THE COLOUR OF MYTH: MAHA KUMBH MELA 2013

THE COLOUR OF MYTH: MAHA KUMBH MELA 2013

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THE PILGRIMAGE:

My tryst with pilgrimages always remained a bit unusual in the sense that I never entered the sanctum sanctorum of famous temples even after traveling more than 1000 Kms from home to visit the place. As a child, along with my mother, I couldn’t enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Kamakhsya temple, as on that particular date males were not allowed inside. Much later as a youth, when I went to Kedarnath & Badrinath I refrained from entering the sanctum sanctorum for at that time I felt that without a true belief I should not enter a holy place. Instead I observed closely the temple structures, the tremendous snow clad mountain top scenery, the people, the place and life around those famous temples. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and still cherish those moments. Once I thought I would enter the Kalighat temple, basically because I am always rather fascinated by Goddess Kali- but that time the persistently shouting Pandas made me feel horrible and naturally I refrained from entering the sanctum sanctorum, though my in-laws did. 6.jpg 7.jpg 8.jpg 9.jpg 10.jpg This time also at Prayag, Kumbh Mela, on the Mouni Amabasya Day where around 3.5 Crore people had their holy dip at the confluence of Shaivaite Ganges, Baishnavite Jamuna and Nilachal Brahmavite Saraswati (now non-existent) rivers; naturally I refrained from taking a dip. But still it was a pilgrimage for me, a pilgrimage to watch how people of India are driven by a 2500+ old myth of attaining immortality and accordingly gather in crores for this symbolic bath. Such a massive response to an ancient tradition is reason enough to profoundly respect an event like Maha (or Purna) Kumbha Mela, which occurs once in every 12 years. When people in the tune of 4 Crores (the press estimate this years- just about 3% of population of India) congregates at one place all logical reasoning is bound to evaporate and the reality of our society and the impact of the generic religion Hinduism is bound to sink in deep. I realized that I was actually standing at the confluence of 2500 years of Indian history and culture being one among the crores of people present there- just a speck of time & mind among the vast passage of millenniums and the departed souls of yester years. It is truly a pilgrimage.

THE KUMBH MELA-2013  

GENERAL INFRASTRUCTURE

11.jpg 12.jpg 13.jpg 14.jpg 15.jpg This 12 year special Maha Kumbh Mela is so gigantic and stupendous an affair that words will always remain inadequate to express the experience. Describing Kumbh Mela is just an impossible task. Moreover, though I wanted to surf the net and read a few books before landing up in Prayag, Allahabad but I never could manage the time. So I had no preconceived idea about what Kumbh Mela could be, never knew where exactly to go and what to find. Naturally every place and every event I came across appeared interesting to me and I floated freely within the Kumbh Mela ground almost always encountering the unexpected.

First of all, I left my hotel at 4AM in the morning of 10th February, 2013-the Mouni Amabasya Day and headed for the Sangam (confluence) area with my friend Arup Mitra, a faculty of Patha Bhavan school, got rooted to one spot within the massive pedestrian crowd for half an hour, unable to move even a feet. A fear of a stampede made us cleverly cut across the line; jump the barricade to find some free space and air. Alarmingly but fortunately that desperate barricade jump and a little tread towards the unknown led us directly into the path of the Sadhus (including the Naga or Nanga Sadhus) returning from their “Shahi” bath. The Mountain police and the Black Cats tried to push us out (relatively politely though), but somehow we could convince them that we were there just for a few photographs (they astonishingly didn’t care much about our primitive cameras) and we were let in after all with due reluctance. This actually opened a mine-field of photographic opportunity for us; leading eventually to let us get mixed along with the sadhus, with the Nanga Sanyasis crossing us within hand shaking distance (that was quite fearsome!). I found the Naga Sanyasis to hardly mind our presence, though they were crazy from top to bottom.

16.jpg 17.jpg 18.jpg 19.jpg 20.jpg On our way out from the Mela ground that morning the huge surge of people coming in simply pushed us out from the huge 6 lane road, we had to jump barricade again and after a bit of uncertain navigation landed up in our hotel barely 1 km off. That was a rather tricky experience, almost touching the tipping point of an impending stampede that never happened!In my honest opinion the management of the crowd inside the Maha Kumbh Mela ground was excellent keeping into the fact that there were at least 2 Crore people in early morning to a maximum of 4 Crore people assembled within the ground till noon. An idea of excellence could be gauged from the fact that in about 30square Kms (or perhaps more) of the fair ground not a single stray dog was found. Stray animals were strictly prohibited from the fair ground, and to keep the food hungry dogs out from such a large fair ground in itself was an amazing achievement.

