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Kumbh Mela: Leaps of Faith

Ashish Sharma
Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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The spiritual is at its most spectacular when sadhus, seers, seekers, nirvana junkies and tourists of religious kitsch descend on Hinduism’s biggest carnival. Aditya Iyer goes to the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj

IN THIS PURPLE HOUR WHERE A cold, howling breeze and coils of cow-dung smoke wrap around those awake like uneasy garments, naked sadhus squat and shiver under taps of flowing water. The temperature of the water is bitter like the wind, so when the soaked sadhus emerge from a temporary bathroom whose walls are sheets of corrugated asbestos and into the open camp, their skin breaks into immaculate gooseflesh. Around small fires of charred logs, the horripilated sadhus cup their trembling hands and scoop up heaps of hot ash; now, they hungrily smatter the grey powder on their necks and chests and smear the flakes of warmth on their faces and dripping beards. The ash is pasty on their wet bodies and it has a hue of dull radiance. And in this pre-dawn morning from a time forgotten, the sadhus glisten like astral beings, smiling their beatific and yellow smiles.

These are the fabled Naga sadhus, ascetics who have shaped themselves in the naked image of their deity, Lord Shiva, and they are militant guardians of the Hindu faith. Under a shrine of their lord, the Nagas sit cross-legged in bunches; the older, hirsute ones huddle in smaller, tighter circles of three or four sadhus around burning embers, while the new inductees with freshly shaven skulls and smooth jawlines form a wider ring. A monk in saffron garb hands a chillum to each of the groups, and when these clay pipes filled with hashish are lit, the final preparation for the holiest of Shahi Snans, the royal baths at the Kumbh Mela, begins in Prayagraj.

This is the Kumbh Mela: the dazzling vortex of Hinduism, whose outer winds swirl with the largest religious congregation anywhere in the world. In these screaming winds, the pilgrims are all believers and there is no place for the sceptical. The believers are rich Indians and middle-class Indians and poor Indians, whose collective belief is founded on the fact, the fact, that some hours are more auspicious than others (derived by a specific alignment of the sun, the moon and Jupiter) and during these auspicious hours a dip in a sacred river shall cleanse their soul. Closer to the vortex and in the inner draft of this whirlwind are the holy men, whose austere take on faith and feverish belief in Hinduism places them at the very heart of this festival, where devotion takes many a form: mystical, magical and majestic.

The oncoming dawn, following the night of Mauni Amavasya, makes the Shahi Snan of February 4th most auspicious of this Kumbh. Also, of the four sites—Haridwar, Nashik, Ujjain and Prayagraj—that host the Kumbh Mela, bathing at Prayagraj is considered the most sacred; for by its banks meet the rivers Ganga (which, according to the scriptures, flowed out of a strand of Lord Shiva’s matted hair), Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. That meeting point is known as the Sangam, or confluence, and on days such as today, the Naga sadhus are given bathing priority over the countless millions who have poured in from all over the country. And they will soon be guarding this privilege to dip first with toxic ferocity, marching to the riverbank in insane processions; akhara after delirious akhara.

Akharas are monastic orders made up of Naga sadhus and scholarly monks, and this shivering lot of Naga sadhus under the Shiva shrine belongs to Shri Panchayati Anand Akhara, a satellite to the larger Niranjani Akhara, whose vast and majestic camp is sprawled gloriously beside the one we find ourselves in. An hour earlier, a handful of photographers and reporters gravitated towards the gates of Niranjani Akhara and our press credentials helped us pass through policemen and an army regiment and even the black- clad commandos, but at the gate we were singlehandedly halted by a lone sadhu; he was brandishing an iron pole and his threat to break lenses and powder bones had to be taken seriously. Anand Akhara, by comparison, is more accommodative of the media’s voyeuristic needs; still, when one Canadian photographer gets too close to a chillum-smoking circle, a raging Naga sadhu swears that he will rip out his testicles. Sensibly, the Canadian understands the tone and steps back.

