Good Hindus believe a dip in the right river at the right spot on the right day resets their sin counter to zero. The Kumbh Mela has grown over thousands of years around this belief. Kumbh bathers believe they emerge from the river with freshly washed souls, and possibly places in heaven.
This year the Mahakumbh is in Haridwar in Uttarakhand till April 28. The river is of course the holy Ganga which is severely polluted like all our major rivers. The perfect spot is a stretch of about 100 m at a place called Har ki Pauri. The right days are 11 holy days, which come once every 12 years. However even among the holy days there is a hierarchy. This April 14 was Mesh Sankranti, the day of the final Shahi Snan, the holiest of holies.
Since there are 850 million Hindus in India, most desirous of clear consciences and heaven, the crowds of bathers on holy days can get rather overwhelming.
Delhi to Haridwar is 208 km. The drive took nine hours thanks to traffic jams. At the end of it, we were deposited in the middle of a jam somewhere on the outskirts of the Kumbh town. Crowds milled around everywhere, carrying bags and bundles on their heads, jostling to unknown destinations. We picked our burdens and joined the unending procession of souls.
It took us another two and a half hours of walking to get to the media centre near Har ki Pauri. It was past midnight when we reached. The officials had left. We had been told there were tents reserved for us, but couldn’t get any. We were homeless.
The HT photographer with whom I was travelling had bumped into a friend on the way. This gentleman suggested we try our luck in hotels. It seemed unlikely we would find a room; the roadsides were jammed with people sleeping wherever they could find space. But Mr Tyagi knew a hotelier, so we went.
Rs 1,200 room for Rs 10,000
It was a plain little hotel near the Ganga called Suryoday. There was one last 3-bed room available. The tariff on the board opposite the reception counter said Rs 1,200. The hotelier said he would give it to us because of his great friendship with Mr Tyagi, but it would cost Rs 10,000 a night. He wasn’t inclined to budge from this price; hotel rooms in the area were being taken for Rs 60,000 for four nights, he said.
Mr Tyagi called a couple of other hotels, and found this to be true. So, after some deliberation, we took the room. Both photographers had cameras and laptops with them. We were all carrying things we were afraid we’d lose. We couldn’t sleep on the pavement.
Over the next couple of days, the crowds increased. On April 14, about 14 million people took the Ganga dip in Haridwar, according to the Uttarakhand police. Haridwar town and district together have a population of 1.4 million. With more than 10 times its population in visitors, the entire town looked like Howrah railway station or Mumbai Central at rush hour.
Everywhere, crowds milled day and night, on their way for the holy dip. No one seemed to know the way. Everyone just walked where the flow took them. It was fine; all roads led to the holy dip. Occasionally, someone would stop, exhausted from the walk, and get shoved along by a waiting policeman blowing his whistle. Stopping was not allowed.
The only places one could stop for a brief bit were the roadside shops. There is an industry of spiritual supplements out there, with stalls selling everything from rudraksha beads to tridents.
Apart from these objects, Babas and Matajis of all hues peddle their brands of spirituality. They stare out of hoardings, selling a range of spiritual options. There’s Soham Baba, whose hoardings call for an end to global warming. And the sants of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who predictably warn that Hinduism is under threat. And even Yogmata Keila Devi, who is a Japanese woman named Keiko Aikawa. Her cause is world peace.
They all have thousands of followers who crowd into their camps. It’s a bit like Pragati Maidan during the Auto Expo, with tents instead of permanent structures, and brands of Hinduism instead of car brands.
I could feel no spirituality in the surroundings. Not in the greedy hoteliers ripping off all comers for as much as they can. Not in the cycle rickshaw pullers, who demanded Rs 1,200 for a 6 km ride. Not in the priests on the ghats, promising pujas at heightened rates. Certainly not in the politicians on their VIP visits, pretending to wash away their myriad sins. Not even in the Naga sadhus who raced into the waters of the Ganga at Har ki Pauri for the Shahi Snan on April 14. It had been reduced to a media spectacle, because there were only the sadhus, hemmed in by rows of police, on one ghat. And facing them, a tower with the world’s media confined to it like animals in a pen, over an empty ghat from which the pilgrims had been forcibly evicted by the police.
And yet … it’s a great pilgrimage.
In our journey, we had become part of the flow of humanity, solitary souls lost in that great river as it coursed to its inevitable destination. Our possessions had become burdens we were forced to carry. Our companions had been chosen largely by fate. Some fellow travellers, we lost in the melee, and could not meet again for the rest of the journey. We encountered greed and corruption, but also the simple faith of the millions who undertook this terrible journey.
The Kumbh is a great pilgrimage, because it is a metaphor for human life.