Welcome to India – The Land of Proportions. A country that has 16 main languages and over 3,000 dialects. We happen to be the largest democracy in the world. We are poised to overtake China as the world’s most populous country. Every year, our film industry churns out more movies than any other country. The largest employer in the world happens to be Indian Railways. At 100,000 stanzas, the Mahabharata is the longest epic in the world. And in keeping with India’s perverse love for proportion, it’s only fair that the world’s largest congregation ought to take place here.
As I made my way to Allahabad, I couldn’t help notice the strange irony. This great occasion for Hindus was taking place in a city that literally meant ‘Long Live Allah’ (Allah Abaad). But then, I had long reconciled myself to the dichotomy that is India. Allahabad (preferred as Illahabad by its citizens) once used to be Prayag, taking its name from the meeting of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.
For over a month now, people of all sorts had thronged the banks of the Sangam. No coincidence that Sangam actually means ‘coming together’ – of rivers, of cultures, of people. Entertainers, entrepreneurs, babas, beggars, pickpockets, pilgrims, the global media, you name it. Even the hippies had congregated in the hope of uninhibited cannabis consumption and public nudity. Despite the security hazards, Madonna, Richard Gere, Steven Segal and a host of Indophilic celebrities were supposed to make it too. But deep down I resented the way an auspicious event had been turned into a freak show.
As the train pulled into Allahabad Railway Station, news reached us that Cox & Kings had almost been impaled on the tridents of furious sadhus for having served liquor and meat to their distinguished guests. That was around the same time when half the celebs backed out. It didn’t stop the others. As many as 60 million people had been at the Sangam at one given point of time. Some foreigners were witnessing for the first time – at one place – a population that surpassed their own country’s. Sometimes, two or three countries put together! As I was swept away on the wave amid the sea of bodies, I wondered if I could handle Maha-Kumbh’s enormity.
Given my allegiance to Shiva, my insignificant presence was definitely required for the last dip on Maha-Shivaratri (The Great Night of Shiva). The festival is observed to honour Lord Shiva’s marriage to Parvati, which took place on this day. People observe a strict fast, worshipping the lingam through the night. The furiously religious wash it with milk, curd, honey and rosewater every three hours. The chanting of the Panchakshara (five-syllable) mantra – Om Namah Shivaya – is a must. It’s believed that whoever chants Shiva’s name during Shivaratri with utmost devotion and concentration, is freed from all sins. My hedonist past flashed in front of my eyes. The weight of all my disreputable deeds lay heavily on my mind. Eagerly, I looked forward to redemption and if possible, liberation from this nagging cycle of births and deaths and maybe even a one-way ticket to Mount Kailash.
By the time I had taken care of what to do with luggage (long story, not fit to print), dawn had broken. Metal pathways criss-crossing the area leading to the Sangam caught the early morning light. Everywhere it was just bodies, bodies, bodies – like some gigantic ant colony that had been disturbed. The deluge of pilgrims was overpowering. More so was the diverse assortment of beggars that lined the path vying for their attention. Already, the loud speakers were in overdrive, asking a string of names to reach the Bhuley-Bhatke Shivir (Lost n’ Found Camp). Crying mothers and bawling babies alternated with the announcer. I shook my head and wondered if I’d have the good karma of bumping into Bhuley-Bhatke Shrivastava – a colourful character and a Kumbh veteran who had dedicated his life to reuniting lost ones with their families. I’m sure he’d ask me to get lost.
Another peculiarity. There were some stalls selling plastic containers in various sizes. It wasn’t until I reached the ghat that I realised that it was meant to bottle up Ganga’s waters to take home as a souvenir. But if all the people who came here took home at least a litre of water? What fate would befall our sacred river, if it did survive? (Man sporting a beaming smile walks past with a brimming 5-litre canter)
The scene at the ghat was chaotic. The relatively well off hired a boat to go to the exact spot where the green waters of the Yamuna met the muddy Ganga. Some devotees had shaped lingams out of sand and were offering bel leaves. These leaves are very sacred – I was told – as the Goddess Lakshmi resides in them. And even more amazing was the story behind this practice.
