THE KUMBH MELA (India)

His arm stuck straight out, inclined slightly upwards from the horizon.  It was bare as he wore only a waistcoat over his naked torso.  The arm was, literary, skin and bones:  Each bone and joint discernible beneath the thin veil that his brown, creased, skin offered.  The arm ended in a clenched fist with long black nails, uncut; their direction of growth hampered by the clenched fist and sent spiralling away in the directions that offered least resistance.  They were maybe over half a metre if stretched out.  He went about his business without paying any attention to the arm, his other arm being normal.  He was sitting down, cross legged on his mat brewing a pot of spiced, milky tea on an open fire.  He used his good hand only, making do as the disabled or amputees would.  He was slim, even skinny although not unhealthy looking, and his head was covered in a shock of greying hair.  A scraggly beard clung to his cheeks and his eyes flitted about ignoring us onlookers.

After only a few moments one realises that his outstretched arm must be locked in that position and for all intents and purposes as dead as a stick protruding from his shoulder.  That is not surprising as reports state that he has kept his arm raised for the last 40 years.  He raised it in 1973 in protest to the world’s conflicts and declared that he will not lower it until the world is at peace.  It seems sadly ironic that his arm is locked in that position.

But that might not be the only reason for him raising his arm:  many holy men put their bodies through immense personal hardship in order to test the will of their minds over their physical bodies; a loss of a limb in the process is fair game. 

I came across this holy man at the Kumbh Mela in 2013, a Hindu religious festival in Allahabad, India and the largest human gathering that has ever occurred.  The festival is on for 55 days with pilgrims descending from every corner of India and the world.  Reports indicated that over 100 million pilgrims attended the event.  On the most auspicious day of 10th February 2013, it is estimated that over 30 million people were at the site, all bathing in the river.  That’s equivalent to half the population of the UK descending into a small city for a day.  My stay at the Kumbh Mela coincided with the 10th of February which was also slated as being the most holy day for the last 144 years.

I woke up on the morning of the 10th of February once again shivering, it was 5am.  I shared the outer tent with four other men, we lay on dense cotton mattresses that insulated us from the floor and which we laid out each evening and put away each morning.  We slept next to each other with either sleeping bags or blankets to cover us.  I wore all the warm clothes I had with me, four layers to sleep in and still I was cold. 

I closed my eyes again, ignoring the music and the bustling of people on the other side of the canvas walls.  But it was impossible and I groggily opened my eyes.  The other people sleeping next to me had already left, leaving me alone in this alcove.  I didn’t want to move until the sun came up, my body feeling as stiff as a corpse, my mind even stiffer – and that wasn’t happening for at least another hour.  As I lay there the Sadhu, a large man with a long black beard, came out of the main part of the main part of the tent, fresh and dressed in his orange robes, and upon noticing me there asked “Brother, are you coming today?”, “Yes.” I immediately responded, although I was unsure what he could possibly mean.  I knew that today there was a big procession where all the sadhu’s parade the grounds on floats before ending up at the river to bathe.  But I wasn’t to play a part in that, right?  Surely it’s for the most honoured of holy men and guests?  “Then hurry up and get ready.”  He stated before exiting the tent.  I struggled out of my sleeping bag and rubbed the sleep from my eyes.  Walking through the flap into the main part of the tent, which was nicely insulated, heated with an electric heater and carpeted, eight to nine men were being wrapped up in orange robes.  “Vijay, get ready!” One of them commanded.

I had no clue what to do.  There was a stack of orange robes in the corner.  Everyone was being dressed in orange.  Do I wear it over my clothes?  How do I wrap it around me?  Do I have to bathe?  What is this all about?  Drips and drabs of information were shouted to me as each person concentrated on their own arrangements.  I went back outside, stripped down and switched my underwear for my knee length surf shorts.  Back inside, shivering, I wrapped a couple of robes around me, looking like I have just come out of the shower.  One of the men who had just finished getting ready immediately came to my aid.  I stood there whilst metres of cloth was arranged around me hurriedly for we were already late.   When finished my legs were well covered in orange robes but my torso was bare but for a loose garment flowing around me.

