Kumbh Mela visit can make you reflect on life, death and salvation

The mundane, unperturbed fashion in which life carries on in a city bursting at its seams with faith, religion and spirituality is stunning.

 |  5-minute read |   18-09-2015
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Two days at the largest human gathering on earth gives you the opportunity to witness every possible human emotion and cover every possible human condition. All clichés hold true when it comes to the Maha Kumbh Mela; it is a maha explosion of humanity with equal measure of religion and spirituality. A quaint town where history and modernity is jostling for space, as you go about finding the water source that feeds this 2,000 year tradition, there will be an app guiding you to it... subject to connectivity. Within minutes of reaching Nashik where the Kumbh has come calling after 12 years, you are thrown into an existential cyclone only to be spat out with a strange sense of privilege, followed by guilt, and abject fatigue.

Kumbh is primarily the festival of the poor, the likes of us are there to watch, take pictures and report. Tourists are guaranteed bang for the buck as they get their pilgrimage experience watching real pilgrims. Most First World problems pale in front of swathes of humans in abject poverty and so does the new age quest for spirituality. Those expecting peace, sanctuary and reflection can do so with earplugs. The Kumbh is loud, frenetic, blaring... and sadly quite commercial. The attraction of the Kumbh is no longer mystical. It is a path tread by too many people, a photo captured and shared till it is frayed at the edges. That said, even in all this commercialism, the Maha Kumbh Mela is an experience of a lifetime (cliché!), an event on the bucket list of most journalists.

The first impression is that 30 lakh people have decided to go to the same party on the same day at the same place. That is followed with abandoning every idea of personal space, personal hygiene or anything personal. The Kumbh is one of the biggest levellers, everyone will take a dip in the same waters, use the same loo (if you are lucky to find one) and with the lack of accommodation, will sleep on the same ghat/tent/road or wherever a spot is found.

Also read: [Photo blog] Why Nashik Kumbh Mela leaves us mystified

For a journalist, there is a frame, a story everywhere but extremely difficult to find one that has not yet been told. If you look beyond faith, the Kumbh is like a circus at speed. Sadhus are out in droves setting up tents and stalls trying to catch your eye or rather the camera lens. If there is a sadhu who wears his weight in gold, then there is also one who has pledged to stand for 37 years. A lot of attention is paid to attire as is to the best selfie pose. Most would be eager to talk or bless you, but the quality of the blessing or the sound bite would be dependent on your “daan” of Rs 100. Then there are few who have come for the Kumbh breaking years of meditation, some who have lived in seclusion for decades. Those are the ones you want to interview but those are the ones who care a damn about you or your camera. It is quite easy to separate the fakes from the real. Only the fakes entertain the press. The rest, in essence, follow the tenets of “tyaag”.

As people go about their business of faith in a systematic fashion, you can see a few people caught like rabbits in the headlights, abandoned at the Kumbh by families who no longer can afford, want or feel the need to keep them. Then there are those who come here to die. Years of conditioning on the idea of absolution brings them here to make the crossover to moksha (salvation).

Every journalist has a moment or two that catches them unawares. I had mine in front of the Trimbakeshwar Shiva temple, trying to capture the sunrise as thousands exited the kund where the shahi snan was taking place. There were three people in the middle of the road obstructing a sea of humanity making its way to the temple. A listless middle-aged man lay sprawled on the road as a couple on its haunches looked on bewildered. To take a dip in the Kumbh was the dying wish of the man lying on the road; he died before he could, 100 metres from the kund. As his son and daughter-in-law looked on, a passer-by tried checking for his pulse. There was none. A group of sadhus passing by chanted “har har mahadev” as two harrowed policemen lifted the body, put it on top of a makeshift kiosk as it was blocking the surging crowd. A frown was the maximum most people gave to the man who in his last days had decided to take this arduous uncomfortable journey.

As you return to your own reality, as a journalist, you realise this could make for a great Kumbh story. The tragedy of faith, of what one can sacrifice in the name of a possible idea. On how death is accepted in a matter of fact manner, with maybe a slight shrug. The mundane, unperturbed fashion in which life carries on in a city bursting at its seams with faith, religion and spirituality is stunning. It was a time when it was difficult to lift a camera to shoot. You just watched, maybe with a warped sense of respect for the dead, as you felt nobody else quite cared, but as you turned the corner you would see this again and this time round you would shoot. This is the Kumbh, it is only that long you can be a passive observer. Only that long you can remain incongruous.


Preeti Choudhry Preeti Choudhry @preetichoudhry

The writer is a journalist with India Today TV.

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