The lean calf and I seemed equally afflicted by the biting cold as we stared at each other that winter morning in Gangasagar. Only I had the freedom to walk away while it did not. It had a rope around its neck whose free end was in the hands of a rather well-dressed priest. The priest promised us instant ‘moksha’–and an escape from re-birth–if we would only hold the calf’s tail now and cross the narrow strip of water that symbolised the Baitarani, the mythical river which, according to Hindu religion, linked earth to heaven.
But then we had already taken three dips — fully clothed though–in the cold water, didn’t we? One would have been enough to wash away our earthly sins from the past and in the future. But my companion did not want remnants of any vice clinging to us and hence the two extra dips. Now, with teeth chattering, we wanted to escape to our reasonably warm and dry tent for a change of clothes; a seat in heaven could wait.
Even as we side-stepped the priest and the calf, there were already several people queuing up to hold the tail and cross the puddle. After all, for ten rupees per head, it was a negligible price indeed for a permanent seat in heaven.
Soon we realised that for a festival whose genesis is rooted in a tale of washing away of sins and attaining salvation, it is not out of the ordinary that people are more concerned about deliverance.
It was by dint of a fierce curiosity that we had arrived at the Sagar Island, around 150km from Kolkata, during its famous festival on the day of Makar Sankranti. Part of the Sunderbans delta, the island marks the confluence of the River Ganga and the Bay of Bengal. Popularly known as Gangasagar, it is the site of an annual fair in mid-January, which attracts millions of holy men and common people from around the country and some international pilgrims as well, who come to take a dip in the confluence as dawn breaks over the water.
At one end of Sagar town is the colourful temple dedicated to sage Kapil who, according to the epic Mahabharat, is responsible for the chain of events that ultimately led to the descent of Ganga to earth. It is said that on the day of Makar Sankranti that Ganga flowed out to the sea, thus giving an opportunity to pilgrims to wash away their sins. On one side of the sage is an image of Ganga with Prince Bhagirath sitting on her lap and an image of King Sagar on the other. According to local people, the temple, which has been rebuilt several times, is managed by a religious sect from Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh).
The path from the temple goes straight to the beach where people congregate for the dip. Tented colonies are set up in the vicinity of the beach during the fair. While pilgrims begin arriving on the eve of Makar Sankranti, the state administration begins preparations weeks ahead. Security and medical arrangements take priority as well as checking for fire hazards. Usually, this is one of the coldest phases along the southern tip of West Bengal, the temperature taking a nosedive with the occasional rain and the chilly breeze. Snatches of robust community singing could be heard from the various ‘akhara’ and the temples. It also helped to keep yourself warm. In some places, people listened to religious discourses. It was also not uncommon to find groups of men surrounding a ‘naga’ sanyasi or two with the hope of being allowed a smoke from their hookah. Technology too has found its following among the holy brigade. Hence do not be surprised to find bike-borne sadhus, sadhus sporting sunglasses or one busy speaking into a high-end cell-phone.
We had risen before dawn and arrived at the beach to meet a sea of humanity. The faith that drove these people to brave the cold and inconveniences for the sake of salvation had to be seen to be believed. Then, as the appointed hour arrived, cries of ‘Ganga Mata ki Jai’ rent the air. It was the holy men who first entered the water and then others. It was like a mini-India on the move. Many of the groups were led by a holy man or a leader. How the people managed to follow the mass of raised tridents and flags and managed to distinguish their own groups from others was a mystery to us. It was amazing to find old couples, women with babies in their arms and even the physically challenged plodding towards the water, indifferent to the commotion around them. Groups of women settled on the wet sand and presented floral offerings. The loud speakers continued to issue directions to pilgrims, hail the medical personnel or announce details of people who were either lost or looking for those lost. Priests weaved their way through all this, plying their trade.
Although it is not known how old is this festival and fair, probably the earliest reference can be found in an instruction issued by Governor General Lord Wellesley in 1803 when he banned the ritual of drowning the first-born child in the sea. In 1837, a newspaper mentioned an extract that said the temple was around 1400 years old while the deity was installed by Guru Ramanand in 1437 AD.
As Makar Sankranti drew to a close, the pilgrims began to depart. A few more days, and the place would go back to its normal routine. The beach would lie forlorn, the waves washing away the millions of footprints and chunks of the visible sin of humanity — the garbage.
Information: Sagar Island, to the south of Kolkata, is about 150 km from the city. But one has to travel by land and water to reach the confluence. From Kolkata, you have to reach Harwood Point Lot Number Eight via Kakdwip town. Take the ferry or the barge from Harwood Point to reach Kochuberia on the other side. From Kochuberia, local transport is available for the final journey to the confluence. During the festival, be prepared to walk and sudden traffic regulations. Food is typical Bengali cuisine. Carry mosquito/insect repellents and personal medicine.
One of the most convenient way to visit during the festival is to take a tour package offered by West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation and private operators. WBTDC is operating an all-inclusive one night/two day trip pegged at Rs 8,000/head (on MV Sarbajaya) and Rs 25,000/head (MV Chitrarekha).
You may also visit the Sagar Island beach and temple outside the festival, especially as a weekend break.
Gangasagar: The story
The legend of Gangasagar can be found in the epic Mahabharat. Unwilling to let King Sagar reap the benefits of an Ashwamedha Yajna, Indra (the King of Gods) stole the sacrificial horse and hid it near the ashram of sage Kapil. The king sent his 60,000 sons in search of the horse. They found the horse but mistook the holy man for the thief and hurled abuses at him. The sage’s wrath turned them into ashes. Many years later, Prince Bhagirath wanted to atone the sins of his forefathers and underwent penance at Gokarna (Karnataka). Then he persuaded Ganga to flow to earth from heaven. After many trials, the river goddess flowed across the ashes and the souls of the dead princes were liberated. It is said that the goddess returned to her heavenly abode but left behind her river avatar. Apparently, it is on the day of Makar Sankranti that the river flowed into the sea at the ashram of sage Kapil. Hence a dip in the river on that day absolves one of all sins and prevent re-birth.