An estimated 30 million people visited the Maha Kumbh Mela on 10th February 2013 and an estimated 100 million are expected to visit the place during the festival spread over 55 days. (See Trilokjit's brilliant images here.)
This little factoid (courtesy: Wikipedia) makes the Maha Kumbh the largest congregation of people in the world. One of the world’s oldest religious festivals, it’s about millions hypnotised by faith who walk for days to brave sub zero temperatures and take a dip in one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
Driving down from Lucknow as soon as you hit the outskirts of Allahabad, the banks of which Sangam is located, you can tell something big is about to take place. There are people everywhere. On the single laned-highway, on the fields, on the dried up river bed – walking in single file with all their wordly possessions on their heads. Walking. Family after family tugging along with their cloth bags balanced precariously on their heads. Old people being tagged in carts. Weeping toddlers being lugged much to their collective discomfort. Elderly women struggling to keep pace as they hold on to the shirt tails of their men folk just so they don’t get separated. They walk. Sometimes breaking into inpromptu chants of Ganga Mai Ki Jai or the more generic Har Har Mahadev just to keep the rapidly declining adrenaline pumping. They have miles to go. You are in an air-conditioned car. Watching the moving procession of people through the screens of your tinted car window, it seems unreal. Though you are right there, you could well be millions of miles away.
No matter what the news reports say or what visuals you might have seen, nothing can prepare you for the sight as you first come across the grounds. It is nothing like you have seen before. At first sight, it just doesn’t make any sense. The whole place is lit with hundreds of yellow halogen lamps that cast an orange glow that lights up the entire sky. The dust rising from the millions walking remains suspended over the whole place like a low-hanging fog. The eyes burn from the hundreds of little fires that people have lit just to keep out the cold. You cannot hear yourself think as a multitude of loudspeakers blares devotional songs from every nook and corner. The loudest one blares out names of people who have been lost and how their family members are waiting for them at some point.
And then there are the people.
They are everywhere. There are families, kids, widows, fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles huddled over little fires and waiting for the precise moment when they will take a dip. You cannot walk without stepping on a frayed blanket or kicking over someone’s precious belongings. You cannot walk past them without looking at some of their expressionless faces.
As you walk further, the dust gets thicker and the air gets colder. At the nose of the Sangam, there are hundreds in various stages of undress. Shivering naked bodies that have just finished their dips. As they perform their duties and little pujas there are mounted policemen waiting to ensure that they do not waste any time post their dip. They resort to the occasional lathi charge or carelessly trample over the devotees’ belongings.
And then there is the media. A handful of people, warmly dressed, with bottles of packaged drinking water neatly in place. They stand on an elevated machan, heavily protected by armed commandos, taking in the sight of their prey, the people. Waiting to extend their phallic lenses at the sight of something that excites them.
And there is so much to be excited about. The Naga Babas, the monks, the elephants and the horses and the noise and the mayhem. It is exotic. It makes for a great India story. A country of great contrasts. Cliches that most advertising people have been doing for corporate audio visuals for the past decade.
What they miss out on though are the people. Kumbh is a fantastic exhibition of poverty. Not the kind that you and I are accustomed to seeing. These are not the ones who live in cities under flyovers and are street smart. Simple people so disillusioned with their state of being that they probably think it is a result of them being sinners. And perhaps, just perhaps if they washed off their sins they could improve their lot.
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