The Kumbh Mela: Lost and engrossed

The Naga with the cellphone, auspicious plunge at the Triveni Sangam, and some special ‘khaana’… SNEHA SINGH and JESCILIA K experience Kumbh, days before the festival drew to a close on March 4, 2019

Gajanand Guru Naga Baba
Gajanand Guru Naga Baba

The Naga saga 

  • Sneha Singh

With their long jataas, bodies covered in nothing but vibhooti, rudraksh malas around their necks, tripunda on the forehead, armed with tridents and swords, the elusive Naga Sadhus are truly the heart of the Kumbh Mela, after the Triveni Sangam. And it is our mission to get to know them better…

Right from the day my colleague Jescilia and I decided to go for the Kumbh Mela we had been advised to keep a distance from the Naga Babas. Their lack of clothing, fondness for ganja and possible misogynistic tendencies could make them something of a risk for two girls ‘alone’ at Kumbh, we were told. At Kumbh, every local we meet is shocked that we are here ‘alone’! It is on our third day here that we catch a glimpse of two naked human figures bearing kamandals (water pots), pacing towards a busy street.

Without wasting a moment, my partner in Kumbh, Jescilia urges, “Chal Sneha, bhaag!” Yes, we do make a dash—towards those two figures. Up close, we can initially only stare. Dark complexioned, of medium height and with thin bodies that look as if they haven’t eaten a full meal for many months, their faces are calm, their downcast eyes, enigmatic. Finding our tongues, we greet them with a Namaste. In response, they raise their right palms aloft, blessing us and soon move off to their akhada.

The encounter

It is the second last day of our Kumbh visit, and we leave our tent at 7:30 am on our way to the Sangam. A hot shot of kullad ki chai banishes our drowsiness, as we match our footsteps with the horde heading to Triveni Sangam for the auspicious snan. I am not too sure about how it’s going to pan out as I’m a bundle of fears—yes, drowning also features on that list, go ahead and laugh. As Jescilia keeps up a stream of encouraging words, we wander around looking for a safe and clean spot near the river bank to take a dip.

Twenty minutes later, all we can find are myriad pairs of underwear discarded on the banks, and multiple underwear-clad men taking the plunge. We change our minds and choose plan B, namely ‘let’s take a boat’. We move towards the Yamuna Ghat to board the boat for the Sangam for the snan. And while we are striding towards the Ghat, once again, we spot a Naga Sadhu. And this time we get lucky!

Ram Lala has been accompanying his visually impaired friend, Mithailal Patel to the Kumbh since 2001. In fact, their friendship also goes back to the same time.
Ram Lala has been accompanying his visually impaired friend, Mithailal Patel to the Kumbh since 2001. In fact, their friendship also goes back to the same time.

The meeting

No fancy newsroom or high end studio can beat the open sky at Triveni Sangam and the slightly wet and cold sand on the banks of the holy rivers. Our interviewee sits across us, naked and cross-legged. Two girls chatting up a Naga Sadhu isn’t a normal sight and we have our share of curious onlookers. Our man introduces himself, “My name is Gajanand Guru Naga Baba from Shri Panch Dashna Juna Akhara.” His hair is tied in a bun adorned with pink roses—a detail that makes him standout from the other babas. He keeps it minimal otherwise with just an orange bead necklace, and a Kataar or dagger in his left hand. With the tip pierced under the sand and its handle used to prop up his hand, he gets talking…

The interaction

Naga Gajanand hails from Himachal Pradesh and he tells us he renounced his family at the tender age of eight. He is accompanied by an elderly Sadhvi, Paramhans Tapasvi Narshingri who belongs to the Aawahan Akhada. “We only come during Kumbh and we come only for Kumbh,” says Naga Gajanand. There are no elaborate pujas, he tells us. “We just take the name of Ganga maiya, meditate and seek her blessings.

There is no need for any puja.” Our questions bubble over and he calmly answers them all… Renouncing clothing is not a concern. “Nothing happens to us. The day we take diksha from a Guru it gives us immense strength to tackle hardships. Sab Mahadev ki mahima hai!” Why do Nagas smear vibhooti? “For the one and only Mahadev! Just like Ma Parvati had once smeared vibhooti on herself to impress Shiva, we too smear it to make Bholenath, our Mahakal happy!” he declares.

Is there a difference between a female Naga and a male Naga? Naga Sadhvi Narshingri explains, “There is no difference, bachcha, God has created us as one. And we are Lord Shiva’s descendants. The way Naga babas take diksha and do tapasya, we sadhvis follow the same route for our spiritual awakening. We go through austerity, we do everything which needs to be done to become a Naga.”

Life after Kumbh

Soon the curtains will come down on Kumbh. There will be no sight of Naga Sadhus in Prayagraj or anywhere in the public eye. What happens then? “From here, (Prayagraj) we will go to Pashupatinath in Nepal for puja and tapasya,” Gajanand Baba tells us. “We will go and live in our ashrams which are located in different places. Mostly we spend days and nights doing tapasya in the forests or around mountains, we remain detached for months and years from this world.”

Ask what happens if there is a medical emergency and he repeats, “With Shiva’s blessing and our Guru’s kripa, nothing happens to us.” He does, however, have a mobile phone but it’s not for millennial stuff like WhatsApp and Facebook. “We spend half of our lives in forests and dens and we don’t have network. I only use my phone when someone calls me,” he informs.
Conversation done, I am strangely moved to touch his feet. He gives me a blessing and Jescilia and I are off, beaming. That’s one big must-do off our list.

