The crack of dawn over the vernal Ganges at Haridwar brings alive the collective consciousness of a madding crowd. Combined by the sempiternal truths of the Hindu traditions, millions descend to the banks of the Holy Mother, thirsting for a drop that promises Nirvana.
Dunking in her friendly cool flow, they are united in the belief that their sins will be purged. The worst reprobate has hope when it comes to surrendering to the Holy Mother - Ma Ganga. Her emollient embrace accepts, forgives, soothes and brings joy. We emerge with reinvigorated minds, refreshed bodies and revitalized souls.
A pilgrimage to the Kumbh is like sealing a contract with the divine.
But in my first ever visit to the mela, I cannot dismiss the din and discomfort either. When a city sufficient to hold thousands, or even a couple of lakhs, must contain tens of millions, the throb of excessive life can be encumbering.
The already sagging infrastructure of the town had begun to creak. Despite the thousands of temporary tents and the dharamshalas brimming over, hotels were happily charging double the tariff and still doing brisk business.
There was no public transportation worth the name and there was an acute shortage of vehicles that could be hired for inter or intra city travel. All air-conditioned buses and Volvos out of Haridwar had been discontinued. Only government buses were allowed to ply, but they were too rickety and bursting at the seams. Trains were overbooked and private taxis banned from operating within the city.
The administration was helpless. When there is no space to walk about, how does one allow vehicles? For the old and infirm, they could only turn to the Lord for help. Or to the ubiquitous rickshawallas, who were charging ten times the normal fare. It was their time to mint money!
Worst of all, even though hundreds of temporary public toilets had been set up, people could be seen urinating in the open. There were stinking open drains and sewers and frowzy lanes. There were hardly any garbage bins visible and litter was strewn everywhere.
Besides the teeming pilgrims were the thousands of para-military personnel with a larger than life presence. They were there to ensure security for the prevention of any terrorist attack and to see that none of the infamous donnybrooks between Akharas turns into a bloody melee.
The administration was doing its best to maintain order. It would allow only one way movement of devotees, disallowing people to return by the same route and thus averting a possible stampede.
Police were omnipresent, but their metal detectors were lying in vain. It was not humanly possible to scan the numbers that had a rhythm of restrained tsunami. The public announcement system was blaring with names of the people missing, mostly children, but also some old illiterate women. For once, Bollywood had used the right symbolism when it came to its ‘lost in childhood at Kumbh and found during climax’ melodramas.
As my curiosity had got the better of me, I endured the soreness of the circumstance and fleecing service providers, and part took a cycle rickshaw and part walked the distance to the steps leading to the Lord or the Har Ki Pauri.
After the blistering afternoon, the sun was finally waning and there was a cool breeze; the decorative lights had come up all over the temples and the bridges. The huge imposing idol of Lord Shiva stood as a keeper of the congregation, quietly watching over the rituals in reverence of her whom he had once trapped in his locks. Stepping into the crystal clear and enlivening water of the Ganges, I beheld a clear blue sky above. As I did my ablutions, magically the humdrum of those around me seemed to ebb. I felt one with pristine nature. It was probably one of the best moments of my life.
The spiritual vibrations during the Aarti are palpable. The prayers of millions devotees together must have value after all. The entire Kumbh atmosphere can be enchanting with hymns and discourses fillings empty and pathetic souls.
While one is brought up in popular beliefs of rivers being holy and worthy of veneration, the singular revelation for me during my pilgrimage to the Kumbh has been the significance of the Ganges, so much over and above my indifferent acceptance of her exalted status.
To me, at the fete, she appeared the custodian of our ancient Indian tradition, a guardian of Hindu and Indian ethos. Flowing on from times eternal, she seemed to be protecting and preserving our civilization from the onslaughts of natural or man made attempts to debilitate us.
Alas, what pains is our own effort to weaken our roots; the several attempts to erect dams and canals that are threatening to alter her course. There is no disputing the need to utilize our natural resources as sources of energy or to generate electricity.
But, to shackle the very river, which is pivotal to the existence of our culture, and pursue projects that are neither eco-friendly nor considered safe, is altogether a different matter. These projects will not only hurt the fine ecological balance of the region, they are also bound to be disasters in the making considering the seismic area they sit on.
The trust in people’s hearts is no fickle confidence that can be trifled with. It stems from a deep conviction of unbroken faith of our ancestry. A lower middle class man, with burden of everyday travails and family, does not fritter a gift of a gold coin on a fancy whim. It is his pious offering to her – the Ganges- unto whom he wills his own submission.
To extol her too much is no hazard, for her sublimity has been authorized by the Trinity in our scriptures. To underline the need to keep her clean and in her original form, without too much intervention in the name of development, would be only essential.
The Kumbh is a concept that was founded after due deliberation by our ancient seers. The idea was to come together to discuss issues that were faced by an individual, as well as all humanity. It included discourses on different departments of life including science, spirituality and ecology.
The event has been and remains the common destination of the rich, the poor, the privileged, the destitute, the foreign photo journalist, the peregrinating mendicant, the rustic peasant, the swish urbanite, the idle loafer, the unlettered, the wise, the believer or even the inquisitive atheist.
Today, everything at the festival seems to be in the extremes. The heaving millions, the severe heat, the swirling dust, the nauseating stench, the critical lack of public facilities, the acute fight for space; as also the profound fidelity to the concept of Kumbh, the tremendous adoration of the Ganges and the great hope of the ultimate guarantee of salvation.
The different facets of the Kumbh presented through journals or photographs or even experienced in real life are just a synecdoche, a very small part of a colossal whole, indicating a much larger picture of our shared civilization.
Only, the journey is each one’s own.
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