Saturday, June 15, 2013

Pilgrims Progress "Mahakumbh'' - Part 1- Allahabad, Varanasi, Bodhgaya

Pilgrims Boats for the Confluence of Ganges and Jamuna.
Crowds Waiting for a Dip.

The 'Largest Gathering of Humankind' !. This sobriquet has been applied to the Mahakumbh Mela (fair) so many times, that it has almost become a cliché. You hear and read about it ad nauseam. 

Miles of Tented Townships.
Another View of The Pilgrims.
 The fact is that it is the absolute truth. The actual numbers of pilgrims and visitors to Allahabad during the 45 day duration of the fair, are staggering at 160 million, peaking at 30 million devotees for a day bathing on Mauni Amavasya, the most auspicious day. 
Bathing Modestly!

The author, out of pure curiosity, decided that this was the year that he had to visit the Mahakumbh, fulfilling a desire to see a spectacle of religious fervor and also observe that how the logistics of providing for up-to 30 million people in a town, which normally does not have more than a million residents, worked out. Effectively fitting a quart into a pint bottle!.
All Roads Lead to the Rivers.
It of course, had nothing to do with the fact that the next Mahakumbh Mela was in 2025, and by then, advancing years may have dimmed the enthusiasm for traveling to crowded places.

Accordingly, one decided to make the trip to Allahabad and thereon follow the pilgrim trail to Varanasi and Bodh Gaya. 
Friend performing rituals
Being an agnostic, going on a primarily religious journey, one took out insurance in the form of taking along a religious friend, on the assumption that the good Karma of the friend's prayers would have a 'trickledown' halo effect on the author, and, some of the blessings earned would also devolve on one by sheer contiguity!. 
An Army Boat Going to Sangam.

Reservations were made to take the night train to Allahabad, as all flights apart from being booked out for the next 10 days, were priced usuriously; it being cheaper to buy a return ticket to anywhere in India but to Allahabad. Decent tented accommodation, too, cost a bomb. A classic example of economics at work, allied to profiteering by airlines and all concerned. 
The Army Jetty.
A request to a senior Army friend resulted in accommodations being arranged in one of the many officers messes that dot Allahabad. This had the added bonus of convenience, as the Army ran its own fleet of boats from a dedicated jetty and had a reserved bathing platform on pontoons, at the Sangam; the confluence of the rivers Ganges, Jamuna and the mythical Saraswati; the holiest spot to bathe in.
The Dip at Sangam.

A short explanation, the Mahakumbh symbolizes a large Pot holding various elements of Hindu religion i.e Knowledge, Assembly of God, Treasures - Known and Unknown, wherein knowledge is processed and disseminated 
 to mankind for the benefit of humanity. The Hindu tradition of Mahakumbh teaches the way to “The Best Utilization of Knowledge”. 
Disseminating Knowledge to the People.

As described by religious texts, complacent Gods lost 'Knowledge' and 'Strength', creating a crisis like situation for them in their war against the Demons or Asuras. The clueless Gods approached Lord Shiva for a solution, who suggested Churning the Ocean to distill Amrit, the nectar of immortality.
Invoking the Gods.

As the Gods were not powerful enough to do it alone, a temporary truce was called and both the Gods and Demons decided to participate in the endeavor, on the understanding that the nectar would be shared equally. 
Policeman Photographs Mahakumbh Tourists.
Makeup After the Dip!.
The Gods led by Lord Indra and Demons led by King Bali partnered in the churning process. Lord Vishnu took the form of a Tortoise to act as the fulcrum of the churn, the mountain Mandrachal was  the churning instrument, and Vasuki the king of snakes was made the rope for churning. 
Samudra Manthan, Angkor Wat.
The Scriptures say that the churning yielded 14 Ratnas (valuables) including some powerful Goddesses like Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, and Varuni or Sura, Goddess and creator of wine and alcohol. The Demons, showing good sense for once, accepted Sura as their own. 

This churning of the ocean is known as Samudra Manthan and is beautifully depicted in an exquisite carved Bas Relief at the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Ironically, this is the largest single complex of Hindu temples in the world and happens to be located outside India. Those interested, can read about it here, in one of the older posts of the author, on Cambodia and Angkor Wat.
Juna Akhada Naga Sadhus.
Naga Sadhus.

