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.
It is about poverty. And apathy. And perhaps the most confusing of it all, it is about blind faith. The belief that a dip in the cold, poisonous waters will grant you absolution. (See Trilokjit's brilliant images here.)
The Kumbh is not a leveler. In fact, it is the complete opposite. The rich complete their dips with police protection. The poor just wait their turn and hope the mounted policemen will not trample upon their belongings.
It is a depressing sight. And you are subjected to it purely because there is no place to sit. So you slowly walk through the dusty, golden park. All 50 square kilometers of it, trying to make sense of it all. Open toilets with women and men in full view of each other performing their ablutions. The policemen on duty standing there chewing tobacco and joking and pointing at the squatting women who in turn are trying their best to cover their faces. Women as old as our mothers. Helpless and without a shred of dignity they squat as the policemen and their sons look on.
You might try and walk away. But there are constant tugs at your feet, your legs. People asking you for a little water. Or asking if you have seen their missing son. Do you at least know the way to the lost person’s camp – can you help them by making an announcement? They don’t ask for food or money. They just want some help. The lost persons’ broadcast tower is two kilometers away and will cost you two hours just to get to the microphone. It’s freezing and crowded and your eyes are still burning. So you look away and ignore the pleas. But the image stays with your forever.
You try and distract yourself. You look around for the Nagas. That should be worth it. But they are there smoking their hashish in their comfortable tents equipped with Wi-Fi and foreign journalists who they are devoting all their time to. You catch a glimpse of them as their disciples shoo you off. The golden light makes the colour of your skin apparent, so what if you have a giant lens yourself. You can hear their voices from within. “Karma important, not money”, they say. The blonde woman who holds the recorder nods gravely and takes notes.
A pilgrimage is all about suffering. You push all the boundaries of human endurance and brave the elements to show the absentee gods how much you believe in their existence. And in their ability to absolve you of your sins. It is about penance. And nothing is more relevant than penance. If you choose suffering, you can be forgiven for all the wrongs that you might have committed.
And somehow, the already suffering millions believe that the path to absolution lies in yet more misery.
This is the heart of India that we have only heard about. This is the India that we always knew existed. But walking amongst them and hearing their cries of pain are just things you can never get used to. So what if 32 of them died in a stampede caused by an inhuman lathi charge? So what if they poured the holy water that they were carrying back home on the lifeless corpses hoping they will come back to life?
If you didn’t get to the Kumbh, you didn’t miss a rave party. But you did miss out on getting acquainted with some of your fellow Indians. Millions of people who are so cut off from your psyche that you don’t believe really exist. You might be ashamed of them. You might be disgusted at how they live. Or you might be saddened by their plight. But the one thing you cannot do is ignore the fact that they exist.
This is for them.