Even in that chilling cold, I am sure I saw a trickle of sweat on my Friend’s neck, as I heard that Saadhu screaming at me “Kya kar raha hai”. While he was pacing towards us, I couldn’t decide if we should pack the camera first or simply run away. Clad in his saffron dhoti, a blanket and bhasma (ash made by burning bones) on his forehead, the Sadhu paced a long walk from Sangam ghat to our position, which diminished some of his Anguish. “Kya karoge iska” he scowled at my friend. Amit meekly answered. “Kuch nahi, mujhey accha lagta hai bas.”
Seeing the expression on his face softening, I knew we are saved, for he knew we are not going to click and sell him. But that wasn’t it. Without any hesitation, he asked me to buy him Chaai! I ordered 3 cups of syrupy sweet tea for us. As it came, Sadhu again said (with same frankness) he wants Krack-Jack biscuits too! Throughout the tea session, I tried speaking with him twice but to no avail. He wanted to enjoy his tea and biscuits and couldn’t have been clearer about it! Watching him making those loud sips, I wondered... What more this Magh Mela has to teach me...??
Magh Mela – the annual fair held at Prayag (Allahabad) is where water from 3 rivers (Ganges, Yamuna, Saraswati) meets and this aquatic congregation turns into a religious one as over 3 million people visit it each year, in the month of Makar Sankranti. I and my Bengali photographer friend Amit Ray were like anyone else there, except that it was our first time and we were more curious than devoted (A euphemistic description for my non-believer friend).
Kumbh mela at Prayag gets its name from the urn of Elixir (Amrit-kalash or Amrit-Kumbha) dropped by Vishnu here while saving this urn from devils after Sagar Manthan. But these and other research I did was almost laughing at us in Prayag! The place had so much to teach, and to un-teach.
On evening before Big-Day (Makar Sankranta), I and Amit left our hotel’s room (A 'super deluxe' room for 900 Rs) went for a recce. A cajoling boat rider took us to Sangam for a boat trip. The main Ghat was divided in two parts on other sides of a bridge. One side was for all The Hindudes: Sadhus, Yogis and Akhaaras to use and other side for pundits, tourists, general public and everyone else. As the boat drifted towards the centre, I saw a small flock of birds flying around each boat, catching scraps of local snacks thrown by visitors. They were catching food mid air before it hit the ground, skill of an acrobat I thought! Then a peculiar contrast hit me, while all the birds were flying out in open space, the people were sitting in boats with wooden bars all around them. The balancing act of God I thought!
Before I could mention Amit about this contrast, I realised it was already captured on his camera
A powerful flight, captured instinctively by Amit
The arrangements were lucid and cacophonous alike. On one end their stood luxurious canopies for Akhaara members and VIPs while on other, truck and car loads of rural Indians were being stacked inside large canopies for resting till morning! On our fro boat ride, Amit and I wordlessly enjoyed the tranquil horizon and panoramic view of one of the holiest waters on earth.
The view while returning from our boat
During dinner hour at a nearby dhaaba (Super Deluxe room served a lousy tea so we decided not to risk the dinner), we were interacting with the locals when someone mentioned you can’t use your camera without a Press card. Cops were all over (2 cops for 3 people, Constable Ramsinghar Yadav declared proudly), checking Press identities of photographers.
Then came another lesson for me. Before we could start worrying for Amit’s photography aspirations, the man at counter told us that he can provide us fake press-cards for tomorrow. I almost laughed; these people have a solution for every problem and for the best, they can make it an earning avenue! We finally negotiated 300 Rs to masquerade Amit as a photographer for a News Channel I’m sure only a handful people would have heard of!
Back in room, while Amit set his camera apparatus for tomorrow, I penned the day and we retired for an early tomorrow! We planned to leave for sangam at 5 in the morning. But hotel manager suggested us to leave at 4 “Sir baad mein bheed ho jayegi”. We agreed but mocked his cynicism as we slept!
The Climax: Makar Sankranti
On the street at 4:00 am, two things hit me, the chill and Manager’s suggestion. Unfortunately both were hard and inescapable. Having missed the first ‘Auto’ which was already full, we took the second one to Sangam. The sight on the bank was overwhelming. Rural, urban, men, women, kids, elders, everyone was there, semi-naked. In a parade of skin, I could distinguish some young urbanites too. When was the last time they woke up at 4 I wondered, even at Amit, who is late for work almost daily! At 4 degree Celsius the stripped-to-essentials crowd was there to prove me wrong when I thought there won’t be much rush.
Attempting to wash sins in the holy waters of 3 rivers, these people derive additional energy from the fact that it’s Makar Sankranti (Transition of Sun into Capricorn on its celestial path) today. So many events for people and so many people for 1 event in my country... I was as intrigued and could see the same overwhelm in Amit’s eye after he clicked this shot!
It’s not yet dawn. It’s freezing. But these men remain undaunted.
While Amit was clicking, shivering people, scowling cops, treacherous pundits and oblivious Sadhus, I was people watching too, but with plain eyes! Before I could get too appreciative of management, I saw a classic error at Bhule Bhatkey centre, where anyone could claim to be ‘lost’ and stay for good 2-3 days, free! Shaking my belief of Sadhuism, that it is for poor or uneducated, a sadhu told me (in flawless English) of his family: a scientist daughter in Canada and a Son working with US government in LA. Awed, I bid him farewell and resumed my people-watching.
The English speaking Sadhu whose children are in States
Unlike countless fake newspersons, the few genuine ones took positions on Machans not for shooting tigers, but people! There was a disciplined cacophony of people and sounds: shouting, splashing in water, whistling, name calling, laughing, crying, loathing, scurrying, packing, unpacking, arriving, departing; and a thundering silence of observation that engulfed me. Watching at a seemingly genderless figure I brooded...
The gendreless outline at which I was absentmindedly staring. In the night, I saw that Amit captured it too.
What makes this country so vivid? Can bathing in spine-freezing water invoke 3 million people in another land? Can 3 rivers—just because they are named on Gods and Deities—claim the power of Catharsis of millions in another land? Can nature, civilisation, modernism and mythology co-exist in so much amity and sanguineness in another land? All this exists here, in Prayag. Then I felt I finally knew why I came to Prayag... I got my purpose.
An Aghori sadhu who left the shore while I was thinking alone
As it dusked, we decided to go to Varanasi (Benares) 125 km further, for a journey never ends!