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Call of the sangam


The Maha Kumbh is where all those clichés about the country come wonderfully alive. Six weeks of amazing and incredible India will sadly come to an end tomorrow.

Think of every overused clichê about India. And then some. And put them all together, and you (sort of) have the Maha Kumbh Mela, which winds down this weekend with the celebration of Maha Shivratri. Six weeks of amazing, incredible India will come to an end this Sunday, and the estimated 100 million devotees who have taken part in this 'maha' of all festivals will have left for home, taking with them memories and blessings.

My blessings are personal, but the memories I am more than happy to share - that of re-discovering an India one had all but lost sight of, living as we do in our busy urban worlds. One forgets just how sweet and kind the average Indian is.

The few days I spent at the Kumbh allowed only the most superficial of glimpses into the immensity and sheer diversity of this country... hey, you were warned at the outset that every clichê in the book about India is applicable here.

The sheer numbers at the Kumbh were mindboggling, even on the relatively quiet dates we chose to visit. Thousands upon thousands upon ever more thousands of pilgrims poured into Allahabad, and all through the day there is a neverending stream of humanity flowing towards the same place - the banks of the Ganga, and as close to the holy confluence or sangam as possible.

Even more overwhelming than the numbers and the evident deep faith and devotion of the pilgrims was the overall atmosphere, which was one of visible peace and happiness. There was none of the usual pushing and shoving that happens in any crowd. There wasn't the slightest hint of any form of resentment at outsiders watching and photographing religious rituals. There was virtually none of the inevitable hassling and begging that sadly blights India for many a visitor - there was a little, for sure, but far less than on an average trip to Delhi's Khan Market, let me tell you. And whatever little hassling there was - and it wasn't much - was in the mela rather than down on the river banks.

Everyone's default setting seemed to be peace and harmony and smiling.

On our second morning wandering along the river bank, I was oh-so-politely asked by a policeman not to take photos of people bathing or changing, so I didn't thereafter, but I had admittedly taken some bathing photos before. No one had objected, and people had smiled at me while I took my photos. A lady lighting her diya paused to let me photograph the detail of her hand and the flame. On the boat in the river, our fellow passengers who took a holy dip asked me to take their photo. Watching a puja on the banks of the river one evening, involving the floating of large statues into the water, I was gently pushed to the front of the crowd so I could get the best view.

And on and on it went. Nothing but sweetness and kindness, even in the most extreme of circumstances. Let me try and set the scene. The banks of the river are lined with straw, to prevent things getting too muddy presumably, and as pilgrims arrive, they find themselves a tiny vacant spot on this straw-covered expanse. Their clothes and belongings are put in a little pile on the damp straw, people strip off in that amazing in-publicbut-not-showing-an-inch-of-flesh Indian way, and begin their private puja, cheek-by-jowl with the next group. And no-one interferes. No one stares. There is no prurience whatsoever. Everyone is in a self-contained yet totally public universe.
And we would meander for hours through these crowds, wandering past people changing, sleeping, eating, praying.

And so there we were, early one morning, wandering along the crowded river bank, weaving our way through the thousands of people. A voice suddenly said, "Memsahib sorry" and I turned to see a man, who had clearly just emerged from his dawn dip, shivering and wet and wearing only underpants. He was pointing at my shoe. To my horror and embarrassment, there were his dry underpants caught on my shoe, and I was coolly walking off with them. I had somehow managed to walk over his pile of dry clothes without realising it, and was carting off his most intimate item of clothing. I was beyond mortified and apologised profusely of course, but all he did was smile and say "Koi baat nahi madam", retrieve his underpants, and walk off, as good natured as you please.

That's what I meant about the Kumbh's default setting being peace and harmony.

One afternoon, we spotted an elderly couple about to start their puja, and asked if we could sit with them. The man, who had the sweetest, most peaceful face I have seen, prayed with us, guiding us through the rituals and at the end, when we thanked him, laughingly told us he was not a priest, but hoped we had enjoyed it. Very special.

The most peaceful and most chilled-out people were without doubt a fabulous group of dreadlocked sadhus who had taken up residence on a sort of raised traffic island between two roads. Permanently wreathed in smoke, they beamed down happily on us all, cheerfully posing for photos, seemingly oblivious to the crowds and swirling traffic below them.

Naked sadhus striding purposefully goodness knows where, devotees doling our delicious free food outside their ashrams, 101 saffron clothed sadhus arriving for a free lunch so all in a bit of a hungry hurry, another sadhu standing on his head, a cheerful mahout on his elephant, gravefaced little tots dressed up like Lord Shiva - the vignettes were each one more impossibly clichêd and more impossibly wonderful.

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