Great plumes of smoke are exhaled from the nostrils of the sadhus. The plumes meet and collect in the form of a cloud just above their heads and the air in the tented colony is heavy with the essence of cannabis. I catch myself staring, unblinkingly, at the dancing fairylights draped on the roof of the tent, and just then, small gongs of varying sizes are struck in a loop at the shrine, punctuated intermittently by a wailing conch. The rhythm has a psychedelic taal to it and the stoned sadhus sweep their dreadlocks from side to side as they slip further into a trance. “Har Har Mahadev,” says one sadhu, coughing as he hails the great lord Shiva, and then they all say it in unison and over and over again, in sync with the gongs; and, at least in my head, with the blinking lights too.

Apart from the chanting, no words are spoken. But suddenly, as if planned and on cue, the Naga sadhus rise from their circles and make a beeline for the exit and into the main akhara area, and in their brisk jog all 30 of them turn right towards the larger Niranjani Akhara. The mothership has called. As the sadhus from Anand Akhara pierce through the police and army rings and enter Niranjani, a crowd of pilgrims decide to make use of the ensuing commotion and run in after the sadhus. These pilgrims are predominantly dressed in saffron, but their attire doesn’t fool the kotwal, the guard with the iron pole, and in his agitated and distracted state, some of us from the media slip past.

The Naga sadhus of Niranjani Akhara are superior in number and superior in decoration. Wreaths of marigold flowers are worn as crowns and cummerbunds, and their foreheads are embellished with a smear of sandalwood paste. They have in their hands tridents and maces and swords and daggers stabbing marigold flowers. They are walking in slow rounds around a tall pole (the pole is dressed in a red, see-through cloth) behind the temple and as they walk, some sadhus rattle damroos and some others sound the conch and one sadhu blows into a turhi, a temple trumpet. The circumambulations get faster and dizzier, but one Naga sadhu still finds the time to whip out a hand-mirror and flick out his tongue and hiss admiringly at his reflection.

In the melee beyond the enchanted circle, many stationary tractors are fitted with silver thrones and some are even saddled with golden chairs. These are for the mahamandaleshwars, Niranjani’s scholar ascestics. The tractors and their expensive mounts are empty until a guttural trumpet blows, signalling the beginning of the procession. Loud engines roar to life and the mahamandaleshwars are given a hand to climb atop these modern-day chariots. Like kings they sit smugly under metal umbrellas and on their high-seats, and soon they are surrounded by their foot-soldiers, the ululating Naga sadhus. “Har Har Mahadev,” the sadhus scream, hoisting their tridents and maces and the mahamandaleshwars bless them with one palm, but one palm only. The other hand is used as an anchor against the vibrating chassis of the tractor.

This is the Kumbh: The dazzling vortex of Hinduism, whose outer winds swirl with the largest religious congregation in the world. Closer to the vortex and in the inner draft of this whirlwind are the holy men, whose feverish faith places them at the very heart of this festival

Man and machine proceed toward the akhara’s exit, under a heavy canopy of saffron flags, and in the general direction of the Sangam. The mahamandaleshwars and Naga sadhus cannot see it yet, but at the confluence of the holy rivers, millions upon millions are crushed against police barricades and bamboo fences, waiting in severe hassle simply to get a glimpse of their holiness.

THREE DAYS EARLIER, when I had first arrived at the Sangam on February 1st, there were far fewer pilgrims at the site than on the day of the big bath; but ‘fewer’ is a relative term. Many hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were already making their way to the tented city on the riverbank, indelicate luggage (PVC sacks with tobacco advertising, mainly) on heads and shoulders and sometimes in tow. They had already clocked several kilometres from Allahabad Railway Station and had by now dodged and survived the undisciplined traffic in a city largely devoid of sidewalks; so, when Tata Sumo cars with VIP stickers honked ruthlessly behind their tired legs on Triveni Marg—the main road leading up to the Sangam—entire families parted down the middle, without resistance, and made way for the privileged.