It was completely another matter that the Railways was not geared to handle such a large influx of people, and a stampede at the Allahabad railway station resulted in 40 deaths with an equal number injured. It was a genuinely bad show by the Railways, and it was astonishing not to find even a single welcome poster from Railways at the station for the Kumbh Jatris, which I noticed when I arrived at Allahabad station. It appeared that there was no synergy between the Kumbh Mela administration and the railways. In short it was a disastrous show by Railways, and on our way back our train arrived at a good 8 hrs late at Allahabad Station. Among all these aberrations and anxieties I could not help but be at awe at the Maha Kumbh Mela 2013; and time and health permitting I would again like to be in the Maha Kumbh Mela 12 years later; but would probably avoid the railways!

THE POMP OF THE RELIGIOUS SHOW

21.jpg   22.jpg 23.jpg 24.jpg 25.jpg Just how deep rooted is religion in our conscious or sub-conscious psyche can be a great matter of deliberation for someone visiting Maha Kumbh Mela. It was astonishing to find so many religious sects, the Sankaracharyas, the Juna Akharas, the several other acharyas, to a hoard of Mahantas, from Iskon to Ramkrishna Math to Bharat Sevasram Sangha and our own Kalighat Mahantas from Bengal to be present at Maha Kumbh Mela 2013. The huge Akahara complexes, usually with a stage and several big tents (probably with attached baths) for Sadhus in the higher echelon, followed by smaller tents for ordinary Sadhus, then tents for general devotees, a small market complex for vegetables and etc, then the series of makeshift washrooms completed an Akhara. I tried to note the car manufacturers logo among the several cars parked inside the Akharas, found one Mercedes, and several other logos I simply couldn’t recognize, as they were all foreign makes- now probably sold in Indian soil. Though no vehicle was permitted within the periphery of Kumbh Mela; the Sadhus often rode a huge sedan within the Maha Kumbh Mela ground. They were naturally the bosses of the whole arena.

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28.jpg 29.jpg 30.jpg The Naga Sanyasis (actually it should be spelled ‘Nanga Sanyasis’) were naturally a huge draw in Maha Kumbh Mela. Falling in line, I was also hugely impressed and astonished by so many ash smeared crazy characters; but in the long run the overwhelming presence of the Nanga Sanyasis in every nook and corner of Maha Kumbh Mela was a bit exasperating an experience. Accordingly my photographic stock of Kumbh Mela got infested by so many snaps of Nanga Sanyasis that processing them became a bit laborious affair for me. But the ‘Shahi Snan’ (bathing in Sangam by Sadhus) procession by the Nanga Sanyasis was the most spectacular one to watch; it was honestly a lifetime experience!

Just a little careful observation would make it apparent that the penis of the Nanga Sanyasis are either clipped, or a narrow metal ring is inserted, or pins are clamped, or a tight thread is tied and other type of weird manipulations implemented basically to make Nanga Sanyasis sexually impotent; or to put it in right perspective sex becomes a non existent reality for them. They are supposed to be the army of Hindu Religion, ready to take up arms against any attack on Hinduism. Retired professor of Philosophy, Visva Bharati University, Prodyot Kumar Mukherjee supplied an interesting anecdote about the Nanga Sanyasis to me. According to him the Nanga Sanyasis originally were a sect involved in a secret type of Sadhana, not really to be seen in public. In the Mughal era, the Moulavis, who were above the purview of law as per the legislation of that era, forcefully used to disrupt Hindu rituals and often killed the Sadhus. In Benares the problem became very acute. The Moulavis got away even after committing many crimes, as they were above law- a privilege the Sadhus did not enjoy. An Adwaitya Pandit of Benares Madhusudan Saraswati, contacted Emperor Akbar through his Hindu minister Todarmalla, and apprised Akbar of the problem. In a lengthy deliberation between the three, it was decided that henceforth like the Moulavis, the Sadhus would also be kept above law, and it was decided to have an army of Hindu Sadhus to thwart attempts of massacres by the Moulavis. The Nanga Sanyasis were called up to take up the specific job of warriors, with training in handling weapons provided by the Rajput Army under Todarmalla. The administrator of Kashi (Beneras) was instructed by Emperor Akbar not to interfere in any fights between the Moulavis and the Sadhus; though a general riot within Hindus and Muslims were to be tackled strictly according to law. So, the conflicts between Moulavis and Sadhus were allowed to be settled by sheer power show between the two groups; and from then onwards the erstwhile secretive Nanga Sanyasis became a very visible element in Benares; and gradually became an integral part of any large Hindu congregation.

