Would you take the trouble of going to a place where lakhs of people gather and jostle for limited space and other resources, and incur obvious health risks posed by such an environment?
A bunch of us did. And this is my account of that.
It’s hard to explain why we chose to go to the Kumbh Mela. It’s one of those things which, once you allow it to seize your imagination, will not allow any negativity to be associated with it. We were a group of five college classmates used to travelling together. We made the decision in January to go, and we never had a second thought about it.
A lot of people go to Prayag to celebrate the Kumbh Mela. They go for many reasons. There are the millions of pilgrims, who come with belief and hope of absolution. There are saints and ascetics who descend from the mountains to renew their vows. There are the onlookers intrigued by the notion of belief and fascinated by the spectacle that is the Kumbh. I think we started as onlookers and crossed over into the zone of hope by the time we left. The way it turned out, we kept aside our cameras, mobile phones and facebook and twitter accounts for the most part and allowed the sensory experience to take over. There is something liberating about just seeing something as it transpires, and not being burdened with having to capture it anywhere but in your memory.
We executed on a straightforward plan. We flew into Lucknow and drove to Allahabad. And with Allahabad as the base, we made round trips to Varanasi and Ram Janma Bhoomi on two separate days. The third day (Maha Shivaratri) we spent with Ganga-ji and Jamuna-ji at the Triveni Sangam in Prayag. I’m glad to say that things went without a hitch.
I’ve divided the account into three portions covering our experiences in Varanasi, Ayodhya and at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Prayag.
Disclaimer: This was my first time travelling in Uttar Pradesh. For those of you familiar with that part of the country, my observations may seem trite. Apologies in advance.
Part 1: Varanasi
Day 1: Impressions of Lucknow-Allahabad
The first thing that strikes me on landing in Lucknow was – this could not be Lucknow! The Charan Singh airport is pretty nicely done. No paan stains in corners. And when you come outside, there aren’t any unruly mobs or vehicles like a typical Indian airport. Shame on me for having these images of Uttar Pradesh being filled with dark caves, and Neanderthals roaming around with clubs over their shoulders. The roads are magnificent! Lucknow appears better than Bangalore or even Chennai, at first glance. Mayawati gets credit for this, we were told. Of course, we were just driving out of the city through the cantonment area and had not yet gone into the city. We did eventually go into Lucknow on our final day, which altered the impression slightly towards being like any other town in India. But the positive impressions linger.
The drive to Allahabad (pronounced I-laha-bad by locals) took us a little over 5 hours. We took the longer route via Kanpur, which seems to resemble an industrial and less attractive cousin of Lucknow. Traversing the roads tells you that you’re in UP, where casually driving on the wrong side of the road seems as normal as ambling to a corner dukaan for a chai. Vehicles, broken down or not, can occasionally be found parked on the fast lanes of major highways. If you can’t handle this sort of thing, I guess you’re just not cut out for the Darwinian jungles which are this state’s highways.
Upon arrival in Allahabad, we checked into the neatly maintained, friendly looking Chinmaya Mission ashram, which is about 10km away from Prayag. Awesome rotis and hot daal later, we turned in for the night. The town is empty. There is no sign of a Maha Kumbh mela here. Although this could change on Shivaratri, I can’t say we’re complaining about the lack of crowds yet.
Day 2: Varanasi, the timeless city.
Today was a day in which things didn’t go per plan, and yet everything turned out brilliantly.
First, we get off to a later start than planned. En route, we take a detour to Sita Marhi, where the consort of Sri Rama was embraced by mother earth. And by the time we reach Varanasi, it is late afternoon.
As we drive through Varanasi, the mind fills with images of how it must have once been. Legend has it that Varanasi is the site of the first Jyotir Lingam. A place where Lord Shiva appeared as a pillar of fire stretching between the earth and the sky. The mystical significance of Varanasi was established even before Ganga-ji had an opportunity to appear here. One of the holiest towns in the land lying on one of the greatest rivers in the world, Varanasi was also an important trading destination. It was ruled by eminent kings and filled with prosperous merchants who patronized art and intellect. Imagine standing in the bazaars of Varanasi two thousand years ago. They were filled with the foreign tongues of adventurous Greeks, Parthians and Scythians who would come from Mathura and then travel eastwards along Ganga-ji to the famed Pataliputra.
On the dip in Ganga-ji, what can I say about a simple act of contrition other that you feel its momentous nature only when you immerse yourself into the mother of rivers and engage in the experience. I don’t know if a dip in the Ganges washes your karma away. But watching everyone there, you get the sense that surrendering to Ganga-ji is about asking for a second chance and about renewal of faith in a power higher than the self. And the Lord knows we could all use some faith and a second chance.
We must have stood in line for over a couple of hours before we got to glimpse Kashi Vishwanath-ji for the briefest of a minute. As you enter the temple through its heavily guarded entrance which lies below the ground level and walk past multiple checkpoints with diligent soldiers with rifles who frisk you repeatedly, that’s when you begin to grasp the sacred significance of the reigning deity of the second oldest city in the world, whose name fittingly means ‘the lord of the universe.’
The Kashi Vishwanath temple structure has been destroyed by invaders and rebuilt many times. Mohammad Ghori, Qutb-ud-din Aibak and Firoz Shah Tughlaq were the early invaders. Akbar rebuilt the temple (through his minister Todarmal) which was destroyed yet again by Aurangazeb, who built the Gyanvapi mosque in its place. Ahilya Bhai Holkar, the Maratha queen, rebuilt the temple which stands today. The reign of Aurangazeb lasted 49 years, the reverberations of which have been felt over hundreds of years. The Gyanvapi mosque stands vacant today, a mute testimony to the misguided emperor’s failed attempt to erase a way of life in a city, both of which have an insurmountable, timeless nature to them. I have more to say about this in the context of Ayodhya and Ram Janma Bhoomi, to be covered in Part 2.
Coming soon: Part 2 – Ram Janma Bhoomi.