Triveni Marg—a wide, tarred road otherwise— was already flanked by roadside hawkers on either side, their wares spread on bedsheets encroaching upon the walking space. Time and again the state police would arrive wielding their lathis and the sellers would haul up the four corners of their bedsheets and flee, disappearing into the herd of amused pilgrims. Some hawkers sold plastic toys and soapboxes and rangoli arranged in mounds and closer to the Sangam the bedsheets were almost exclusively laden with empty jerrycans. “Only Rs 8 for a bottle,” the squatting seller told me, holding one up to his ear. “You can take pavitra (pure) Gangaji back home with you.” Already, on the other side of the road, I could see a group of freshly bathed men walking back with similar jerrycans in their hands. As they moved the brown water sloshed inside white canisters.

At the juncture between Triveni Marg and Upper Sangam Marg, an uneven sandy area covered with even metal plates that leads to the riverbank, I stopped to watch a tight-rope walker. She was barely six or seven years old and she walked between the two bamboo shafts with three lotas (steel urns) balanced on her head and to a song from the film Dil To Pagal Hai. A crowd had gathered and they clapped when the girl moved from one end to the other, but as a boy walked among the audience with a coir basket to collect alms the crowd quickly dispersed. Within the coir basket was a sickly-looking spectacled cobra.

A water tanker hosed down the metal plates on Upper Sangam Marg and as the strong spray washed away the sand from the road it also unearthed copious amounts of used plastic—polythene bags, gutka satchets and wafer packets. “This is nothing, you should have seen the mountains of garbage during the last Kumbh in Allahabad, sorry Prayagraj, in 2013,” said Om Prakash, who was selling tea in an aluminium kettle on the side of the wet road. “But Modiji’s Swachh Bharat has worked. There are dustbins and toilets everywhere around the Sangam, just go and see.” And as he said this Om Prakash took the empty clay cup from my hand and flung it towards the recently washed road.

There were indeed toilets abundantly sprinkled about the Sangam’s sandy approach belt: rows of open-air urinals for men and roofed porta-loos for women. Closer to the water, where the green Yamuna poured in from the right and coalesced into the silty, beige Ganga on the left, there were changing stalls every three metres or so. Women of all ages formed short queues ahead of each of the changing rooms, and behind them, the riverbank was covered in levelled straw and countless believers and drying saris.

In large, wet groups they sat on the straw, drying under the harsh, midday sun and I walked past one such group from a village called Bhandare in Nagpur. The children, dressed only in their undergarments, were carefree and ate from a communal tiffin box placed in the centre of the circle while the patriarch of this group— holding in his hands a tall flag with the name of the village—eyed the bathing area closely. “Three-four of our group still haven’t come,” he told a policeman. “Three, or four?” asked the policeman.

The bathing area was cordoned off by lifebuoys coloured a deep orange and on these stood members of the National Disaster Relief Force. The water in the bathing area had turned tangerine in colour, and floating marigold flowers and paper boats and diyas that were still lit bumped into the bathers. In some spots, even the odd fruit surfaced. When one man found an amrood (red guava, an Allahabad speciality), he held the fruit in his cupped palms and his lips mouthed the words, ‘Ganga Maiyya ki Jai’.Victory to Mother Ganga. The man proceeded to toss the guava to the closest lifeguard, who in turn handed the fruit over to a young mallah, or boatman, waiting beyond the lifebuoys to take pilgrims to the centre of the Sangam.

Naga sadhus, covered only in rudraksha beads or flowers, occupy the main Akhara area. Some slip into deep meditation in the chaos; others smoke chillums, attracting those keen for a puff of the magic weed

Close to where I stood, a group of teenaged women splashed about the water and laughed carelessly. From the crowded bank, I watched as a state policeman fished out a smartphone from his pocket and held the instrument close to his waist and proceeded to either photograph or videograph them. When the policeman noticed that I was watching him, he put the phone back in his pocket, and without making eye contact, shrugged rather theatrically. Not far away from us, another policeman was attending to a wailing lady.

“What happened?” this policeman asked. “I cannot find my man,” the middle- aged woman replied. The policeman shook his head and pointed with his index finger to an area beyond the Sangam, towards Triveni Marg and said, “Khoyaa-Paaya Kendra jao.” Go to the Lost and Found Centre. The lady seemed unconvinced and begged the officer to do his duty and help her. The officer was unmoved. He simply pointed his index finger again, this time at the many loudspeakers tied to bamboo poles, and asked her to listen.

