Fun and Fair
My partner Gillian Wright and I managed to persuade the BBC that they wanted a programme about the Kumbh Mela for their Radio 4 network. This took us to Allahabad for our third Maha Kumbh. I’ve described kumbh melas as spiritual trade fairs; when we arrived this time we found the fair in full swing. Mahatmas, mahamandaleshwars, sadhus and sants had all set up their stalls and scattered their advertisements around the vast fair ground. There was a deafening cacophony of music sacred and Bollywood, mixed with loudspeakers blaring the messages of the multitude of men and women who had come to put across their religious messages. The faithful were wandering from guru to guru, sampling discourses and listening to recitations of the great Hindu epics. The camps of the akharas, the historic monastic orders, were a big attraction.
The Kumbh Theology
I’ve always seen the Kumbh Mela as a magnificent demonstration of the variety of Hinduism and its acceptance that there are many different roads to God. Ma Purn Pragnya, a member of the Nagaur royal family who has robed herself in saffron, gave us an impressive discourse which seemed to confirm that plurality until she said that in the end all roads led to Vedanta. However, my faith in Hindu pluralism was reconfirmed by the Kabir panthis, who are so opposed to ritualism that they don’t believe in bathing in the Ganges. Their acharya told us it was better to bathe under a tap because the water was cleaner. My theology was stretched by a discussion on the vexed subject of sin with the American Sadhvi Bhagvati, an enthusiastic participant in the Ganga Action Plan launched by her Guru, Swami Chidanandji. She pointed out that Christians, like me, regard ourselves as miserable sinners whereas Hindus believe that God resides within them, which I had to admit was a more positive assessment of the human race. Among those representing the Hindu tradition of asceticism we found Mahant Bholagiri Bapu holding his withered left arm in the air. He told us he had been performing that tapasya for 37 years. Ashok Singhal, former president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, represented political Hinduism, although he denied he had anything to do with politics. He saw the Kumbh as evidence that India was a spiritual nation where religious harmony was perfect, but went on to say that religions which converted would be crushed.
The Great Bath
On the day of the great bath we found ourselves pressed up against a bamboo barricade on the edge of the space reserved for the akharas bathing. In the two previous Kumbhs, the police had kept this space clear but this time they failed to do so. When I complained about the ineffectiveness of the UP police, my old friend Ramdutt Tripathi, the BBC Lucknow correspondent, said, “What do you expect them to do, lathicharge and cause a stampede?” He had a point. Eventually the police horses, unperturbed by the sea of people and the din, gently pushed the crowds back and cleared space for the akhara processions. Our loyalties were with the Juna Akhara. Their acharya, Adveshanandji, sat on a silver howdah mounted on a tractor trolley, not an elephant as tradition demanded. They have been banned since one ran amuck and caused a stampede in the 1953 Kumbh. Earlier, we had recorded a long interview with the scholarly head of the akhara and he had allowed us to witness the midnight ceremony at which more than a thousand initiates with shaved heads, and naked except for the thinnest of thongs, took their vows of renunciation. They were among the army of Naga sadhus who marched in front of their acharya in the procession, leaping and whooping for joy. When they bathed, they splashed each other like children.
The Heroes of the Kumbh
The heroes of the Kumbh are the millions of villagers who endure overcrowded trains and buses, then trudge for miles, carrying their possessions on their heads, to wait patiently for their turn to bathe. If it wasn’t for their patience, if they behaved like a normal crowd, the mela would be unmanageable. Those who mock their faith as superstition, and many do, insult what gives them the strength to live with hardships that we the elite could not bear. The administrators who spent months planning the mela deserve praise too. So do the police for showing unusual restraint and eventually producing order out of apparent chaos. Even the railways shouldn’t, I feel, be cast in the role of villains. The stampedes were tragic, but which other railway in the world could handle the number of passengers they had to cope with?
A hero of our own
Our producer Adam Fowler lugged his equipment around the mela, recording interviews, often in a language he did not understand and is, as I write this diary, editing 12 hours of material into a half-hour programme.
Mark Tully is a veteran journalist and author