According to mythology, the beautiful Lakshmi arose from the churning of the Cosmic Ocean, bearing a red lotus in hand. True to their nature, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva wanted to have her for a consort. Brahma already had Saraswati, Shiva had Parvati, so Vishnu was the default victor. But despite being Vishnu’s consort (throughout his nine incarnations as well), Lakshmi was also devoted to Shiva. She used to consecrate exactly 1,000 lotus blooms to Shiva’s idol every evening. One day, as she counted the flowers before she offered them, she found two less. It was late evening and the lotuses had closed their petals for the night.
A worried Lakshmi thought it would be inauspicious to offer anything less than the usual. But then, she remembered that Vishnu had once described her breasts as blooming lotuses. She decided to offer them instead of the two missing flowers. Lakshmi cut off one breast and placed it with the flowers on the altar. Before she could sever the other, Shiva intervened. Moved by her extreme devotion, he reinstated her to her former state of physical glory and transformed her cut breast into the round bel fruit. He then blessed it and sent it to Earth to flourish near his temples. And that’s how the bel leaves came to be used in Shiva’s worship.
I finally found an opening for a tentative dip into the murky waters of the Sangam. Mission accomplished, I trudged back to the city in search of some new assignment. Meandering through the streets of Bahadurganj, I noticed a high banner amid the chaos of wires, electric poles and turrets. The words ‘Shiva Baaraat’ caught my eye. Shiva’s wedding procession? That would be some sight! The guy at the Government Bhang Shop said it was good fun. And it would pass near Ghanta Ghar (watch tower) at around 4 pm.
By the time I had gobbled down a couple of bhang balls, the bhang-seller and I were in rapt discussion on Shiva, herbal mind-stimulants, politics and the higher plane of life. A revelation. It was the Government that supplied the raw bhang. He was just a salaried employee! In fact, bhang is quite legit, he assured me. Why, 10 years ago they were selling ganja over-the-counter. Today being Maha-Shivaratri, the shop was flooded by people seeking a connection with Mount Kailash.
Much to the dislike of the deeply devout non-smoking class, Shiva has always been associated with herbal stimulants. A semi-naked god, body wrapped in ash, known for long bouts of meditation, a detached nature, and the act of swallowing poison that earned him the name Neelkantha (Blue Throat). Etymology too has an explanation. A certain G.A Grierson noted in the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report that the word ganja comes to us from Ganga, the river on whose banks the plant used to grow. Maybe Shiva while giving a conduit to the river, slipped some seeds as a tool by means of which his followers could reach him. It’s no coincidence that the entire baba cult is prevalent along the Ganga.
Meanwhile, the bright blazing orb had lulled itself into a mild, late afternoon sun. Bidding the bhang seller an emotional goodbye, I started off towards Ghanta-Ghar. Suddenly, I sighted a crowd at the next intersection. As the procession drew closer, I saw a familiar figure towering above the rest. It was Shiva, being pulled on a rickshaw! A plump, ugly, temporarily-unemployed, hustling-for-money version of Shiva. That man possessed none of the godly qualities you associate with the Destroyer. (The only thing he seemed to be destroying was his own self-esteem.) To add insult to injury, people were laughing hysterically on his face while he sat stoically. It would have been bedlam had Parvati decided to tag along.
Just when I had reconciled myself to the thought that all was normal now, I found myself at some mela that night. There were stalls touting propositions I never knew existed. Magic of Bengal, with its weird paraphernalia of magic aids. Bright-red life-size robots with headphones that told you your future. Computer screens that computed the same results irrespective of who you were: ‘You are 58 kg and will receive good news from abroad.’ Like Alice in some mystical Wonderland, I stumbled across one discovery after the other. And amidst all this, Shiva was staring down from a giant poster, endorsing a hair oil called Rahat Rooh (Soul Relief).
Surely there’d be an end to all this madness. I was among the last hangers-on basking in the after-glow of the Maha Kumbh. Over the next few days, the city was gradually rid of its visitors. The scene resembled the morning after a party. An entire mountain of mess to be cleared. Lighting arrangements, water supplies, mobile lavatories, tents, bamboo structures, temporary police shelters, loud speakers, garbage bins. It was then that I realised what a feat this whole thing was. The Maha Kumbh was not just a well-organized mammoth religious event. It was an experience of a lifetime that tested not just your endurance but also your imagination. As I boarded the train on my journey northwards, I had a vague feeling. One day in the near future, the Maha Kumbh might just end up being a case study in modern management.
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in February, 2002 in Deccan Herald (Sunday) as a reminiscence of the Maha Kumbh, one year later.