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'Kumbh is like Las Vegas minus the sins'
French adventurer Diego Bunuel on gossiping sadhus, strange rites of passage and free-flowing spirituality.
Diego Bunuel has one of the world's most exciting jobs. That is, he says, if you do not mind "living in crummy hotels where the water that spouts out of the tap is always brown". Better known as the thrill-seeker who hosts the TV show 'Don't Tell My Mother', which takes him to all the world's hotspots, Diego has just returned from the Maha Kumbh in Allahabad. The Frenchman speaks to TOI-Crest about his crash course in Hinduism. . .
For 'Don't Tell My Mother', you've embedded yourself with the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan, been shot in the gut in Colombia by an entrepreneur who makes Kevlar-lined business suits, tracked gorillas in war-hit Congo, and trekked through the Antarctic. You are also a former war correspondent. The Maha Kumbh isn't a very dangerous place to go after all this. Are you getting soft?
The headlines about the Allahabad railway station stampede say otherwise. But yes, the Maha Kumbh is not the sort of dangerous place that I usually go to. Although you've got to be careful when the Naga sadhus begin to run around because if you're standing in front of them, they'll beat you up. But the Kumbh is very impressive. That many people - perhaps a 100 million in total - with not much damage done.
You were there to cosy up to the sadhus of the Juna akhara so they would let you join them in their snan (ritual bathing). Did they invite you?
It didn't happen.
We'd spoken to an official of the Juna akhara, who did take me in by the way, and we were supposed to stay inside the akhara on the nights of February 9 and 10. Which is when we would have got all the inside details.
But there is a rite of passage, where the sadhus 'pull' on the penises of the initiates. The 'pulling' can be painful, there can also be bleeding. And there are a lot of initiates, so there is probably a lot of screaming.
I don't think they wanted us to catch all of that on camera.
Did the sadhus give you a hard time?
No. No they didn't. I used to have an uncle who, when I was a kid, was a complete playboy. So I would keep asking him, "What's the secret? How do you get all the girls?" He told me, "The secret is to walk up to them, smile, and say hello. " That's still what I do. I walk up to people, I smile, and I say hello. Humour is a good weapon, it usually breaks down most barriers.
What did you and the sadhus talk about?
Mostly gossip. This sadhu did that and that one did this. There were a lot of chillums being passed around and I guess that's what most people do after a chillum.
You were also there to study the logistics that go into organising the mela - up to a 100 million people needing to eat, sleep, use the toilet, and immerse themselves in the holy waters. What did you learn about that?
The infrastructure is very good. We're talking about an area of 20 sq km. There is electricity, there's potable water everywhere, and PA systems. (Although the continuous announcements make it very difficult, sound-wise, to record anything on camera. )
There was 500 km of electrical wiring, 700 km of pipes, 150 km of road, and 18 pontoon bridges. And the toilets were clean. Although that was also because not too many people were using them, they were just going wherever they felt like it.
And one time I did use the loo after somebody else, and he'd done it everywhere apart from in the hole. So maybe next time they can put up a sign along with the loo saying this is how you use it.
Your impression of the Kumbh?
I think the Kumbh is a fun fair. You've got all those families, you've got the sadhus and they're all saying the same thing: "Come to our akhara. Ours is the best. "
You've got theatre every night. . . I told somebody there that this was like 'a Las Vegas without the sins', and he shot back that it was 'a Las Vegas to wash away all your sins'. I thought that was a very good way of putting it.
What have you learnt about us Indians?
The word 'us' is problematic, India is a very big place. But certainly I thought Hinduism is very much alive. Unlike in Europe where the churches are all empty, or only the elderly seem to visit them. But here, you've got everybody at the Kumbh - the young, the old, the women, children. It is also a free-form religion. There are many ways to attain spirituality, not just one way.
Where are you going next?
The golden triangle, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet. It is the world's secondbiggest producer of opium after Afghanistan. I'll want to look up the Kachin rebels (in Myanmar) and Thailand has now started an airline with only lady boy stewardesses. I guess there were so many of them that they're putting them to work now. And
The one place you'll never go back to?
Venezuela. There was just such an atmosphere of fear because of Hugo Chavez. Nobody wanted to speak, people didn't turn for their interviews. But if there's something interesting, then I'll go back.
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