Sin-sational Kumbh

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‘Harvard graduates in Allahabad to research the management of Kumbh’ –  screamed a headline. While another claimed ‘ even rotis are branded with Lifebuoy’. Rumors of Hollywood celebs attending the biggest festival on earth were at large too. My perception of Kumbh was colored by the naked Nagas running to the river in a straight queue that would put even the most disciplined solider to shame.  Esoteric..Enigmatic..curiosity killed the cat. But the cat was belled only when my friend Sandy called me in the morning to check with me if I would join him to Kumbh. This was ultimate telepathy for me. A call from Lord Shiva to my conscience? How else would he know that I was thinking about the same?

Thus began the journey. However before it could actually begin, it was interspersed by million calls to people who had been then earlier or were visiting before we would. Where could we stay? Hotels were full? More than 10 Million people visiting every day? Countless questions and as many answers from self proclaimed experts who gave us avoidable ‘advice’.  The speculation came to an end when another friend Pankaj called to say that he would be there on the same dates with some other friends. We got booked in the ‘tent complex’ that he was staying in, while Sandy did the travel bookings. As the day of the travel grew near , the excitement multiplied exponentially till we finally took the flight of fantasy to land at Varanasi airport.

Sandy and I took a cab to the city of Allahabad, more popularly know as birthplace of Nehru for historians and as Amitabh’s city for the Bollywood buffs. The cab driver seemed to be an expert in sociology and politics having lived in Mumbai for a while, yet preferring the solace of the rural Uttar Pradesh. He discussed how the Mayawati govt. was better in spite of her excesses and how the current Government had all the goons coming out of prison to rule again. After a 4 hour drive interspersed with confusing roads and delicious Aloo tikkis, we finally reached our destination crossing a flyover which had the night lights beaming like well designed bright golden necklace.

Our VIP ‘luxury tents’ were a good excuse for a night shelter with the bathroom outside and paths adorned with mud slush due to rains. Pankaj was already there with his gang and his welcome smile was the only bright spot. The weather was cold and humid and we barely managed to get out of our jeans and in to the blankets with crickets singing the lullaby. The morning was better though still damp and it began with a hot cup of tea and well deserved breakfast. Sandy was ridiculing me for lack of knowledge about the relevance of kumbh and he enlightened me with the story behind it that he had assiduously compiled from various books. We decided to go for a walk and do a recce of the place. Little did we know that it would end in a 20 Km walk through the whole campus spread over 8 hours with only a lunch break in between! Both of us had blisters on our feet, yet the spirits were quite high. Endless discussions on philosophy, life, nagas and Aghoris were the highlights of the day. We avoided the over crowded temples, but paid attention to the circus of the people who were walking around the vehicle- restricted area: old women with bent backs- poor and destitute with every wrinkle telling a tale, families with little kids on their heads, naga sadhus proudly posing naked for photographers, young kids in the garb of the gods begging for attention and money. Just one thing that united everyone was the irrepressible faith that a dip at the holy Sangam (confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mystical Saraswati) would wipe of their sins.

The night was exciting as the rains had stopped and weather was better leading to a good home cooked dinner with all the inhabitants of the tents. People from different cities, states and countries queued up for the dinner as for miles there were no restaurants, as we later discovered. We got introduced to Amrita- a rechristened Swiss lady Rita- who had spent years in India yearning for spirituality and  another young lad from the West Indies- Ray-who was ‘discovered’ by Pankaj in the flight. The pre dinner discourse was by an interesting yogi who stayed across in a tent and spoke chaste English.

The next day began at 5 Am with 5 of us including Sandy, Pankaj , Anilbhai and Amrita off for the holy dip on the day of the ‘snaan’ (bath). The crowd was already out and we hustled and walked for about 3 Kms before we finally reached our destination- the Sangam. Ray had dropped off for exploring a snake charmer. We first climbed the ‘machaan’ built for journalists and got a birds eyeview. Then while Amrita stood on the sands, the 4 of us descended in to the cold, holy waters to take a dip. Sandy was mumbling his prayers and took almost a series of 3 dips for all the people he could think of. Pankaj and I were enjoying the experience and chanting our prayers too. The ritual ended too fast and it was as if a burden offloaded- an emotional experience!

While the others packed away to take their flights, I prepared myself to take the 24 hr train journey alone armed with ‘Maximum City’ by Suketu Mehta generously lent to me by Sandy. My journey back was equally adventurous- an overcrowded rickshaw called as ‘Vikram’ (Brave), a delayed train ride which then stopped abruptly the next day for 6 hrs at a village railway station as the next station was marred with violence by an enraged mob protesting over the death of 2 kids. They burnt the station, while we wondered when our train would start. Finally when it chugged along, it was a 12 hour delay resulting in 2 nights in the train for me.

I always wondered how could  people wash their sins in such a contaminated river. But came back very wise.. it is the belief, the rigorous rigmorale, the collective energy  and the human struggle that makes you a new person. Truly a memorable journey- for the soul and for the physical being!!!

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