|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 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.|
Accordingly, one decided to make the trip to Allahabad and thereon follow the pilgrim trail to Varanasi and Bodh Gaya.
|Friend performing rituals|
|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.|
|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!.|
|Samudra Manthan, Angkor Wat.|
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.|
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!|
|Bathing at Sangam to Attain Moksha!|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
|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.|
|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.
|Holy Ganges Water Vendor.|
Medical facilities and tents are kept busy 24 x 7, dispensing free medical aid. All seamlessly organised.
|Peddlers of the Opiate of Religion?|
|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.
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.
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...........