IT's a journey in search of lost time. A hunt for the eternal, which keeps slipping through transient history's unsteady fingers like the sand that's everywhere on these 1,396 hectares, but comes back to you in cyclical apparitions. From daybreak to dusk, everyday without fail, this elusive search goes on. So does the agreeable cacophony of festival crowds. Itinerant hawkers peddling flutes, marigold garlands, chillum (pipes), stones, reed mats, milk, cow dung, whatever. Hundreds of pilgrims getting lost and reuniting at the end of every day. Commandos combing the banks for explosives. Inside a tent, young ochre-robed sants jiving to Hindi ditties on a ghetto-blaster. Amid all this, a never-ending stream immersing itself at the mythic confluence of three rivers.
It's a heady cocktail of the mystifying past and the banal present. Solemn tradition and brash modernity are cheek-by-jowl, in a silent war of the ages, at the Mahakumbh festival that kicked off last week. The hardsell is intense. "Camp by the Ganges and meet saints and sages who live high in the Himalayan mountains. These guys only come down from their mountain dwellings every 12 years," screams a website on the mela at one of the many Internet kiosks here.
No wonder the cynosure of all eyes are India's fascinating legion of saffron-clad monks. "Look at my guru, he is Shiva himself," says Olivier Heysh, a young Frenchman who is besotted by Baba Sri Digambar Sri Raj Giri, a Naga sadhu from Gwalior. Every morning, after Raj Giri is through with his ablutions, he gets high on hashish and readily obliges all around him with his acrobatics.
Or take the cellphone-toting monk, Amar Bharti of the Panchjuna Akhada. He's on the lookout for a viewcam these days. An American disciple is pushing forward his guru's fancy to every foreign journalist who visits his camp, "Baba can afford to buy a second-hand one, if you are willing to sell it," she goes on. Why does baba require a viewcam? "It is to keep my disciples happy," he says. "They would love to see pictures of the Kumbh that I'll shoot while I stay here."
And then, of course, there is a whole pot-pourri of chants, ranging from the spiritual to the political. The chilly morning air echoes with sonorous hymns from the Vedas and as the pilgrims and the sants return from their first bath, they shout in unison: "Har Har Mahadev, Bum Bum Bhole." Then there is the incessant chant of "Yeh to pehli jhanki hai, Kashi Mathura abhi baki hai (This is the first tableau, Mathura and Kashi are yet to be tackled)", loud and clear in and around the vhp camp, where the marble-dusted model of the Ram mandir is exhibited. Familiar notes of "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna" fills the afternoon air as the Iskcon processions wind down the sandy paths.
Salvation can turn lascivious at Kumbh too. Christina, a 25-year-old Mexican woman, strips effortlessly at the confluence, applies some green ash on her body and poses merrily for voyeuristic cameramen looking for instant karma. The police arrives to whisk the girl away. "We cannot allow this kind of stripping," says a harried official. "This is a religious festival." The show, clearly, has begun in right earnest.