31.jpg   32.jpg 33.jpg 34.jpg 35.jpg A few questions about Nanga Sanyasis naturally surfaced, the answer of which was never seriously pursued. First of all, it appeared that such manipulation of sex for the Nanga Sanyasis were probably carried out in their childhood; when for a child it might become unrealistic to gauge the total effect of such an exercise. Probably in villages or elsewhere giving away a child to the Nanga Sadhus is considered a pious religious act; but I was never too sure about the validity of the consent from the child himself. It is genuinely a tricky area to contemplate on.

Secondly, several Akharas maintain the Nanga Sanyasis, some Akharas maintain two, some Akharas maintain two hundred. So, strictly speaking the Nanga Sanyasis are not a homogeneous group; they are dispersed within several Akharas with different sub-sect ideologies of Hinduism. So, I remained unsure about a general Nanga Sanyasi sect by itself; the ancient Gupta Sadhana (hidden worship) concept of the Nanga Sanyasis (before they turned visible warriors) remained a confusing concept to me. But then, to know such things, one has to read relevant text and mix with the Nanga Sanyasis personally. Maybe readers of this article will be able to shower more light on this; and I would really be grateful for such inputs.

36.jpg 37.jpg 38.jpg 39.jpg 40.jpg The pomp and grandeur of the Shahi bathing procession of the Sadhus were an amazing act to watch. The tractor driven chariots looked gorgeous, with the head of the particular group sitting in a decorated chair atop the chariot, accompanied by close associates and a few automatic rifle clad security personnel. It was an interesting combination of colour, grandeur, tridents, music (of the religious kind) and lots of people. I had never before seen such a huge procession, eagerly watched by people from every available corner. It was a gigantic show, only one of its kinds definitely in India, perhaps elsewhere too. The presence of such a huge crowd, to the tune of tens of millions made the event truly spectacular. The power of religion is sure to sink deep and the sheer size of the show is bound to drown any critical evaluation of the event. Honestly speaking it felt great to be a part of this spectacle; an unbelievable experience, which will be forever, etched in my mind- a genuine lifetime experience. India is certainly a fascinating country; a country so vast in texture that words or photographs would never be adequate to express the right mood of just one situation like this.

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THE AFTER EFFECT:

Maha Kumbh Mela, or perhaps the regular Kumbh Melas must be very infectious. Like a magnet the next Maha Kumbha Mela 12 years later is already pulling me right from now, and if I remain in a good shape I would certainly visit for a longer duration. The passage of 2500 years since Indus civilization had changed the geographical boundaries within India many times, many currents crossed this fertile piece of land, but it is great to feel some kind of continuity still flowing at the confluence of three rivers, or the three main sects of Hinduism- Shaivaites, Baishnavites & the followers of Lord Bramha, right from the time of inception of Hindu-ism. More over it is the common Indian village people from faraway lands of Rajasthan, Bihar, Assam and etc who are the chief participants in this mammoth festival and it is always a great experience to be at the heart of India and to know how are the real people of India look and behave. Cosmopolitan sophistication is a huge minority in Maha Kumbh Mela, making the fair more interesting. In fact just watching and interacting with a few, I gained some idea about the life style and psyche of these hard-core village people and that itself was quite revealing an experience. There will always be many such side stories to a Kumbh Mela. From my part, it was truly a homage to spirit of India, and I loved the experience. I would most probably remain dazed by Maha Kumbh Mela for the rest of my life!

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23 Comments

  1. madhumita bhattacharya says:

    awesome photographs, incredible experience, lifetime achievement……

  2. Ritayan Roy says:

    Thanks for the awesome pictures, nice descriptions as well as a bit of history related to this spectacular gathering of human ocean. I am not religious and some way I am anti-religious, but your pictures really tempted me to visit Maha Kumbha Mela for the sake of photography.
    I really enjoyed reading this article. I would like to know whether “Naga (nanga) Sanyashis” are always without cloths or only for this holy dip? I am asking for two reasons: 1) Do they wear clothes in winter or not and 2) Is it allowed to walk nude in public places in India?
    Oh my GOD, religion is so crazy!! 🙂 😀

    • Shubhashis says:

