RELIGION: MAHAKUMBHA MELA
It's the greatest spectacle of faith on Earth: India's divine diversity in the digital age, staged by its saints and sadhus and sinners and millions of nirvana seekers
By S. Prasannarajan in Allahabad
It's the rite of immortality in the sacred water, semaphored by the full moon. At this moment of pre-dawn divinity, a multitude of bare bodies give themselves to the Mother River, only to emerge purified. The knowing Ganga, partially barricaded to control the frenzy of faith, receives the sin, and ensures salvation for the submerged souls. As the moon gives way to the sun, devotion, shivering in sub-zero temperature, multiplies in the shimmering river, and on the sandy banks spreads a multicultural collage of the mundane and the magnificent, the eternal and the ephemeral, painted in the primary colours of celebration as well as submission. The sadhu, the saint, the sinner, the sinned, the voyeur, the karma junkie, the New Age yogi ... all of them have come together to turn the spiritual into a maha-spectacle of the millennium. Or, the Mahakumbha Mela.
In Prayag, Allahabad for modern India, it's the biggest show on earth, conceived by Hinduism's antique memory, co-scripted by mythology, history and tradition, and enacted by keepers of wisdom and seekers of moksha. It's the costume drama of nirvana and the passion play of the East and the naked dance of asceticism and hara-hara delirium of the hippie and the raw picaresque of pure faith rolled into one oversized panorama of India in its divine diversity-divine even in the digital age. At Triveni Sangam, the confluence of three rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna and the unseen Saraswati, the other confluence of the pagan and the poignant, the naked and the saffron-clad, predetermined by rare planetary configurations, has turned Prayag, well, Allahabad, into a sovereign socialist republic of the sacred, where Swami Dayanand from Bolagiri Ashram in Hardwar takes a break from the morning paper's inside headline "Old is Dying but New is Not Born" to tell you: "It's the eternal struggle to attain the divine, and every one who takes a dip in the river doesn't achieve moksha." Where the nudist who should have ideally been on a European beachfront does a Shiva number for the camera and charges Rs 50 for her mud-smeared "reflection". Where Lata Mangeshkar's Ayega ayega, ayega ane wala in low volume exists in perfect tonal disharmony with the ear-piercing Ganga tera pani amrit from the Azad National Band that provides the audio input to the militantly phallic Naga procession.
|PHALLIC PROCESSION: The Nagas, naked ascetics smeared in ash, are the most photogenic--and tribally erotic in the Shiva sense--mystics at the mela and their arrival is a rhythmic, masculine performance|
The Nagas, the naked ascetics smeared in ash, are the most photogenic-and tribally erotic in the Shiva sense-mystics at the mela, and their arrival is a rhythmic, masculine performance. It's a horseback ride or a barefoot march. The clothed head sadhus come in garlanded Maruti 800s or decorated palanquins, and their hierarchical superiority in saffron clashes with the primal control of the naked. Beating drums and holding trishuls, they move in a procession the remoteness of which from the world of the eyes-wide-open crowd of onlookers is emphasised by the heart-shaped flag with a blazing yellow sun imprinted on it. The mobile flag poles are balanced by agile sadhus. Praise Lord Shiva, the trishuls do not turn horizontal or the Nagas do not dismount the horses as a suddenly film-less photographer in desperation mutters "f***ing s**t". At the Maha Kumbha, camcorder profanity merges with cosmic sacredness. And one benevolent Naga, Atmanand Saraswati, at the camp even breaks his tapasya to offer the inquisitive journalist a banana: "Yeh hai Kumbha ka mela, lo khao kela." Another lets his French devotee Marrianne hold his matted hair at an angle that suits the camera. At the Maha Kumbha, it's not all soul and sainthood, it's know-me-man showmanship as well. Marrianne, though a videshi, admits, "Lots of videshis this time, all fascinated by the exotic."
|HOLY SMOKE: Literaln evidence of religion as opiate--part of the eternal struggle to attain the divine and achieve moksha|
So what is Baba Amar Bharatji to you if not exotic, even if you are not a videshi? Permanently seated in padmasan (the lotus position), this Baba never sleeps, and his right hand is eternally perpendicular. Like a Giacometti sculpture. The fingers have become one shapeless object, and the curled nails hang dead and lost in the air. It's tapasya in front of half-burnt wood and chain-smoking devotees. Viswabharati, his 58-year-old assistant, has seen his master only in this mortifying state. He helps Baba light his chillum (mud pipe), Baba takes a deep puff, coughs miserably, and passes the chillum around. And happily accepts a packet of cigarettes from the journalist to replenish the stock of tobacco. At the Mahamela, intoxication is the privilege of mysticism, and your mundane questions are irrelevant. Datta Bharati (or Horst Brutsche from the Black Forest of Germany) intervenes quietly: "Forget the questions and feel the vibrations of 5,000 years."
Maybe he is right. Though the blessed are the unquoted, unphotographed pilgrims in the river.