in me?
As we headed back, feeding strange crispies to the birds, I realised that poor fishermen were using old plastic bottles to fish and that plastic was floating near the bank, though I must say considering the crowds the river was very clean. And I made a strange determination, that I who is a shopaholic will now use and buy less stuff and use what I have to death. And why? cause as I saw the river and the poor people, it was driven home, we do not have place on this precious planet for more stuff and if we do not regulate, we will die of suffocation first. Not a very spiritual determination but what can I say?
Sunburnt and chilled, me and my co-woman traveller reached the shore.
And then we explored the city. But that would have to be another blog entry!
- The Kumbh Mela in 2013: One Photographer’s View (lightbox.time.com)
- 120 million wash away sins at festival (news.com.au)
- Allahabad train station stampede kills at least 10 (guardian.co.uk)
- Over three crore people take holy dip in Kumbh Mela on ‘Mauni Amavasya’ (ndtv.com)