In the time honored tradition of greed and betrayal, under the guise of diplomacy and 'greater good' intentions, the Gods had no intention of sharing Amrit, the nectar of immortality, with the Demons. To this end, Lord Vishnu  advised the Demons to hold the Serpent's head while churning, so that its poisonous breath would weaken them and they would not be able to fight properly for their rightful share. 
Reserved Bathing for Holy Men.

Finally, when Dhanvantari, the heavenly physician, emerged with the Pot, Kumbh or Kalash, containing Amrit, the heavenly nectar of immortality; the King of the Birds Garuda seized the pot, and flew away from the battle-scene, to keep the nectar from the Asuras or Demons. 
Father and Son Dip!
While Garuda was flying over the Earth, it is believed that four drops of nectar fell at four places -Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, endowing them great mystical power and spirituality. Prayag, literally the confluence, in Allahabad, is considered the most auspicious, as India's life giving rivers converge at this point. 
Bathing at Sangam to Attain Moksha!
A Kumbh Mela is celebrated at these four places every four years and a Mahakumbh every twelve. Hindus believe that by bathing there during the Kumbh Mela, all ones sins are washed away and one can attain heaven and Moksha i.e. freedom from the perpetual cycle of Birth and Death.

In the true traditions of Army hospitality, the Army had arranged for a visit to the bathing ghats, with an NCO escorting us. 

Army's Zodiac to Sangam.
The Army's Jetty was a busy place with a constant flow of devout armed forces personnel and their families being taken to the bathing pontoons at Sangam and brought back after their holy dip. 
Here at least, basic safety precautions were being followed with all visitors being provided with life jackets, unlike other areas where it was a free for all. That being said, the level of water was being maintained to a depth of about four feet through the controlled release of water from upstream dams.
Sea of Humanity.

The Sangam was a sea of humanity with devout pilgrims flocking to both banks, boats of every description and hue had been pressed into service to cater to the crowds. This on a day that was 'Normal', and at the fag end of the Mahakumbh. By normal, one means that it was an ordinary Mahakumbh day and had no additional religious significance of the more auspicious 'Shahi Snan' i.e. 'Royal Dip' days which are considered the most auspicious. 
Different Water Hues at Sangam.
There were devotees as far as the eye could see, performing their prayers and religious rituals in the cold river waters. The confluence at the Sangam had a distinct colour demarcation and one could see the darker waters of the Jamuna mixing with the muddier water of the Ganges.

At the bathing pontoon, an interesting tableau evolved, on getting to know that the author had no intention of taking a dip, the NCO accompanying us, a South Indian Brahamin himself, almost went into depression. Statements like, "Sir, you are a Brahamin, how can you come to Allahabad during the Mahakumbh and not have a dip", were offered, with various other Army personnel and officers joining in. 

Sangam - A dip with the Army.

Counterarguments that my friend was having a dip, and would perform the required rituals for me as well, cut no ice with them!. My friend, too, promptly joined the opposition ranks and added to the general chorus that demanded that Bakshi take a Bath. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor and in the interests of general harmony, the author had a quick dip. My friend gleefully told all concerned that this was the first overtly religious ritual he had seen me perform in the 40 years he had known me. 
Juna Akhada - Guru with Disciples.

Returning to the Army's Jetty, we set out to visit the tented township and the camps of various Hindu religious schools known as Akhadas. The prime among these is considered the Juna Akhada, literally the Old School. It is the Naga Sadhus, (Naked Sages) from this Akhada that have the privilege of having the inaugural holy dip that signals the start of the Mahakumbh. The Juna Akhada's inmates were in the process of moving to Varanasi, where they would be 

Tented Township at Night.
based until the festival of Mahashivratri, a festival dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The tented township put up by the Kumbh Mela administration is an exercise in logistics on a grand scale. One has always maintained along with many others, that Indians are the past masters in crisis management and 'make do'. We can make infinitely complex systems run easily, but fall down on mundane and everyday tasks.