Sunset at the Sangam

The Kumbh Mela: Lost and engrossed
  • Jescilia K

A view of the sunset is always soothing; even more so at the Triveni Sangam in Prayagraj (erstwhile Allahabad). Experiencing the Sangam—said to be the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati—is beautiful.

With the cool breeze blowing in our faces, we chat with Rakesh, the local boat operator. “While Ganga is clear, Yamuna is greenish and Saraswati is said to flow underneath without any distinct identity,” he informs. Try as we might, we are unable to notice this alleged colour difference. But then it’s a joy simply being able to spend the evening sailing the peaceful waters of both rivers.

While our boat has a seating capacity of eight to ten, we are the only two passengers enjoying this exclusive experience at just Rs.500 for the ride. During the peak days apparently some devotees even shelled out as much as Rs.10,000. And then Rinku, a resident of Prayagraj informs us that they ordinarily pay Rs.60 per ride!

Kumbh will soon draw to a close and we ask our boatman about life after the great Mela. He replies, “This place goes silent with few locals visiting the banks.. After the mela ends, we go to other parts of the state or country looking for other job opportunities.” Places like Mumbai, Noida and other cities, are their favourite destination for such short-term, informal jobs. Till it’s mela time again.

Despite spending almost two hours on the river, and the 6 pm deadline for the boats looming, we aren’t in the mood to head for the shore. Even in the fading light we note that the river looks remarkably clean. Our boatman nods, “This year the river water is cleaner, or else in the past if you put your hand inside the water you would get so much waste.” The waste included flowers, garlands, incense stick, and plastic among other things. According to a government website, the latest data (February) shows the river water is unfit for drinking (only after the water is treated) and bathing. But such data does not come in the way of devotion as crores of people take a dip in the Ganga during this auspicious period.

The Kumbh Mela: Lost and engrossed

The next morning, we start out early to do so ourselves. Of course, salvation doesn’t come cheap and we have to bargain with boat operators who charge as much as Rs.300 per person aboard an overcrowded boat. Just as we are giving up, we bump into Guptaji, who helps us find a ride that’s virtually free of cost. “This is a ride for VIPs. The family seated has allowed the boatman to offer you’ll a ride. You can pay the boatman whatever you like later,” he explains, as he chews on paan. We don’t waste a minute before scrambling aboard.

Our boatman tells us that the mornings see the maximum rush with the number of people coming to take a dip being high. It’s a crowded river, with boats coming close to dashing against each other. “Hold on to the boat, I am going to take a turn,” he warns us as he swiftly manoeuvres away from a boat that has come too close. Other than the traditional boats, we see speed boats as well ferrying devotees.

We also learn that our boatman is primarily a fisherman. Eyes never leaving the waters, he informs us that the fish caught in the Ganga is given to big companies for which they receive a fixed sum as compensation. “Locally, there is no demand for fish. All this fish goes to places like Mumbai,” he tells us, hesitating only when it comes to admitting his own love for fishy delights!

Pointing at the river, he suddenly says, “Look! This is Ganga and that is Yamuna.” And he’s right—we can finally actually see this difference!

‘Ramji ka Akshay Vat was always open’ 

The Kumbh Mela: Lost and engrossed

Yeh Shri Ram ka Akshay Vat hai, aur woh Modiji ka Akshay Vat hai (This is Ram’s famed indestructible banyan tree and the other one is the Narendra Modi famed),’ says the priest seated next to the sacred tree within the Allahabad fort. This is the regular reply one will hear the priests give to the devotees who visit the fort with an expectation to find one Akshay Vat but, to their surprise, discover two.

“One is 400-years-old, whereas the Shri Ram one is four yugs old,” says a Swami as he applies tilak to a devotee’s brow.

In Hinduism, there are four great epochs— Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapar Yuga, and Kali Yuga. The priest further explains that the tree unveiled by the Prime Minister is just another banyan tree, which is why it has to be protected behind a glass-screen to keep people from touching it. According to ancient texts, the sacred fig tree located within the Patalpuri Temple at the Allahabad Fort is worshipped as the Akshay Vat. “This is a sacred tree and anyone who worships and touches it, will be blessed,” maintains another priest about the Shri Ram Akshay Vat.

It is claimed that the people were not allowed to worship the vat after the fort was built. The other temple priest, Yogeshnath Goswami however adds, “This sacred tree was always open to worship.”

The ancient texts mention the presence of three Akshay Vvats in India — one in Prayagraj, another in Gaya (Bihar) and the third at Varanasi.

Up in smoke

The Kumbh Mela: Lost and engrossed

The leather jacket-sporting saffron-clad sadhu, Sri Kishan, sits surrounded by a group of well-built men. They patiently await their turn for their marijuana chillum, being prepared by Sri Kishan, hailed as quite the expert in the art.  One of the men, Rajiv Chauhan shares, “Once in a while, I smoke up. I have tried various types and quality of marijuana.” Chauhan’s friend though is not impressed. “I do not approve of this habit. This is not good,” he tells us.

Meanwhile we watch the sadhu at work. He blows into a conch and declares to the crowd that the smoke is being prepared. “This is my style of preparation,” says the follower of Lord Shani, who believes that smoking ganja kills hunger and “then I can pray to my Almighty for longer.”

He fills and passes the chillum to Chauhan, who takes a puff but is not impressed. “Benaras has better quality marijuana,” Chauhan declares, before leaving with his friends in search of superior stuff. These adventures take place literally behind the backs of the police officers present there (check the image). Sri Kishan is unfazed. He quips, “Aana free, jaana free, pakde gaye toh khaana free.” (‘Khaana’, by the way, is the codeword for ganja!)

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