The festival of the river is exotica for the West, an enormous story for the media and a combination of faith and economics for many Indians big and small
By Ashok Malik in Allahabad
Rs 120 crore: The amount spent by the Uttar Pradesh Government to build roads, bridges and so on in Kumbhanagar, spread over 1,200 hectares, and the adjoining Allahabad city.
£1 million (Rs 7 crore): Channel 4's budget for getting a 60-member crew to and setting up a studio at the Kumbha for daily uplinks to Britain. It's "30 per cent of the channel's annual outlay for religious programming".
Rs 35: Daily earnings of Ramke, 19, who left his job as a part-time worker in a carpet factory in Ghazipur to sell channa bhujiya to pilgrims at the Kumbha.
Like anything quintessentially Indian, the Kumbha Mela means different things to different people. Concourse of humanity, a ritual going back to an era when Greeks still worshipped Zeus, the Kumbha is also a grand sweep of Indian civilisation, culture and, to an extent, commerce. Almost by definition it is a mass phenomenon. A festival that involves 70 million pilgrims over 44 days can scarcely be described otherwise.
|MOBILE REPUBLIC : Sadhus at the Kumbha use cell phones, read English newspapers and even drink mineral water. In keeping with the media age, the difference before the camera too is fast disappearing.|
Yet not everybody who comes to the Kumbha does so with the sole motive of praying to Ma Ganga and bathing in her, now alas muddied, waters in an act of purification. The Kumbha is exotica for the West, entertainment for the media and employment, admittedly seasonal, for literally thousands of people in Allahabad and beyond.
There were over 5,000 foreign visitors for the first ritual bath on Paush Purnima, January 9. The global reach of the Kumbha is evident from the example of Emorine Martine, a Frenchwoman who has been travelling across Asia with her teenaged daughter over the past year and a half. Martine first heard of the Kumbha five months ago, "while I was chatting with an American friend in Uzbekistan".
About 100 of the western karma trippers were staying at Sangam Dham, the 12 bigha no-meat, no-alcohol "ashram" built by Cox and Kings for well-heeled tourists and promising everything from all-night baul soirees to discourses on Hinduism by Karan Singh to consultations with in-house ayurveda and astrology specialists. A petition by local sadhus against the "commercialisation of Kumbha"-they were inspired, the bush telegraph had it, by some Allahabadi hoteliers-and apprehensions of a "law and order problem" led to the Kumbhanagar administration sending the travel company an eviction notice.
When Orit Segev was first told millions of people gathered at the banks of a great Indian river she "thought the Kumbha was a rumour". The call of a culture as old as her native Jerusalem's eventually triumphed over doubt. Nevertheless, thanks to the blanket media coverage, few will be left ignorant of the Kumbha. At the Kumbhanagar Media Camp 300 national and 88 foreign journalists have already sought accreditation. Purists may have protested the Kumbha would actually begin with the first of the shahi snans (regal baths) on Makar Sankranti, January 14. The media, not a patient animal at the best of times, had decided January 9 was good enough to announce the beginning of the "first Kumbha of the millennium". Well, it certainly was the first Kumbha in the age of satellite TV and the Internet.
|BEING THERE: When the Kumbha peaks on January 24, 10,000 foreigners like this lady (above) are expected to be in Allahabad (below) for Bahurupiya community children like these, it's a time to entertain and earn|
From its origins in the legendary churning of the cosmic ocean, to the 22,000 toilets that have been built in the Sangam precincts, everything about the Kumbha seems grand. To see it as merely a delight for the ethnographic tourist or a particularly determined number-cruncher would, however, be unfair. The Kumbha is, as a participant put it, a "dehat ka mela" (rural festival), a truly egalitarian occasion linking the frail old woman from Katni, wearing only a cotton sari but walking doggedly to the riverbank in the biting cold that is 4.30 a.m. in January, to the young NRI from America, coming home to rediscover his roots.
It is a celebration of the geographical expanse of a faith and a country, warts and all. Vicky, child of a "Bahurupiya" (professional fancy dressers) family from Amritsar, comes seeking custom. Sri from Shimoga, Karnataka, offers to sell you two rudraksha beads for Rs 150, agrees to an offer of Rs 51 and then whispers she has a tiger paw that's worth Rs 2,000.
Minstrel Manoranjan Das claims he lives in "Diwalighat, Kolkata". On being probed, he smiles shyly, admits it's actually "Kalighat" but he's trying to strike a rapport with alms givers who "celebrate Diwali when we in Bengal observe Kali Puja". Then there's the hapless pilgrim from Bettiah who went to the lost and found office to locate his wife, only to be baldly informed she had "left with another man". Forget the Paul McCartney sightings, it's the little people who make Kumbha worth it.
-with Subhash Mishra