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India at Prayer


It is around four a.m. on the banks of the holy Ganges. The Naga sadhus snaked a thick line, awaiting their holy dip or shahi snan. In the predawn dark, the bitter chill of the north Indian winter was freezing these naked ash-smeared mendicants who are the iconic, photogenic face of the Kumbh Mela. Their sudden random spurts of violent self-expression were legion. Double-barricades separated them from the public with policemen lodged in between the double-barricades as an added measure of safety. Even the policemen warned: if you go over the barricades into their midst, you are on your own. Suddenly, unexpectedly, one of these tough-guy sadhus sprang a deal on Nirmal Jain, the photographer. The sadhu offered to buy the photographs of him that were just clicked. Name your price, he said.

Agreed, the naga sadhu has set himself up for a trite contrast: the clash of the old and new, the great cyclical surge of spirituality against the small change of commerce, sober saffron against vividly colored Chinese-made toys. But somehow the Kumbh rises above metaphors, both ordinary and extraordinary. After visiting the Kumbh Mela of 1895, Mark Twain wrote: “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.” Just the sort of power that compelled millions like Nirmal Jain, Dhiraj Singh and Vikram Page (TwoPin team) to drown in its magic.

An Ardh Kumbh shouldn’t be seen as half the real thing; it is the real thing. The Kumbh Mela follows a 12-year cycle and occurs every three years at four locations, Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik, over the 12-year cycle. Each cycle has a Maha Kumbh or Great Kumbh that is the largest gathering of humanity anywhere in the world. The Maha Kumbh Mela returns to the same location every 12 years. The last one was in 2001 at Prayag, or Allahabad. Beside the Maha Kumbh, an Ardh (half) Kumbh is held every six years after the Maha Kumbh at each location.

The precise dates of the Kumbh Mela are calibrated on the astronomical positions of the Sun, the Moon, and Jupiter. The legend goes that the elixir of life is held in a kumbh or urn in heaven and on certain dates associated with the Sun-Moon-Jupiter combination, drops of the elixir drip down to earth at the four locations. How the elixir came to be is a great story most Indian children learn early. Eons ago, the gods (devas) and demons (asuras) called a truce and agreed to work together to churn the elixir of life (amrita) from the primordial ocean of milk (ksheerasagara). A huge mountain and a giant serpent were used to churn the ksheerasagara. The elixir was to be shared equally. When the kumbh of amrita emerged, the greedy demons set off with it, with the god hot on their heels. For 12 days and 12 nights, the equivalent of 12 human years, the demons raged against the gods for the urn of eternal life. During this pitched battle, drops of precious liquid fell to earth at four places. According to another version of the story, Jayanta, the son of Indra the preserver of the universe, transformed into a large bird Garuda and flew away with the kumbh. He intended to carry the kumbh to the abode of the gods, swarga. Chased by the demons, he stopped at the four locations and sprinkled amrita, sanctifying these places forever. The story is attributed to the Vedic period.
 

In the current period, many lives have been snuffed out at this great celebration of eternal life. At the Kumbh Mela held at Nashik between July 27 to September 7, 2003, 39 pilgrims including 28 women and 11 men were trampled to death and 57 injured when, reportedly, a sadhu threw some silver coins into a crowd and a stampede ensued. At the time, over 30,000 pilgrims had gathered on the banks of the Godavari for the holy dip (maha snaan) and were being barricaded down a narrow street leading to the Ramkund. These deaths are blamed on the potential for unforeseeable chaos comes with a gathering of this magnitude—over 70 million people attended that edition of the Kumbh Mela. A similar number is expected to attend the Ardh Kumbh in 2007. Most Kumbhs these days are models of organization.

In fact, everyone seems to be disappointed with the order that prevails there. The dominant perception of the Kumbh is that of a microcosm of primordial chaos with unmanageable millions washing away their sins. This is the preconception that the TwoPin team had carried with them on their way to the Kumbh. Instead, they found order. It was difficult to find the unruly crowds that can so readily be framed into photo-friezes. This relative calm allowed them to turn the lens on the smaller stories that thrive on the sidelines. They encountered families who had arrived stocked with enough baggage for  expeditions, beggar colonies who pooled their daily collections into mounds of breads on the ground, vast corrals with lumps of shaven hair, sadhus who casually pulled on their chillums even as politicians genuflected at their feet, a young mother with five small children hoping to mine some coins from the milling crowds by selling grams, the old and feeble who shook like leaves in the cold water but scrubbed even their nails clean in expiation. Nirmal calls it “stealing moments from whatever is happening around him”.