We went outside and joined the rest of the party now gathering outside the tent.  The sun was now up, its rays warming the night away and I shivered one last time under its glow.  We climbed up onto our trailer.  It was decorated sparsely but had a huge ornately decorated throne that took pride of place at the middle of the trailer.  That’s for the sadhu, the rest of us gathered around it.  Someone placed a heavy garland of marigold flowers around my neck as I tried to find a spot for myself to stand in.  I was moved a number of times, as different positions were reserved for different people and the honour associated with it.  The position I ended up in was just right of the chair, a guard position and one that involves holding a large, ornate, metallic spear.  The spear was for processional purposes only and was poorly made as I later found out half way through the procession when it broke apart in my hands.

We stood for over an hour on the float, owing to the rigid timescale being delayed.  Not surprisingly as the authorities had over 30 million people to control and over 500 floats of processional sadhus to arrange.  The processions and bathing had started at sunrise, around 5am and will continue well into the late afternoon.  Not only that but certain sects had to be kept well away from each other for fear of infighting that had occurred at a previous kumbh mela.  I was excited by this event, about what was happening and what was going to happen.  I was still unsure what was going to happen and the excitement was mingled with trepidation.  My stomach was in knots. The excitement was evident on everyone’s faces.

There was movement up ahead at the front of the queue of tractors all pulling another sadhu and his followers.  The tractors were slowly leaving and our driver soon cranked the engine on the tractor.  The engine belched with a puff of black smoke before settling into a quiet rumble. 

Space opened up before us and our tractor crept forward.  This road was already filled with people on both sides all cheering and praying as we drove past.  From our vantage point, high up on the trailer, I could see miles and miles of people all crowding against the barriers to see the procession of sadhus.  Those lucky enough to be on the front row were held in check by a line of police.  They prayed, waved and cheered as we drove past.  It felt like a concert in the greatest stadium in the world and we were super stars.  Someone on the trailer started to tear off flowers of the garlands and throw them to the crowds, the chaos that erupted was mind boggling.  They were ecstatic by this and reached, grabbed and snatched at the flowers.  When caught they burst into emotions – great delight or crying, many times both.  Following their lead, I started to tear off flowers from my garland and throw them into the expectant crowds too.  One woman broke into a song and dance as she caught the flower and was the envy of all her friends.

The tractor stopped about 100 metres away from the water’s edge due to the thickness of the crowd and we descended the tractor to continue on foot.  Our group were immediately separated.  I saw a couple of men from our party and tried to keep up with them.  The crowd swallowed us, enveloping us from all sides.  We were now part of the crowd, part of it’s organism. 

The crowd surged forward and I moved with it, as helpless as if caught in a fast flowing river, impossible to fight against it.  Then all of a sudden the pressure from all sides relented and we were at the river bank, the embankment strengthened with sand bags.  The crowd was still thick with people bustling around undressing to go in or dressing having just come out.  Police hurried people along, no standing around, either you go in or you move on.  No hanging around in the river either.  Bathe, say your prayers and get out.  “Take off your robes” I heard the guy shout, I started to undress, I hadn’t decided to go into the river, in fact I hadn’t given it much thought at all.  Bathing in water that tens of millions of people had visited?  It didn’t fill me with delight or seem hygienically wise but I had come too far now to witness this auspicious event and to see it from the perspective of the bathers meant that I had to bathe.  I was caught up in the moment, delirious and drunk with the sheer size of the event and I followed the instructions as a robot.  I followed the other people into the water, pushing through the crowds.  The water was cool and refreshing in the mid-morning heat but only came upto waist high.  The pilgrims were all plunging their heads into the murky, opaque water and when they did so I followed suit.  Three times we plunged our heads into the water.  Not really thinking about the robes that I was holding they followed me under the water becoming drenched in the process.  I didn’t participate in the next stage where they swilled the water in their mouths and spit it out, that was a step too far.  Having finished with their rituals, my companion left the water, but I just stood there captivated.  No sooner had I started to stand and marvel at the mass of people coming in and out of the water the police were onto me, whistling angrily and urging me out of the water. 

I climbed out of the river onto the sandbagged embankment and studied the crowd again from there, dressed only in my surf shorts.  The saffron colour was everywhere; in the robes of the men and in the colourful saris that was wrapped around the women, beautifully complimenting the umber brown skin of the pilgrims.  Every face was lined in concentration, hell-bent on achieving their ultimate goal of bathing and performing their rituals on this holiest of days, just as I had done moments earlier.

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