Almost non-stop, the messages on the public announcement system went something like this. “Neeraj’s father, Neeraj’s father from Tonk district, Rajasthan. Wherever you are, Neeraj’s father, please come to the Lost and Found Centre in Sector Number 4 of Kumbh Mela. Your wife, Santosh Devi, is waiting for you… (static)… Omkar Tiwari, Omkar Tiwari from Champaran district, Bihar. Wherever you are, Omkar Tiwari, please come to the Lost and Found Centre in Sector Number 4 of Kumbh Mela. Your wife, Chandravati is waiting for you… (static)…”

BEFORE GNANESHWAR Kumar went for his Ganga snan, on February 2nd at about 9:30 in the morning, he asked his wife, Shobhadevi, to watch over his belongings: leather sandals, wristwatch and spectacles case. At some point during Gnaneshwar’s walk from his wife to the edge of the riverbank, he decided that he would like a cup of tea on his return from his bath. So, Gnaneshwar retraced his path and gave orders to his seated wife. “He reminded me that the chai should be pheeki (without sugar). That’s the last thing he told me,” a weeping Shobhadevi told me, at the Lost and Found Centre of the Kumbh Mela. “When I returned with the chai, he wasn’t there. I waited for some time, spoke to the police and they sent me here. It has now been 6 hours of waiting. I still haven’t met him. Please do something.”

Like Shobhadevi, hundreds of grief- stricken women and men—from a large section of our society that the mobile phone era bypassed—who have misplaced family members in the swarm at the Sangam have gathered at the Mela’s Lost and Found Centre. Informally, this tent of desolation is called ‘Khoyaa-Paaya’. Lost and Found. But the board outside has a far more accurate and poignant title: ‘Bhoole Bhatke’; or, Forgotten and Wandering. When I entered the centre, an elderly woman, presumably in her sixties, slapped an elderly man, who had just arrived, and then fell into his arms and snivelled on his chest. The old man too wiped away tears after he dropped his cloth bag to the ground.

In the outer section of the Bhoole Bhatke, the forgotten and wandering crowd around a wooden desk, behind which a subedar makes a note of each individual grievance on a small piece of paper—a parchi. The subedar then leans back on his plastic chair and passes the parchi through a bamboo curtain to Jaspal Singh Chauhan, a platoon commander. Chauhan is seated in the inner section of the tent, where he dutifully notes down the details on the slip in a ruled exercise book, before his assistant disappears with the parchi into a temporary shed made of corrugated asbestos. “My hand is weary of writing these details,” Chauhan tells me, holding a bunch of sheets between his fingers to indicate how many pages of the exercise book he has filled today.

Chauhan eyes the clock above his head. “It isn’t even 4 pm, and there have already been about 6,000 entries today,” he says, supporting his writing arm and rotating his wrist. “Day after tomorrow (the day of the big bath) there isn’t going to be place to stand in this Centre. Already Upadhyayji has gone hoarse. I don’t know how he is going to manage.” Upadhyayji, or Pushkar Upadhyay, a wiry 50-something man with a three-day stubble on his chin, is seated inside the shed. He holds up a finger to shush me as I enter and continues speaking into the microphone. “… your wife Gullu Devi is waiting for you.”

Upadhyay switches off the mic, so that our conversation isn’t broadcast on the 3,500 loudspeakers studded about the main Mela area, and smiles a tired smile. “They will all be reunited, eventually,” he says; it is a statement that has been the fuel to an entire genre of Bollywood movies. Upadhyay takes off his spectacles and sighs. “In all my time here, no one has not been reunited. In fact, there was one old lady from Madhya Pradesh, who waited at the Bhoole Bhatke for five full days. Just when all hope was lost, her children arrived to pick her up. What had happened was that old lady had come to the Kumbh Mela with many from her village, none of whom was her immediate family. The villagers had a train to catch so they left without searching too hard for her. When they reached their village, the old lady’s family made the long journey to find her. And with Ganga Maiyya’s blessings, they did.”

