The sea of humanity that the mela resembles is surreal and spiritual. When friends and well-wishers learnt that my wife and I were going to the Mahakumbh mela for Mauni Amavasya, they were aghast. Some shuddered at the prospect of rubbing shoulders with 30 million of the great unwashed. Others warned of how polluted and carcinogenic the once-pristine Ganga has become. A few were mortified that we would be staying in tents on the riverbank with no access to room service or a flat-screen TV. Some wondered why I, as a non-Hindu, wanted to visit the Mahakumbh at all.
Everyone wished us well but confessed to being glad they weren't undertaking the expedition to Allahabad. I, too, was initially apprehensive about embarking on this mega pilgrimage, afraid, perhaps, of the unknown. The logistics of getting to Prayag were daunting. The trains were overflowing and the nearest airports were located several hours away. We decided to fly into Lucknow and then drove a harrowing six-and-a-half hours through "rururban" UP to finally reach the Sangam around midnight. Our tent, with an adjacent toilet, was basic but comfortable. An unseasonal downpour had, however, turned the chalky riverbank into a slushy mess.
Mauni Amavasya is considered the most auspicious day during the Mahakumbh to undertake the Shahi Snan. Pilgrims were converging by the tens of thousands and the state administration had locked down vehicular entry into the city. Our neighbours, city slickers like us, had to walk 13 kilometres from the outskirts of Allahabad to reach the tent complex as their car wasn't allowed to proceed. At night, the temperature plummets and in the absence of heaters, we snuggled in a sleeping bag and used a blanket overlay to keep warm in our flimsy tent. The next morning, we were woken up at 4 am by a cacophony of loudspeakers, competing to be heard.
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Bhajans and pravachans from rival akhadas blared at full volume. Shouting above this din was a public announcement for family members who had been separated at the Kumbh. A female voice, mimicking a cow, lowed "Maa" instead of a moo, and exhorted pilgrims to join the campaign to end cow slaughter. A medicine man on a megaphone advertised a book for a hundred rupees that provides a remedy for all ailments known to mankind. Forget about doctors, he shrieked at the top of his voice, simply sit at home and cure yourself of either insomnia or impotence.
We groggily stepped out and were stunned by the sight of an entire township of tents that stretched endlessly along both banks of the mighty Ganga. This was the proverbial sea of humanity one had heard about, and it was staggering to witness the sheer scale of this congregation. Walking with millions of believers chanting har har Gange to the Sangam at 4. 30 am was both a surreal and spiritual experience. Naked Naga babas, brandishing swords and trishuls, charged into the river exalting Lord Shiva, who had tamed his wilful daughter by trapping her in his matted locks.
Men, women and children were unmindful of stripping before strangers as they undertook the sacred dip in freezing waters. The entire ritual was conducted without any jostling, shoving or disturbance. The faithful converged with reverence and behaved impeccably. Any fear of crowds and claustrophobia melted away and all you felt was oneness with your fellow man. It was, therefore, ironic and all the more tragic that the same evening the stampede at the Allahabad Railway Station left 36 people dead. Today is the last day of the Shahi Snans and we should all perhaps whisper a prayer that it passes without incident.
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