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The Greatest Mela on Earth
... the Kumbh at Haridwar
Vaihayasi P Daniel
The sheer magnitude of the crowds that have flowed through Haridwar during the Kumbh bathing dates makes it the mother of all melas. A town of 190,000 swells to 2,500,000, or 13 times its size, for 24 hours. And all of these 2.5 million people -- virtually a human river flowing perpendicular to the Ganga -- must wind their way from train stations, bus stations and taxi stands to the ghats for a dip in the river.
The logistics of organising such a gigantic event truly boggles the mind. The Government of India swung into action many, many months earlier, despatching a horde of civil servants to Haridwar to prepare for the onslaught. Tent metropolises were erected all over town. Two new bridges and some 39 temporary pontoon bridges across the Ganga were put up for the holy bathing days. The Uttar Pradesh government has spent Rs 990,000,000 on constructing the necessary infrastructure, including some 200 shops and mobile stores that will provide fair priced goods.
On Tuesday, April 14, which is the last main bathing day of a Kumbh Mela this century, the authorities expect 10 million pilgrims to turn up.
Haridwar, the town that arose out of a drop of nectar, is charming and well-kept. With the sadhus, some 5,000 policemen and an equal number of sweepers have moved in to maintain law and order and cleanliness. The narrow maze of streets that wind their way down to the Ganga are lined with shops that do brisk business. The tiny stalls selling holy beads, colourful prints of Hindu gods, copper water pots, bangles, saffron cloth, woollens, brass paraphernalia and idols share space with numerous dharmshalas or community boarding houses and bhojanalayas which offer vegetarian food. Meat and alcohol are banned in the town.
The ghats along the Ganga are meticulously maintained, especially the famous Hari-ki-Pairi ghat where Vishnu is said to have left his footprint. In the manner of a railway terminus a series of vermillion-painted bridges connect different banks of the river. Policemen routinely patrol the bridges.
No shots of nude bathers! No photographs of idols! No inappropriate pictures! No loitering!
Tiny temples, hardly larger than phone booths, dot every 100 metres of the ghats. As do the umbrella-shaded stalls, standing on stilts, of the pandas, who apart from conducting religious ceremonies can track down the genealogy of Hindu families from their centuries-old, long, yellowing registers. Little ceremonies -- blessing of coconuts, offering of flowers, money and sweets, lighting of the oil lamps -- take place along every inch of the ghats and probably have for aeons. Pandas, alms seekers, pandits and hawkers are posted every few yards ready to shake out a few coins or notes from every newcomer they spot.
"Can I trace your family tree or offer you advice?" "Can I do a puja for you?" "Can you give us a little bit of chanda for maintenance of our little shrine?" "Would you like a bottle to collect Ganga jal in?" "Do you need flowers and coconut for puja?" Life along the muddy-green Ganga has continued this way for centuries.
Families fresh off a bus or a train head straight for the bathing ghats. Suitcase in hand, they park at the banks and disrobe for a bath. Little bachas -- tots of three and four -- are stripped. Wailing, they are dipped into the chilly river waters for their first purification ceremony. Groups of women decorously slip into the water and manage by some unrecognised contortionist art to bathe and slip in and out of saris and blouses underwater. Flabby, well-to-do bathers arrive with a coterie of beggars and chandawallahs in tow and perform the simple bathing routine with much pomp and flow of cash.
By sundown this area takes on an ethereal glow, with the famed Haridwar Ganga aarti at sunset taking pride of place. Devotees line the river banks, each holding a basket of flowers containing an oil lamp. The evening worship begins with joyous singing of the hymn, Jai Jagadish Hare and the swinging of giant oil lamps, as each pilgrim sends his basket of flowers and diya down the river.
The Kumbh Mela attracts its inevitable share of tourists who can be easily pigeon-holed into four different categories.
The honest-to-goodness tourists who have heard about the Kumbh and arrived to see a spectacle, from afar.
Then there are those who are flirting with Hinduism, nirvana and that sort of thing, and for whom a trip to Haridwar at Kumbh time is pilgrim's progress. Like Gregory Campbell from Australia. "I have come at a time considered auspicious. At an unusual time on this planet. I wanted to personally experience the Kumbh. I walked to Hari-ki-Pairi on the first day of the bathing in the Ganga. I had an overwhelming feeling of humility, devotion and spirituality."
There are, of course, the sixties wannabes, folk who seek a trip of a different kind. In Haridwar-speak, the chillum- seekers. People who know that hobnobbing with some sadhus will get them a temporary visa to moksha. From time to time one spots a Western tourist huddled in a tent with a bunch of happy sadhus, passing around the 'peace' pipe.
And finally, the Committed Traveller. Most of these Indophiles have arrived in Haridwar to witness and understand the Kumbh phenomenon. Techa Beaumont, who is half Australian and half Indian Jew, wants to understand what the sadhus are all about, perhaps to write a book. Barefoot and demurely clad in a lehnga and shawl she has moved in with Meerapuri and helps the sanyasin with the errands. "Techa, bring ghee," shouts Meerapuri as Techa runs off to do her bidding.
Techa says she has spent some fascinating weeks at Haridwar. "I arrived on Mahashivratri morning and stayed at a dharmashala for two days. And then I went over to where the sadhus were staying and asked them 'Is this where the women are staying? Can I move in?'
"I respect their culture a lot. I see a lot of beauty and purity in it and in the way they are focusing on spirituality. For me just sitting with the sadhus has been nice. We sit and we drink chai. The majority that I have hung out with have been really nice and ready to share their knowledge and give me advice. Many of them have so much to offer and a lot of wisdom and understanding of life. I mean if you don't speak for 12 years you have to have a different perspective on life. If you sit in a cave for 12 years you must have a different perspective of life.
"The sadhus who I don't get a good feeling from I don't spend time with. There are a lot of sadhus that others don't respect. One sadhu came up to me and told me that I shouldn't be sittting here and that I should leave," Techa continues. "There is more politics among sadhus then I thought there would be. And a lot of protocol. There is a hierarchy within the group and if an important person arrives certain behaviour must be observed."
At Meerapuri's tent earlier in the day, a number of sadhus came visiting and the interaction was often arcane and mysterious to the outsider. One rotund sadhu who could/would not speak, clad in a leopard skin vest, wandered in looking for a little marijuana. With much politeness he was despatched on his way with Rs 100 to keep him happy. "A lot of people smoke a lot. But she doesn't like it. She doesn't approve. But she will not judge it," explains Techa. Another group of sadhus arrived to collect a donation for puja. With some fuss, distress and reluctance Mayapuri peeled off a Rs 100 note and gave it to the group. "Maybe it is just a game," Techa concludes philosophically.
Most of Haridwar's visiting sadhus -- estimates vary between 20,000 and 50,000 -- will stay on till the last bathing date, Akshaya Tritiya, on April 29 before they head back to their ashrams and temples all over India.
As the saffron surge ebbs, Haridwar will take a break for another 12 years from hosting the largest religious show on earth. And the regal Ganga, exhausted by the exertions of purifying millions of souls, will finally be left in peace. Till, that is, the next Mela in the new Millennium.
Photographs by Jewella C Miranda
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