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January 22, 2001
The Rediff Special/ Prem Panicker
Okay, you've come to Kumbh Nagari. And taken your dip at the Sangam. And been purified for this lifetime. So now what?
Those in search of entertainment face no stint -- in fact, both forms of entertainment, the spiritual and the temporal, are available in plenty here.
And quite neatly compartmentalised it all is, too -- to the left of the bathing ghat, ladies and gentlemen, the real mela. And to the right, the special sadhus. You pay your money, and you takes your pick.
Walk towards the left, as you leave the Sangam Ghat, and you come across an unabashedly commercial complex of tents and assorted structures. Arrayed in neat lines, and selling you anything from warm pseudo-wollen sweaters ("500 rupees, saab, yeh genuine wool hai, achcha, 200 dega?") to wonder drugs from the Himalayas, to toys, to snacks, to...
Next to the complex of some 100-odd shops is an array of amusement opportunities -- from the predictable giant wheel and merry-go-round, through the gamut. There is Jadugar Abhay Niraki, whose garish, outsize billboard assures you that he is a disciple of P C Sorcar. He will saw a girl in half, make another levitate, burn up a box with himself inside it and come out unscathed, and do many other adhbuth things. Entrance fee: Rs 5.
And then there is the huge pista-green papier-mache cave. Inside it, an anthropologist's delight -- the Missing Link himself. 'Aadhi Maanav, Gurilla Family', the board outside proclaims. For five bucks, you get to see an amateurish example of the costume designer's art -- in other words, a man in a gorilla suit, false whiskers and some cheek padding puffing out his face into gorilla-esque proportions. The barker standing ringside assures one and all that this 'Aadhi Manav' was captured by some Naga sadhus in the Himalayas, and brought down specifically for the edification of pilgrims at the Kumbh Mela.
Next door, is the 'Dinosaur Pradarshini' Where, for five bucks, you can see in real life what "Stephen Spillburg ne cinema mein dikhaya."
Or try Kumari Gita, Sarpon Ka Rani. "Main mauth se nahin darti hoon," proclaims a bubble arising from her over-painted lips, on the billboard outside. Snakes, and a Shiv Lingam, complete the rest of the picture, the whole calculated to make you shell out five bucks for the privilege of watching a buxom lass frolic among a bunch of scrawny snakes. And what is more, you get a darshan of the one and only, truly original, Sheshnag, Vishnu's divine couch, thrown in for free.
At quite a distance, mind. I shorten the distance with the zoom on the camera, and the sight resolves into an artificial snake with a multiplicity of hoods, some kind of spring arrangement possibly responsible for its gentle swaying.
Not your scene? How about Jimnastic Circus? or Raj Maruti Circus, wherein Raj drives a Maruti at a furious pace around the insides of a metal globe?
Then again, your tastes could run to the spiritual -- in which case, turn right, instead of left, at Saraswati Ghat and stroll through the various Akharas and Ashrams lining the two sides of the plate-metalled temporary roads. Here, you find Mauni Baba -- a Mela favourite, sitting in his tent, surrounded by his disciples. Mauni Baba speaks only for one hour each day, and has kept this up for 27 years now. He is, Gaya Prasad, one of his disciples informs me, the holder of an MBBS degree, who gave it all up and became a sage.
And why doesn't he talk? "Words are the source of all evil -- anger, lust, deceit, they all stem from words. So the less you talk, the less likely you are to sin," is the answer.
So Mauni Baba sits there, tranquilly accepting the stares of the multitude, disdaining to even glance at the stream of coins and notes that fall into his alms-bowl, staring off into the distance and occasionally, gesturing to one of his disciples to pass his chillum over.
Then there is Richa Goswami. The Mela's latest superstar. So popular that the Mela administration has erected a special pandal for her, and plastered Kumbh Nagari with posters giving you the dates and times of her discourses.