Another View of the tented city by night.
The arrangements at the Mahakumbh are a classic example of this syndrome. Streets, literally created overnight by laying thick steel checkered plates. Hundreds of Thousands of Tents. Portable Toilets aplenty. All this infrastructure is kept very clean and provided with uninterrupted power, water supply and an efficient system of garbage disposal. Truly a Herculean task. Harvard and other US Universities regularly send study groups to Allahabad, to analyse and study how the arrangements are executed and administered. 
Behind the Scenes Pollution.

The down side of Mahakumbh? While the rivers and bathing areas are kept relatively unpolluted by generous release of waters from major dams upstream; there are problems aplenty with pollution. Over 45 days, you cannot have over 160 million people bathe and perform rituals in the rivers, which often involve flowers and offerings consigned to the waters, without having serious problems of pollution. The portable toilets, too, while connected to septic tanks, eventually leach water into the water table, polluting it.
Waste to Waste - Whence Cleanup?

While the  Mela runs smoothly, with the powers that be being quick and efficient in putting up and running the temporary township, and the police and armed forces doing a yeoman job during the 45 day long festival; the aftermath of dismantling all this infrastructure leaves a lot of debris and garbage. This often remains overlooked and unattended, as cleanup is never a glamorous job. We saw some of this as we were at the fag end of the Mela, and some infrastructure was already being dismantled.

ISCON Gurus' Transport - Eco-Friendly.
Train to Allahabad.
Overcrowding causes its own share of problems, as transport infrastructure cannot be augmented beyond a point, bus and train stations are over run with pilgrims, who ride into town clinging to every surface they can find on buses and trains and later often camp there for days on end, seeking a ride back to their homes. 
Stampedes and trampling are the rule rather than the exception. This year too, over 36 people died on the 11th Feb, 2013 because of a stampede at the railway station. This was on Mauni Amavasya the holiest day of the festival; when over 30 million devotees thronged Allahabad. 
Constant Traffic for Bathing round the Clock.

While bathing goes on around the clock, visitors crowd the Bazaars and eating places. The entire township has the feel of a large anthill that has been kicked over. A quick car tour around the area was great for soaking in the atmosphere. 

Visitors shopping.
Holy Ganges Water Vendor.
There was a constant buzz around the place, what with holy men and religious leaders holding forth on sermons to the faithful, families buying nick-knacks and food, religious charlatans, confidence tricksters and pick pockets plying their trade and the ever busy Lost and Found bureaus doing a great job in restoring lost ones to their families. 
Medical facilities and tents are kept busy 24 x 7, dispensing free medical aid. All seamlessly organised.
Peddlers of the Opiate of Religion?
Karl Marx's oft quoted phrase, "Religion is the Opiate of the Masses," did often spring to the Author's mind while roaming Allahabad. That being said, and going by the phrase, while one can do with or without the Sages and Gurus, true or false, dismissing them as the peddlers of this 'Opiate'; one cannot be but moved by, and, empathize with, the simple piety and belief of the people.
Piety of the People.

When all is said and done, this is quintessential India, an admixture of the Spiritual and Temporal, always intertwined. A delightful, variegated slice of life; which would live in one's subconscious and memory for a long time to come. Truly an experience to be savored at least once in a life time.
Chitrakoot Temple.

The next day we took a trip down to Chitrakoot, about 100 KM from Allahabad. Chitrakoot's claim to fame is that it was the place that Lord Rama, the main protagonist of the Indian epic Ramayana, spent a majority of his time during the period of his exile, undrtaken to fulfill a promise made by his father. 
Boatman Chitrakoot.
While the area was heavily forested once, this is no longer the case, with human encroachment gradually reducing the green cover.
The town itself has a few places of interest, i.e. some Cave Temples and the Bathing Ghats; worth visiting.
Inside Chitrakoot Temple.

We returned from our day trip to our comfortable officers mess, imbibed a few well deserved sun-downers and raised a general tribute to the Hindu faith which gives us great and varied religious,  cultural, vibrant and colorful spectacles like the Mahakumbh, and, prepared to go to Varanasi the next morning, in our pursuit of the pilgrim trail. More of that in part 2 of this episode...........

Eternal India - Sadhu at Sangam with Trishool (Trident).