We are met by Pankaj Tiwari in the announcers’ booth. He is a young production engineer who works for Amul, the milk cooperative, in Gujarat. But dutifully he saves his leaves to come volunteer at the Bhoole Bhatke every time there is a Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj. “My grandfather, Shri Rajaram Tiwari, started this facility,” says Tiwari. “Back in 1946, my grandfather, an Allahabadi, started gathering up lost pilgrims and formed a human chain behind him. Then, holding a bhopu (tin can) over his mouth, he would go from door to door around the shantytown and reunite them with their family. That’s how this operation began.” Tiwari later tells me that the Bhoole Bhatke story is going to be captured on celluloid by “Vidya Balan’s husband [producer Siddharth Roy Kapur]”. Bollywood and the Kumbh Mela; the saga simply refuses to die.

By the time the Kumbh Mela of 1989 rolled in, this centre was known as the Congress Party Bhoole Bhatke, according to journalist Mark Tully. ‘The Congress Party had cornered the lost-and-found business because of its value as subliminal publicity,’ writes Tully in his essay on the Maha Kumbh of ’89, published in his book No Full Stops in India. In 2019, that prefix, understandably, doesn’t exist. While the ruling party at both the State and the Centre, Bharatiya Janata Party, has left the Bhoole Bhatke alone, it isn’t because they are short-sighted; the BJP has cornered with their advertising every other nook of this Mela. Across from the Bhoole Bhatke is a ‘NaMo Merchandise’ stall, where they sell t-shirts, mugs, caps and 3D masks of the Prime Minister. And every five metres or so is a poster bearing the oval, smiling face of the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, bracketed by his government’s achievements (‘New airport’, ‘New flyovers’, ‘Rs 4,200 crore spent on Greatest Kumbh’, etcetera).

An estimated 35 million people took a dip on the day of the Shahi Snan alone. The holy men got first priority, followed by the pilgrims who had poured in from every corner of the country

Akin to the mahamandaleshwars in the akharas, CM Adityanath too is robed in saffron. And he too was the chief of a Hindu order; in 2014, he was named peethadhishwar , or head seer, of the Goraknath Math in Gorakhpur. He also announced that this Kumbh Mela, an Ardh Kumbh, or half Kumbh (which is held every six years between two Maha Kumbhs) will be rebranded as a Maha Kumbh. This, of course, was a politically motivated move, given that 2019 is a General Election year and over 200 million pilgrims tend to show up for Maha Kumbhs over the course of the event. During my four-day stay at the Mela, I was privy to four separate public discourses where the speaker promised the building of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya—another election manifesto for the BJP at the State-level as well as at the Centre.

I ask Upadhyay if the Chief Minister’s strategy to rebrand the Ardh Kumbh has worked to bring in the masses. He scratches his stubble and says: “I can only speak from my experience and I can tell you that not as many people were lost during the previous Ardh Kumbh in Allahabad, which was in 2007. Which only means that if more-than-expected people are lost now, more-than-expected pilgrims have arrived too.” Just then, a constable carries into our booth a bald and bawling toddler. “I found her at the Sangam,” the constable says. “She doesn’t know her name. Or that of her parents.”

The situation is a tricky one, but Upadhyay works his magic. Into the mic he describes her approximate age (2-years old), her features (recently sheared scalp, round face, wheatish skin), her garments (pink frock with a yellow lace, white Bata sandals) and where she was found. Within 15 minutes, a man claiming to be her uncle shows up. His scalp has been shaved too, but for a tuft at the back of his crown, and while being thoroughly interrogated by Tiwari he manages to prove his credentials. When the girl is handed over to him by the constable, the uncle thanks him by saying: “Thank God, you found her. We were worried that the Naga sadhus had made away with her.”

IN THE NOTORIOUS Juna Akhara, the most militant of all akharas, there is a Naga sadhu whose reputation—like that of others of his ilk—precedes him. “Ask for Digambar Baba,” a worker at the Mela’s media centre told me. “He can pull a car with his foreskin.” But before I can get to him, I have to pass through the bedlam of the main akhara area, which lies beyond the pontoon bridges; and over the peepa pulls, great flocks of black-headed gulls forever pepper the smoky sky.

