January 28, 2013
Finally we are here in north central India at the sangam, the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers—a pilgrimage destination for millennia. All week the moon has been waxing, and a palpable sense of anticipation growing as the first official ritual bathing day approaches. From our campus here on the bank of the Ganga, the sangam a couple of kilometers upstream appears like a bindu—a point from which emanate divine sound (nada) and prakasha (light), and thus all of creation. The story is that a drop of amrit, the elixir of immortality, fell here at the sangam, and that at certain special times the divine governing forces of the cosmos align, allowing the amrit to flow in the physical world. Both light and sound intensify daily—as if the amrit is materializing and growing in strength.
As more and more pilgrims pour into the camps down on the floodplain, a rumble of sound from the din of hundreds of PA systems broadcasting chants, hymns and prayers rolls down the river at dawn and dusk (and to be fair, most of the night!). The “street lights” of the temporary tent city on the flood plain and along the banks of the Ganga shimmer in the distance like a mirage, which seems appropriate, since in a few months the whole mela city will be under water as the rivers rise in monsoon season.
Yesterday was the first big bathing day, and the moon was full, so we started a havan (fire ceremony) at dawn and continued until noon. For once the morning was warm and fogless, and the Ganga rolled by in splendor at the feet of the kunda (firepit) on the high bank as the sun rose and the moon set. We were delighted to add to the rumbling voice of the mela, chanting a mantra from the Durga Saptashati and making offerings to the fire.
Since yesterday, there has been quite a commotion at the sangam; even the gulls couldn’t take it and left their usual haunt to come downstream and rest on the sandbar in front of our campus. They were swooping all over the river this morning, catching the prasad (offerings) going downstream from the early morning pujas at the sangam. At dawn I went to the Ganga just outside our gate with an elderly local pilgrim who wanted to bathe, and insisted on doing a puja and dunking herself three times in the swift cold river. She talked about tapas all the way back to our dorm. I’m thinking, ok on the puja, but I must say the dunking part of this tapas has limited appeal!
The first group of Institute pilgrims leaves for Khajuraho tomorrow, and the staff is looking forward to a few days of “meter down” as they say in Hinglish. It’s still cold, though given the temperatures in the States and much of Europe these days, you’ll laugh at what we think is cold. This morning, in celebration of the successful completion of the first “most auspicious” day and the first half of first group’s stay, a few of us are chugging Starbucks Instant Italian roast with buffalo milk, and a pound of ghee-and-sugar-laden sweet with an unpronounceable name has appeared on the table, so this day is also off to an auspicious start!