      Ritayan,
      Generally speaking, the Nanga Sanyasis mostly remain naked. Once in Badrinath I came across such a Sadhu in pretty chilling conditions (Month of November) and took up the courage to ask for the secret of braving such cold, without clothes. That particular Sadhu promptly fished out a medium sized seed and said “Beta, Iskho Kha Le, Tu Bhi Nanga Ho Jayega!” It was a half centimeter diameter sized seed of a plant, I kept the seed with me for a long time, but lost it eventually. So, there are natural methods to brave such colds.
      Moreover, at nights in Kumbh Mela, these Nanga Sanyasis can often be found at the front gate of Akharas, sitting naked, blessing people, and collecting money. I have many such photographs, in fact they can be found in plenty. Women, particularly regularly touched their feet for blessings. So, I reckon, the Nanga Samyasis mostly remain naked, and walk pretty menacingly with a trident or chimta in their hand freely within the fair ground. Pretty bizarre a scenery, no doubt.

  3. sumana saha says:

    Sukul, I must say your terrific photographs and brilliant observations about the Maha Kumbh Mela got me hooked! Truly you had a life time experience! Can’t help but envy you! After 12 years will you consider adding to the number in your entourage:)?

  4. Tarun Bose says:

    Bhaiya, as usual mind blowing coverage of Kumbh mela with excellent photographs. Well done.

  5. Boisali Biswas says:

    Wow, what an excellent coverage!

  6. Mithu Adhikary says:

    Sukulda, had been waiting for this….and yes simple sadhubaad cant do justice I know! But please accept our heartfelt thanks for giving us such a spectaclar visual and intellectual glimpse of Maha Kumbh! Salute!

  7. debasis dutta says:

    Bhaiya da,

    Really Awesome.

    Jate na parlao mon bhorlo

  8. Tathagata Dasgupta says:

    Bhaiyada, excellent photographs and writing. amazing experience. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Tonu says:

    Nice coverage.
    I have often pondered about the history of the Sanyasi Vidroha, concurrent with the devastating Bengal famine of 1776, also known as Chhiyattarer Mannyantar – not to be confused with a much milder and more recent Bengal famine of 1943.

    It is reported that, with the steep rise of taxation levied to the farmers, and muscular enforcement of it by the new English rule over Bengal after the battle of Plassey, combined with a severe drought, caused large scale deaths – in some estimate upto a third of the rural population died over a 20 year period.

    During this time, a rare common cause resulted in joint and coordinated attacks by Hindu Ascetics and Muslim counter parts, who targeted the collected loot from the peasantry as they were transported by agents of the new Governments, usually the new breed Zamindars.

    It was during this period that the legend of Devi Choudhurani as a real life female Robin Hood arose, (Unlike the British Robin Hood that was fictional), who lead a team of river pirates to attack boats of the East India company.

    I had once tried to find more reports of it, but very little could be found, at least by me, from any Indian source. All the reports where from the records of the English administrators.

    A century down the line, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, working as an assistant deputy magistrate, found traces still evident of an epic military struggle between the British Raj and the Sanyasis. Those findings eventually influenced him into writing “Ananda Math” the novel.

    Anyhow, I was loosely aware of the naked ascetics of Akbar’s time, but am curious about the later phase of the Sanyasi uprising of the last quarter of the 18th century, of the times of Devi Choudhurani, Bhabani Pathak etc.

    Good writing.. cheers.

    • Shubhashis says:

      Tonuda,
      The Wikipedia details are as such (it was interesting to find the mention of Birbhum district in the narration!)

      EARLY EVENTS

      At least three separate events are called the Sannyasi Rebellion. One refers to a large body of Hindu sannyasis who travelled from North India to different parts of Bengal to visit shrines. En route to the shrines, it was customary for many of these holy men to exact a religious tax from the headmen and zamindars or regional landlords. In times of prosperity, the headmen and zamindars generally obliged. However, since the East India Company had received the diwani or right to collect tax, many of the tax demands increased and the local landlords and headmen were unable to pay both the ascetics and the English. Crop failures, and famine, which killed ten million people or an estimated one-third of the population of Bengal compounded the problems since much of the arable land lay fallow.
      In 1771, 150 saints were put to death, apparently for no reason. This was one of the reasons that caused distress leading to violence, especially in Natore in Rangpur, now in modern Bangladesh. However, some modern historians argue that the movement never gained popular support.

      The other two movements involved a sect of Hindu ascetics, the Dasnami naga sannyasis who likewise visited Bengal on pilgrimage mixed with moneylending opportunities.To the British, these ascetics were looters and must be stopped from collecting money that belonged to the Company and possibly from even entering the province. It was felt that a large body of people on the move was a possible threat.