In the beginning, Nirmal found the ever-present electricity poles a problem. He would be composing be composing a picture, say a parade of people seen through the transparence of a billowing sari strung out to dry. But an inconvenient electricity pole would divide the frame. Then it struck him that the three-pronged electricity pole approximated a trishul, an apt symbol in this battleground of belief. The electricity poles transformed into an integral element of the photo-narrative.

Nirmal, Dhiraj and Vikram also encountered a more benevolent and inclusive Hinduism that stood apart from the more virulent fundamentalist strains. The fundamentalists did extract mileage out of the event with pompous sideshows but they were only one among many viewpoints. For example, the vast grounds on which the Kumbh is held at Prayag is owned by a Muslim, Kamaal Ahmed. He has leased the grounds to the Uttar Pradesh government for about Rs. 3 lacs. He even came to the aid of Nirmal, Dhiraj and Vikram when they were negotiating the dire predicament of finding acceptable accommodation. Contrary to popular imagery, the sword and spear-toting naga sadhus are not the proponents of fundamentalism. As a matter of fact, they barely tolerate the fundamentalists.

The naga sadhus belong to akharas or Hindu sects called Juna, Awahan, and Agnirin. Akharas are a prominent feature of the Kumbh. Various akharas participate in the Kumbh and there is a controlled order in which they take the holy dip or shahi snan. The Mahanirvani always have pride of place. They are followed by the Atal, Niranjani, Anand, Juna, and Agni akharas, and the vaishnavite sects of Nirmohi, Digambar, Nirvani Ani, Naye Udasin, Bada Udasin, and Nirmal. The Awahan boycotted the shahi snan over some differences with the Juna.

The shahi snan takes place at the holy confluence or triveni sangam where the holy Ganges intersects the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The shahi snan will wash away your sins and purify your soul. You can earn immortality by taking the holy dip at this blessed hour before dawn at the triveni sangam. There are three main dates for the shahi snan. In the 2007 edition of the Kumbh, the dates were the 14th, 19th, and 23rd of January. These dates are marked on the Hindu calendar as Makar Sankranti, Mauni Amavasya, and Basant Panchami in that order.

Makar Sankranti fell on a Sunday. The date marked start of the Sun’s northward climb, where it enters the zodiac of Makar (Capricorn). Chants of “Harahara Mahadev” (Hail Lord Shiva) rent the air as lacs of devotees took the holy dip at the 30 bathing areas or ghats. They were policed by 10,000 security personnel and hundreds of life guards. Some religious organizations threatened boycott over the extent of pollution in the waters but that didn’t deter the seven millions seekers who took the shahi snan on a single day.

The shahi snan on the Mauni Amavasya is the holiest. The Mauni Amavasya takes its name from the new moon or amavasya in the lunar month of Magha. The amavasya is the 15th day of the dark half of the lunar month. The auspicious Mauni Amavasya should be spent in silence or maun. In the Indian tradition, maun is the beginning of self-introspection. In fact, the word derives from muni or an ascetic who practices silence. Maun symbolizes the state of oneness with the Self, a state beyond speech and thought. The ancients set aside a month in winter to practice spiritual discipline and this exercise culminated on Mauni Amavasya when they retreated within into complete silence. The faithful observe complete silence on this day. Nearly 20 million took the shahi snan this year. Millions had converged in the pre-dawn dark to avoid missing the holy dip at a time when the waters of the Ganges is equated with nectar. Thereafter, the period of amrit yog ensued and the numbers swelled.

The administration had converted schools and colleges into night-shelters and covered the river banks with tents to accommodate the crowd. These shelters proved inadequate and vast numbers of people slept under an open sky curled-up in blankets to beat the cold. State officials also released fresh water from dams and canals to improve water quality.  The volume of water at the triveni sangam this year was 10 times higher than the previous Kumbh.

Basant Panchami marks the arrival of spring. The third and final shahi snan on this auspicious day is also dedicated to the worship of the goddess of learning Saraswati. The dense fog and chill that had clothed Allahabad did not deter the millions from showing up in force for the final shahi snan. Security was tight as the akharas began their shahi snan. The Mahanirvani with their Mandaleshwars and Mahamandalehwars in majestic procession arrived first as per custom. They were followed by the naga sadhus. The senior naga ascetics, on horseback, brandished swords and spears and goaded thousands of their sect who marched on foot to the accompaniment of musical bands who blared jarring Hindi film music. By invoking crass Bollywood at this great celebration of spirituality, the naga sadhus had once again drawn a trite contrast. But there is no denying it; the Kumbh is a greater blockbuster production than anything an Industrial Light & Magic can conceive.

Another awe-inspiring Kumbh draws to a close. The sea of humanity that converged at Prayag will ebb away into nothingness. But the faithful who were suffused by its cosmic shakti will carry it with them forever.

Photographs by Two Pin, a creative still photography and design studio based in Mumbai, India specializing in in travel and people photography.

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