Saturday, April 24, 2010

Kumbh: In Search of Spirituality

Pilgrims from all over the country walk many kilometres to reach the place of the Second Royal Bath
by Elizabeth Flock | Apr 17, 2010

Read it at Forbes

When I planned my trip to Haridwar for the first bathing date in March, I felt good. I had been given a partial history of the “jar festival” by my yoga teacher (who had, years before, taken sanyasa), had a fairly decent understanding of Hindu beliefs after almost two years in India, and I would be with a Hindu friend who favoured Shiva. Nevertheless, I did have the same wide-eyed expectations that have attracted thousands of foreigners to the festival before.

It is, after all, the world’s largest pilgrimage, hosted by the world’s oldest religion. That the Ganga washes away one’s sins only added to the appeal. How could I not expect some sort of awakening?

When we arrive in Haridwar, after a harrowing bus ride, the Kumbh is in full swing. Pilgrims from all over the country have walked many kilometres to reach the place of the Second Royal Bath, and because our bus had dropped us off six kilometres away from the city centre, so must we. In front of us stride Rajasthani men with sweeping white turbans and curling moustaches; behind us South Indian maamis tread carefully, resplendent in saris despite the heat and dust; everywhere, pilgrims clothed in saffron walk with us.

When we finally find a hotel with an empty room, the owner tells us that we can’t stay. “I think one guest might change his mind and stay an extra night,” he says, standing in front of a sign that announced No Alcohol, No Non-Veg. “This is a very religious place,” he adds.

“Ah, but I am very keen to see the Kumbh with my fiancĂ©e,” I say, stressing the last word, smiling as sweetly as I could.

“Oh,” he says, clearing his throat. “Well then, madam,
 there is no problem.”

The Somvati Amavasya, or Dvitya Shahi Snan is not until the following day, but thousands are already in the chill, briskly-moving water, fully clothed. Some pray; others splash and play in the water. Do they feel the nectar’s sweetness while they bathe?

“Are you going to take a dip?” my friend asks.

“I don’t think so,” I say, remembering the dead bodies traditionally consigned to this river, and the millions who’d bathed in this exact spot over the last three months.

We decide to explore the sadhu’s camps, but find them mostly empty, still getting ready for the next day. Every few hundred yards, though, we see a sadhu, matted locks, long beard, ash-covered. Some chant; others smoke hashish out of long chillums; a few ask me, the foreigner, for bhiksha, madam. Drowning out their chants, hymns blare over loudspeakers, interrupted by announcements about missing people. It reminds me vaguely of an American theme park.

It is morning. Haridwar’s streets are filled. Riot police in blue camouflage stand, unblinking, at every corner. Bamboo fences cleave the landscape into corridors through which the masses are forced to pass. If some independent-minded soul tries to shortcut the labyrinth, a policeman appears, saying sternly: “Bund hai!”

But the pilgrims’ frustration is soon quelled — the sadhus are coming!

You hear them before you see them: a crash of cymbals, other instruments I can’t identify. Each of the many akhadas — I lose track of the number — has a procession; robed in saffron, they walk, they ride on elephant-back, on horse-back. The villagers whoop and cry at the sight of them; the sants wave back like rock stars. I find myself thinking about the floats in New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

After an hour of boisterous processions, there are no more elephants, no more sants. And then. In the distance. Tiny dots of grey. They soon became people, whole, naked, ash-covered men: the Naga Sadhus. They walk with stomachs puffed out, stopping only to take a puff of someone’s chillum, accept a free beedi. They need no possessions, just their fix? I wonder. The villagers, who had been crying in ecstasy for the sants, now gather close to take pictures on their mobile phones, often zeroing in on the naked male parts.

We decide we need to get to where the sadhus entered the water. Fast. This is the most important part of the festival, of course. I’d seen photographs of them leaping into the water, flapping, brawling, pushing one another in their eagerness to get in. I’d been told that in Kumbh Melas of years past, some sadhus even killed one another to be the first in the water.

But a few kilometres from the bathing place, we find policemen had formed a wall of lathis no one can penetrate. “Can we not go down?” I ask. “Allowed nahi hai,” they tell us.

Ever since a stampede in 1954, my friend explains, it has become much more sanitised. Anyone not part of the akhada isn’t allowed to witness the run. The ratio of riot police to pilgrims is high. Instead of knives, sadhus carry mere chimtas to pinch one another — or outsiders.

Not to say a stampede isn’t possible today. The throng pressing from behind us to get close to the bathing place soon grows unbearable. I have eaten something bad in the morning and feel like I am going to throw up. The crowd alternates between hurling their bodies forward and whooping with glee at the passing procession. One woman rolls on the ground, in the ash that has fallen from a palanquin. She looks at her friend, triumphant: She’d gotten all of it; her friend, nothing.

Resigned to the fact that we would not see the sadhus bathe, we escape into the empty camps, where tents house vendors for Rishikesh tourism, Ayurvedic medicine, and Rajasthani handicrafts. Posters of an Uttarakhand politician in a Nehru jacket smile down from every tent; huge signs bear the faces of sants pledging to fight climate change or entreating pilgrims to come get their blessing; on and on the advertisements go. The tents with free food are the only ones that are full.

After the last tent, we come upon a policeman with a curling, droopy, mammoth moustache. I ask to take a picture with my disposable camera; he refuses. Apparently too many tourists have already made the same request, and his superiors think he is playing around instead of working. When I try to take the picture anyway, the policeman turns bright red and shows his back to me. It is my last remaining picture: A blob of brown.

I’m in a low mood, and it isn’t just about the ruined picture.

“Did you feel like there was something strange ... something ... missing from the Kumbh?” I ask my friend as we trudge over the bridge that leads back to Haridwar’s downtown.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“But what?” I asked.

“I...I don’t know.”

We passed a lone sadhu then, his dreadlocks coiled tightly around his head, ash falling off him with his every step. He doesn’t look at us. He doesn’t ask for money. He isn’t smoking hashish or a beedi. He is just...walking.

It’s hard to describe the look on his face, except that it is a more concentrated look than any I’ve ever seen. I feel like I’d seen my first genuine sadhu.

Next morning, my friend asks, “Do you want to take a dip before we leave?”

Our train departs in a couple of hours. Not a good idea.

“Yes,” I say, surprising myself.

He jumps into the cold, murky water, and then I do too, both of us fully-clothed. The water takes my breath away, chills me right down into my lungs.

I try to pray, to say the chant my yoga teacher asked me to. But all I can think, annoyed, is that I wish I hadn’t wasted that last picture on that cop.

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