Saturday, 26 January 2013

Droplets of Ganga

Kumbh Mela is the Ganges. Kumbh Mela, in a sense, is India. Like India, it's utterly diverse; both sacred and secular, human and divine, fantastically organised and completely chaotic. Each droplet reflects a different fragment of India, and only through those reflections does the Kumbh reveal itself, over a period of days or even weeks.

So I can't tell you what Kumbh Mela is. I can only tell my own experiences; the things I saw, people met. Filtered through my lack of Hindi, through others' faltering English, through the lack of signposts (noted in the Hindustan Times) and the fact that I couldn't, no one could, see the whole thing, only parts of it, like the blind men and the elephant.

It's the Norfolk Showground, but not as we know it; corrugated iron corrals, exhibitions on Uttar Pradesh Tourism or exciting agricultural machinery, dusty temporary roads, roped off and fenced off areas, fast food stalls and drinks stands. There are candyfloss salesmen and boys selling toy helicopters which they demonstrate perpetually, sometimes managing to land one on an innocent (and irate) bystander, kids selling toy whistles or balloons or parakeets made of blue neoprene. (Parakeet smurfs?)

There's even a funfair on Triveni Road, with a Wall of Death and two big wheels, waltzers and a monorail and, this being India, a Shaivite temple featuring a Mount Meru made of plaster of Paris, and with a real priest and two white doves inside as well as a massive plaster of Paris lingam that looks as if it's made of varnished Christmas cake icing, entry ten rupees.

Except it's the Norfolk Showground with naked men wandering around. The naga babas are what the tourists go to see. And they are, undeniably, impressive; long dreadlocks (I saw one doing yoga; a disciple had to get the baba's hair out of the way of his gymnastics, as it was twice as long as he was), long beards, their skin white or grey with ashes.

I sat with one naga baba at his hearth – a campfire that doubles as altar, with two huge logs smouldering. From time to time he took his tongs and trimmed the burned ends of the logs, or held a bidi or chillum in the tongs to light it from the embers. But he was most interested in showing me pictures of himself, and even better, his press cuttings; here he was at Haridwar, at Rishikesh, at Varanasi, and here, lighting a huge chillum and wreathed in narcotic smoke.

(A sight in Varanasi: 'government bhang shop'. I can't quite imagine an NHS cannabis outlet in Norwich.)

Anorak. Sandals. Nice wristwatch. Designer specs. An Indian now resident in the US showed me round the akhada where he was staying for two months; he'd taken time off from his real estate business.  He was full of information; how the akhada was organised (run by the maharaja, with his adjutants, sadhus of different ranks – just like the Indian police or army, he said, every sadhu has a rank within the akhada), the mythology of the Kumbh Mela, the division between Shaivite (the majority) and Vaishnavite (the minority) akhadas, the different bathing dates, the event his maharaja was launching that afternoon to protest against female foeticide and infanticide. Another fragment of Kumbh, another distinct fragment of India.

Fog that doesn't clear till midday. My hair wet with the mist. Two elephants sway up the road, looming in fog; a roadsweeper gives one a coin, which it takes gently with its trunk and swings sinuously up to the mahout. A blessing.

The maharajah and his new socks. In one place I was given prasad with another twenty or so people, sitting on the dirt of the main alley through the akhada, food whacked out of tin pails on to the stitched-leaf platters in front of us, scooping the rice and dal up with our fingers. (Prasad is given to all, every mealtime, by the various akhadas; always similar, though details differ - Ram gives jalebi, while Krishna offers no dessert; some serve rice, others roti.) Afterwards I sat in front of the maharaja as he held court, or offered darshan as his devotees would say; he bickered happily with his disciples, laughed, smiled, was in good humour.

Two Mongolian-looking women came in; stocky, flat-faced, carrying a pair of gaudy knitted socks. Cue disruption. They kneel before the maharajah to touch his feet; that's normal. They then grab a foot each and start pulling his beige socks off and pushing the new socks on. The socks are too tight. The maharajah is laughing still, his beard twitching with merriment. Two of his disciples start pulling each leg. Or perhaps they're  pulling the socks, but there are now so many people kneeling and pulling and fidgeting around his legs and feet that I can't work out quite what is going on. Someone else is holding the back of the maharajah's swivel chair to stop him being pulled away entirely. I see the word 'happy' in pink and yellow paper cut outs above his head. (Happy what? I wonder.)

An English-speaking devotee sits next to me and explains. "Maharajah is loving devotees. They are coming two thousand kilometer to see him. From Manali they come. They are bringing present. Socks are too tight. But Maharajah is wearing them to make devotees happy. When Maharajah gives blessing, he is making only one blessing, be happy."

Another fragment of the Kumbh. Be happy.

I'm surprised, so often, by the sadhus' sense of humour. Their sense of fun. Prahalad Puri puts his arm round his retired police inspector disciple and kisses him – "my little brother," he says, though he's not much more than half his disciple's age.

A young boy leads two blind sadhus. I put a coin in their tiffin box.

At the sangam, a family take a disabled man to bathe. He is supported for the five painful and slow steps from his wheelchair to the water's edge, where he's sat on a plastic chair. A woman brings water in a bucket, with a jug she puts in his hand; he tips Ganga water over himself. She sees me, and smiles, and puts her palms together in greeting. A big, open smile that makes her eyes crease. All heart. I'm touched. (Forty-five minutes later, I pass again. He's having his trousers pulled up, and the wheelchair is brought. What tender care. What love.)

Man and wife light a flame, put marigolds and roses in a little flaming boat and set it afloat on the water. Their heads nearly touch as they squat at the waterline. A little domestic moment. Ten million people at Kumbh Mela but this is their small space. Another drop of Ganga.

The sheer size of the place. Ganga wider than the Thames or the Seine. The speed of the current; it makes a wake behind two men who are standing still, swirls offerings away towards the ocean. Sandbanks that stretch for ever.

A naked sadhu doing push-ups and handstands, like an Olympic gymnast gone weird. He brushes his hands with silt just as a gymnast chalks his palms before pulling up on the bars.

Night falls. On every akhada and ashram gateway lights begin to blaze. A peacock whose fanned tail lights up gradually, a Krishna in lights, revolving wheels. It's the Blackpool Illuminations with added deities. The sangam lit by huge lights like a sandy oversize football pitch. Down on the silt six priests offer aarti, wafting huge candelabra at the river, which is both the river and the goddess they worship. (Everything is everything else in India; there is no either/or.)

Some young Indians dance to the last hymn. They invite me to join them; want their photos taken with me. They are smiling. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is happy. The sun has set. Another day of Kumbh.

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