      CLASHES BETWEEN COMPANY AND ASCETICS

      When the Company’s forces tried to prevent the sannyasis and fakirs from entering the province or from collecting their money in the last three decades of the 18th century, fierce clashes often ensued, with the Company’s forces not always victorious. Most of the clashes were recorded in the years following the famine but they continued, albeit with a lesser frequency, up until 1802. The reason that even with superior training and forces, the Company was not able to suppress sporadic clashes with migrating ascetics was that the control of the Company’s forces in the far-removed hilly and jungle covered districts like Birbhum and Midnapore on local events was weak.

      LEGACY

      The Sannyasi rebellion was the first of a series of revolts and rebellions in the Western districts of the province including (but not restricted to) the Chuar Revolt of 1799 and the Santal Revolt of 1855–56. What effect the Sannyasi Rebellion had on rebellions that followed is debatable. Perhaps, the best reminder of the Rebellion is in literature, in the Bengali novel Anandamath, written by India’s first modern novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. The song, Vande Mataram, which was written in 1876, was used in the book Anandamath in 1882 (pronounced Anondomôţh in Bengali) and the 1952 movie based on the book. Vande Mataram was later declared to be India’s National Song (not to be confused with the Indian National Anthem).

  10. Indrajit Roy says:

    Photography at its Best… Perfectly Established 🙂

    • Shubhashis says:

      Thanks Indrajit Roy. Its great to get a compliment from a professional photographer. My advise you should visit Kumbh Mela at least once; you can always get a sponsorship from any leading news paper. I know that camera manufactures like Canon, Nikon etc also sponsor photographers at Kumbh Mela, with arrangement for stay. You can explore that possibility as well.

  11. Geetarashmi Basu says:

    A complete package of excellent photographs and brilliant description !….. Feeling proud of you sukul.

    • Shubhashis says:

      Geetarashmi,
      Please don’t feel proud about me! I am not going to turn a Nanga Sanyasi, by any chance!
      Interestingly, at Kumbh Mela I found one Guru (God Man) only surrounded by ladies (mostly foreigners!) in his majestic chariot. His procession was being led by another group of ladies only! Remarkable achievement for a male Guru! I really felt jealous. What a guy! If I could become such a Guru, you certainly would have had something to be proud of. But alas, at least not in this life!
      Sukul

  12. Tamojit Ray says:

    Bhaiyada,

    Khub shundor hoyechhe toamar ei protibedonTi. Amar ei shadhu-shawntoder duniya niye ekTa onYorawkomer koutuhawl royechhe. Eder politics ebong hierarchy aar tar prokash amay khub akorshon kawre. Amar nijer konodin Kumbho jaowa hawyni. Tawbe ekbar nishchoi jabo! Tawtodin ei Awmritokubher jawlokawna tomader moto manushder kachh theke niyei trishna nibaron korte hawbe!
    Joy guru!!!

  13. Bhaswar Chatterjee says:

    Bhaiamama,

    A very interesting article. Like you I am intrigued by this only human congregation that is apparently visible from space – but I assume that negotiating these crowds is not for the faint of heart!

  14. subhasis dutta says:

    Bichitra rokom sadhuder darun sob chhobi! Boltei Hochchhe-“Sadhu! Sadhu”
    Subhasis Dutta

  15. Bipasha says:

    I have now read this article so many times! I am absolutely intrigued by your experience and description. Someday, I hope you will write a full book on the history of Kumbh Mela and the Sanyasis. What is history without documentation. I look forward to that too. I am enjoying the varied articles by the different authors in the Muktodhara website. A heartfelt thank you to all the contributors for enlightening us on so many fascinating topics.

  16. Anonymous says:

    shubhashis, durdanto lekha, durdharsho chhobi. tomar ar amar dekhar modhye milta hochchhe apaar bismayer ar bipul abhijnataar. kintu tomar moto sundor kore, guchhiye ar rosiye amar bolar shaki nei. haridwareo kumbhamela dekhechhi, kintu prayaager songe tulana hoyna. amaro kono dharonai chhilo na er byapakata sambandhe. tonur chithite kichhu itihaas jana holo. ekta sangshodhan kori– chhiyattorer manvantar-ta 1176 bongabdo, 1776 khrshtabdo noy. seta chhilo 1769. er tin bochhor por Rammohan Royer janma. tumi ghumer somoy onekta kere nile. good night.

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