Richa Goswami -- know, to the faithful, as "Devi" -- is all of nine years old. In another life, she is a fifth standard student at University School, Indore. When she was a baby, her mother took her to, among other things, the religious discourses at a neighbouring temple.
By age five, she knew the Bhagwad Gita, backwards and forwards. Literally. Start any verse, and she will complete it for you. Give the second line, she will give the first. Or she will start at any point you fancy, and just go on and on, reciting the subsequent verses for as long as you like.
Or so I was told -- not knowing any Gita verses myself beyond 'Karmanye vaadhikaa raste..." I didn't test Devi on this one. And in any case, Devi was resting after her latest discourse, while several in her growing throng of devotees supplied me with the information about her.
She first began amazing her schoolfriends, and teachers, with her total recall of the Gita. It was the temple priest who discovered that she could not only recite the verses with perfect intonation and enunciation, but also explain them, providing multiple meanings for every line with an ease and fluency senior, and well-schooled, pandits would envy.
She thus began giving discourses in the local temple. Now, aged all of nine, she is doing it at the Kumbh -- and the faithful are flocking to her in increasing numbers. "I have attended seven discourses so far, and I will attend as many more as I can," says Keshav Bharti, an Allahabad native who, after the day's work is done, hikes to the Mela site to soak in the atmosphere and see the sights.
And then there is Somnath Giri. Close to six feet in height, sturdy, well-preserved body, close-cropped hair, a saffron sarong his only covering, a double strand of rudraksha beads at his neck.
He has his own tent, to the right of the Juna Akhara of the Nagas. And a steady stream of the devout, standing around, waiting for his next words.
To the faithful, he is Pilot Baba -- the latest Mahamandaleshwar of the Juna Akhara. He was, I am told, initiated in a special ceremony, at the camp of Mahamandaleshwar Swami Avdeshanand Giri Maharaj, on Thursday.
The information brings up a dilemma. What do you say to a religious savant? "Hello, congrats on becoming a Mahamandelshwar" seems inappropriate, somehow. The best way out of a dilemma that can frequently crop up while you move among the sadhu population is to bow your head and fold both hands in salutation.
Why Pilot Baba, though?
"I was once a pilot in the Indian Air Force," he explains, "before I quit and took up sanyas."
That seems one heck of a career switch. How come? "I got fed up of war, of anger, of aggression, all useless emotions, so I gave it all up," he says.
Did he by any chance see action? "I don't talk about it," he says curtly.
In response to another question, he says he gave up his job and took sanyas in 1972 -- which I guess tells you something about the question he wouldn't answer. "I had parents, a family, I gave it all up and in time, I joined the Nagas. Since then, I have been moving from place to place, I visit all the religious places of pilgrimage with my disciples, I am constantly on the move."
Err... if you are a Naga, why are you clothed?
"It is not necessary that all Nagas shed their clothes -- some do, some don't, it depends on you."
As a Mahamandaleshwar, what duties are expected to perform? "Below us there are the Mahants, and below them the sadhus. The Mahamandaleshwar is responsible for the spiritual guidance of the Mahants and their groups that are placed under him. The Mahamandaleshwars also meet to decide matters relating to the Akhara in general."
Is he, too, a party to the boycott of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's Dharam Sansad?
"I don't concern myself with such things," he says, curtly. And signals that the questions should cease.
In parting, the blessing is given, the vermillion tilak applied.
Outside, the array of tents stretches in front of you. Each tent has a sadhu. Each sadhu has a story.
They are all varied, yet there is an underlying similarity to their tales. They have all turned their backs on the world as we know it, they have chosen to lead lives the tenor of which is inexplicable to you and me. They are aware that at congregations such as this one, they become a kind of freak sideshow, for the faithful to gape at and exclaim over -- and they take it, more or less, in their stride. They will talk to you if they are in the mood, and brush you off if they feel like it.
Or maybe you prefer to turn left, instead, and check out the Jimnastic Circus?
Design and illustration: Dominic Xavier
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