THE COLOUR OF MYTH: MAHA KUMBH MELA 2013
THE COLOUR OF MYTH: MAHA KUMBH MELA 2013
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. 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!