Saturday, January 27, 2007

of faith in these times

What began as an occassion for some nice sunbathing in the plains of the Ganga at Sangam and a chance to eat some traditional Indian junk food has metamorphosed into an opportunity for witnessing with my own eyes what religion and faith mean to the faceless entity we love to call Hindu believers.

Allahabad, an otherwise quiet and laid back town (should it be called a city?) in North India, explodes into a flurry of action once every six years as millions descend upon it from all parts of the country to take a holy dip in the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna at the Sangam during the Kumbha and Ardh-Kumbh melas.

The planetary configuration at the last Kumbh mela, in 2001, was a special one, so special that it was deemed to be a once-in-a-millennium occurrence and hence it witnessed unprecedented media coverage. I consider myself fortunate to have been in Allahabad at the time and was able to take the holy dip on 3 of the 5 auspicious bathing days, including the most auspicious Mauni Amavasya.

The atmosphere during a mela must be seen to be believed. The cool white sand pushing through your toes, the nip in the air none too obvious, the constant roar of the rivers in the distance, the heady mix of various smells, the pushing and jostling as you move and of course, the indescribable feeling of being in proximity to something purer, cleaner and divine accentuated by the millions of pealing bells, hymns being chanted and blessings being sought are all part of an experience that I believe myself privileged to have gone through.

It is quite extraordinary to witness the dogged faith and determination of the hordes of poor villagers who walk, most barefeet and in minimal clothing, a hundred miles or more, in the biting cold of the Northern plains to reach the Sangam in time for the bath. I reached Allahabad in the wee hours of the 14th of January, the date on which another bathing day, Makar Sankranti, falls. My train reached the station at around 3 AM and I took a cycle rickshaw to go to my home. On my way, I saw many people. easily numbering more than fifteen thousand, walking steadily towards the mela region. In case this sounds a tad anti-climactic, you need to realise that the temperature at the time was around 2 degrees celsius and those people had no real protection against the cold which was made worse by the biting wind blowing across the plains.

If this doesnt affect you enough, you would be well served to know that those people must have been walking for more than 5-6 hours, at the least, with their belongings on their head, to reach where they were at the time, and would need to walk for another 2 hours atleast before they finally reached their destination, the Sangam.

In these times of seeking material comforts and cribbing about the extreme weather and using it as an excuse against going to work or school , it is scenes like these that make me feel a bit smaller, lesser and yet somehow manages to bring a feeling of amazement and wonder.

Gange Tav Darshaat Mukti

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