The main akhara area is a dusty set-up, lined on either side by massive cardboard dwaars (doors) of the various akharas. While the sadhus and mahamandaleshwars prefer to stay in their respective tents inside their respective akharas, the main area is very crowded; it is inhabited by the smaller tents of footloose sadhus, who aren’t associated with any of the akharas; and kalpavasis—the most pious form of the common pilgrim, who stay not just for a Shahi Snan but camp out in the ‘wild’ for over a month.

Some of the footloose sadhus are covered only in rudraksha beads and they are in deep meditation amidst the hustle and bustle; seated cross-legged besides upright tridents, they are still as an oil painting. Others are smoking chillums and they have attracted young devotees who are squatted around them, patiently waiting for a puff of the magic weed. Outside Atal Akhara, I meet Bholenath Baba, who is supporting the weight of his upper torso on a swing, for his legs have been reduced to bones. “I have been standing for nine years now. Non-stop,” Bholenath tells me. Two tents away from his resides a baba who has held his right arm upright for 12 years. The arm is ruler straight and without flesh and his clenched fist is covered in a black web of uncut fingernails.

Digambar Baba is about to release his hands from the stick and hold it by his face, making sure that the entire weight of the mounted sadhu will be supported only by his obtusely stretched penis

On entering Juna Akhara, I ask a mahamandaleshwar in his tent for the whereabouts of Digambar Baba and he points me in the Naga sadhu’s direction. But before I can thank him, the chillum- smoking scholar exhales smoke through his nostrils and says, “Sambhaal ke.” Be careful. I find him at the other end of the akhara, sprawled on his back like a great cat in his lair. Digambar Baba’s penis is coiled around a lathi and the stick lies there motionless, without resting on his thighs. The baba has company; he is blessing a eunuch with a clutch of peacock feathers.

When he rises I notice that Digambar Baba is a fine physical specimen (with ash- coated dreadlocks up to his calves and a chest that belongs to the wrestling akharas). He is a strong man and he is a man of God. But even he isn’t beyond venal pursuits. He asks me for Rs 100 and when I hand it to him, the baba rubs the note on his genitals and then uncoils his penis from the stick and stretches out the foreskin. It is now time for a demonstration, and he summons another Naga sadhu from the inner reaches of his tent.

Digambar Baba pulls his penis between his legs until it meets his buttocks and ties his stretched organ around the stick once more. “Aajaa,” Digambar Baba tells the other Naga sadhu and this sadhu holds Digambar Baba’s shoulders for leverage and climbs on to the stick, one large, grimy foot on either side. Now, Digambar Baba releases his hands from the stick and holds it near his face and the entire weight of the Naga sadhu (he couldn’t have weighed less than 75 kg) is now supported by an obtusely-stretched penis. A crowd has gathered around me and I only notice them when they break into applause. Digambar Baba folds his hands and smiles, and the Naga sadhu above him does the same.

“Where do you get the power from?” I ask him. As Digambar Baba prepares his reply, he comes alarmingly close to my face and I notice that his left eye has clouded over and his breath smells of onions. “You call this power?” he yells. “When a man’s penis can produce the seed for life and when a man’s penis can also destroy the respect of a woman, how can you attribute such simple, physical tricks to power? I have a spiritual connection with my penis and therein lies my real power.” I want to know his age, but when I ask him he grabs me by my head and says: “Moorkh (fool) ! Can you not recognise me? I am Lord Shiva; I am the universe and I have been here since the Great Churning!”

The Great Churning is the origin story of the Kumbh Mela. According to Hindu scriptures, the devas and the asuras (demigods and demons) decided to churn the ocean to find the elixir of immortality. For a churn they used a mountain; and a serpent was the rope to rotate the churn. When the nectar rose in a kumbh, or pot, the asuras had won and were about to drink it and become immortal when Lord Vishnu, disguised as Mohini (an enchantress), seized the kumbh from the demons and fled. During this run, four drops of the nectar spilled out and fell on Earth; one drop each at Haridwar, Nashik, Ujjain and Prayagraj, where the Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years.

