by Sandra Anderson
Republished from the Kumbha Mela Times
The wind came up before dawn, roaring down the sand bars in the Ganga and launching a cloud of dust into the sky where the sand meets the water. Mauni Amavasya: the stars line up, the moon is dark, the gods are looking toward us. It’s the most auspicious day of the Maha Kumbha Mela.
Millions of feet and thousands of fires fill the air with dust and smoke, and in the haze, the crowds on the distant horizon fade in and out of focus like a shimmering mirage. There are no landmarks other than the river, and it too is obscured with boat loads of people. The crowd has assumed the proportions of a landform, and usurped the positions of the horizon, the shoreline, the hills, and the earth itself. The atmosphere hums with thousands of broadcast recitations, announcements, and bhajans (songs) blended into one unique sound track. It’s a drama of epic proportions–the biggest show on earth. By noon we are reeling, disoriented, all the senses intoxicated, as if we too have been puffing on the chilams that seem to materialize from the robes of every sadhu. We have slipped into another world. Anything could happen.
Kalu Ram is planting a sapling on the sandy bank of the Ganga. We think this must be some ritual, but he says no, “I am a farmer.” Apparently he is just bored. He and his group walked nine kilometers this morning to bathe, after traveling for seven days. They are from Rajasthan. They will start back tomorrow. How was the bath? “First it was cold, then it was warm. Take off your clothes and wait 10 minutes,” he says, “then the water is not so cold when you get in.”
Ram Shankar is squatting by a dung fire, eating a plate of rice, cauliflower subzi, dahl, and chapati. He and his group arrived at 6 pm last night, they wandered around most of the night, then bought some cow dung cakes for fuel, made a fire, and cooked food. They are squatting here by the side of the road just across the first pontoon bridge, cooking and sleeping. He is from a village in Uttar Pradesh, where he keeps the ledgers of land transactions. He is happy that he is able to buy fuel and vegetables here on the site.
Why did he come? It is his duty, he says, a dharmic thing to do, and he wishes to support these religious activities. Many in his group are sleeping, resting their heads on their bundled belongings on the straw they have spread on the sand here alongside the road. This is their camp.
There are millions more like them, bundled up against the cold, huddled on a swath of straw strewn on the ground in any space available–between the walls of the compounds and the roads, on the shoulders of bridges, in front of gates, on the mud next to stagnant pond of water, in a courtyard. Their concerns are the practical ones of survival–where to sleep, where to go to the bathroom (the waist high outhouses provided by the mela administration are available only in some parts of the mela, and are overflowing), what to eat, how to get to the sangam, and how not to get separated from their group.
For them, the kumbha mela is the Ganga, and a bath in the Ganga. For these pilgrims, the bath itself is an experience so important that they are willing to endure substantial expense, great physical hardship and emotional anxiety, and difficulties at every step of the way to reach Mother Ganga. They are not here to listen to the discourses of the mahatmas (the great souls), or to do month-long intense spiritual practices. They are simple in their faith, or at least in their sense of duty.
Today we are anonymous pilgrims also; we are not riding high with the mahatmas today. By afternoon, the physical realities of fatigue and hunger have brought us down to earth. We’re down on the ground with the great unwashed, and before long we are having another kind of true pilgrim experience—tired, hungry, disoriented, and finally, just plain lost.
We have joined the crowd of thousands headed home. We trek back across the bridge, scramble across police barricades into a great outdoor bathroom, bribe guards at the gate with pictures, and scurry down narrow brick streets running with dirty water. Some of our fellow travelers have stopped in front of a dilapidated building, build a dung fire, and are peeling potatoes, and making balls of bread dough. We stop and stare, mouths watering, longing to sit down and eat, but they seem not to even see us.
The road coming up from the river is bumper to bumper with jeeps and sumos, 15-20 people per vehicle, going nowhere fast. We’re happy to be going the other direction, but wish we knew how much further. Is that tower the one near our campus or have we gone in circles back to the Shastri Bridge? Do we recognize the temple beyond the row of trees? Finally a familiar road sign appears, and we are not where we think, but closer than we had hoped. Here is the Ganga, serene as ever, even with the wind rippling her surface, even carrying the burdens that millions have left. Home again.