Digambar Baba has still not let go of my head. By now he has pushed me into an uneasy bow and is slapping the back of my neck, asking me if I have ever been blessed by a reincarnation of Lord Shiva. Unlike me, a pilgrim in the gathered crowd wants to be blessed, so he falls at the baba’s feet and the baba places one heavy foot on the pilgrim’s head. Simultaneously, his grip around my skull tightens and I get a strange feeling that he wants to smash my head to the ground as a final offering to the Lord; or himself—it’s hard to tell. When I release myself from his clutches, the baba looks rather offended. “Moorkh! Get out of here and never come back,” he says and I beat a hasty retreat. “And let me not see you during the Shahi Snan tomorrow. I will break you in half and wash away my sin in Gangaji.”

A LOZENGE SUN has peeped over the muddy horizon and dawn breaks over the Sangam-bound procession of Niranjani Akhara. The holiest of the Shahi Snans is less than an hour away. The procession halts at the main akhara area, mainly because the policemen are having a tough time controlling the mass of pilgrims outside their cordon. When the police physically barricade one end of the crowd, men and women on the other end slip under the ropes and break in; and thus, the size of the procession rapidly balloons. When the main akhara area narrows towards the slender pontoon bridge, the marching hits a bottle-neck. And here, the police wield their lathis generously. When a stray stick strikes my thigh, I hold my press credential up and to the policeman’s face and he laughs. “This doesn’t work here,” he says. “But, okay, I won’t hit you again.”

We tumble on to the pontoon bridge and it is a stampede-like situation, but below us everything is serene on the riverbank, where pilgrims have their hands folded at us and their lips mutter prayers. Some are blessed with a wreath of marigold, thrown at them at random by a Naga sadhu and the receivers shriek in delight. On the other side of the pontoon bridge, the Naga sadhus change the rhythm of the procession. Between a cordon of bamboo poles and above a bed of sand, the sadhus pick up speed and the rest of the procession tries to physically keep abreast. Some pilgrims fall; some are halted against the fallen; and some others willingly tap out of this madness and press into the ocean of humanity across the bamboo fence (and I am told an estimated 35 million pilgrims were at the Sangam on the morning of February 4th).

The bed of sand has turned into a bed of straw and we know that the Sangam is now close by. The procession halts once more and the energy and frenzy of the Naga sadhus is reminiscent of agitated bulls in a pen. When the imaginary cage is opened these bulls charge towards the edge of the riverbank but do not yet jump into the river because the time is not yet auspicious. Here, a stone’s drop away from the confluence of the rivers, the Naga sadhus stomp their feet and hum and shake like primeval beings.

Despite the best efforts of the police, a great many have crushed into the riverbank around the Naga sadhus. But they will not be allowed to bathe before the Naga sadhus; for, the outcasts are now the kings and the middle-class millions are the outcasts and they will bathe only after the kings do. So, they withstand the crush around us and the push of the millions from behind, hoping not to fall into the crazy river.

In the water is a mahamandaleshwar and he is brandishing a fat stick on any toe out of line. Due to the extreme crush, one or two pilgrims fall in and the mahamandaleshwar smacks his lathi on the surface of the water near them and they shiver and scurry back to the overcrowded bank. For over three minutes, the Naga sadhus hum and shriek and the tension at the bank is palpable. Finally, one of them screams the familiar cry of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and the rest of them join in; all throats caught mid- chant as running legs plunge into the river.

They dunk their dreadlocked heads into the water and tell their prayers; and like hirsute angels they splash about, gurgling and gargling. The ash drains out of their beings and their bodies shimmer under the morning sun and the deep brown river is clogged with floating garlands of marigold. From beyond the lifebuoys, naked mallah boys fish out the garlands with butterfly nets and laugh at each other, all their mouths missing teeth. These mallahs heap the flowers in one of the many fishing boats docked on the far side of the orange lifebuoys.

When a boat is full, an older mallah oars away to the middle of the Sangam to sell these flowers to the boatriding pilgrims; they were worn by the sadhus and so will fetch a fair price. Above the boats, black-headed gulls whoosh about in mesmeric formations, unconcerned with the chaos of the bathing millions below.

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