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The shivering semi-covered bodies in the freeze moment of instant 'moksha' captured the essence of the magnanimous waters of the 'Sangam', the confluence of the three holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The moksha seekers or pilgrims were emulating the Devas (gods) who had outsmarted the Asuras (demons) for the eternal nectar of life which the demons had won. The gods, not willing to concede defeat, managed to pilfer the kumbh (pitcher) and in process four drops fell on earth. The four lucky places were Prayag (now Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh, Nasik in Maharashtra, Hardwar in Uttar Pradesh and Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and once every 12 years these holy places became the fast track entry points to heaven. The congregation or Kumbh Melas on the river banks gained popularity and were divided into the Magh or yearly mela held every year, the ardh or half Kumbh mela held every 6 years and the Maha (large) Kumbh Mela every 12 years.

The 2013 Maha Kumbh was extra reverential as it was after 144 years that the propitious alignment of the stars presented an opportunity to bathe away sins. The ancientness of the Kumbh might be 'lost in legends' but as I watched the countless millions, natives and international hopefuls, turning the river banks into a global village I wondered what it was that gave the rivers and the city of Prayag and my home town the all pervasive holiness and sanctity. Was it the 'Godville' tag (as translated by Mark Twain) or simply a dusty friable river city pitched into prominence by the three rivers, the muddy placid Ganga serenading the bluish ebullient Yamuna associated with Krishna and his consort Radha and the unseen Saraswati.

A non believer will find it difficult to connect with the continuing reverence of the rivers past their pristine stage, the sheer wastage of resources in organizing the largest religious congregation on earth, the sham spirituality of showmen sadhus, the gullible devotees and their unquestioning believe, the splurge of money on the multiplying seers promising instant moksha.

The present 2013 Mela was a melange of enclosures, makeshift tents, heated swiss cottages catering to different purse strings and diverse backgrounds, the moneyed with their VIP tags, the canister-toting village folk trudging miles for a dip in the holy waters, the ascetics and made-over holy men preferring SUVs to their two feet and connected to the world via Facebook, mobile phones, posters and billboards. Extensive security arrangements and volumes of basic amenities, kiosks and makeshift stalls selling trinkets and general items provided the commercial touch to faith.

My 'sangam' fascination drew me to Allahabad on 11th February, the day after the major stampede at the Allahabad railway station (nearly 36 pilgrims lost their lives), and was literally pushed out of the station by packs of pilgrims their faces taut with expectancy and urgency. The resourceful had their own methods of survival and transport and the city was soaked in the all pervasive odor of convictions.

A VIP pass had helped me move around in the Mela complex on four wheels careering through the sandy lanes trampled by cliques of young, old and infirm, dreadlocked sadhus with ash painted bodies, matrons oblivious of the cold, lured by faith, commercials, billboards and posters. The VIPs had their special enclosures and arrangements while the rest had to be content with communal living, comfortable in the thought that popular Indian film industry stars too had bathed in the same waters.

I sprinkled 'Ganga jal' (holy water) on my face...it was all I needed to connect with the divinity that draws millions to the river banks in the biting cold of winter months. That despite threat of diseases, the polluted waters, the hardships, the roadside make shift sleeping quarters, the endless wait on railway station platforms it is the tag line that matters.

Facts

Prayag was renamed Allahabad by Akbar, the fourth Mughal emperor, in 1575.

The River Ganga originates from the Gangotri glacier at Gaumukh in the Indian Himalayas at 4,100 meters above sea level. It journeys nearly 2525 km through mountains, forests and the plains of northern India joining its co- conspirator the Yamuna and mythical Saraswati at Prayag (Allahabad) before emptying itself in the Bay of Bengal.

Though every day is bathing day special days are set aside due to their religiosity.

The world's biggest religious event concluded on March 10, 2013 with nearly 12 crore people washing away their sins.

Reference:
Kama Maclean. 'On The Modern Kumbh Mela'. ('The Last Bungalow-writings on Allahabad' - edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra)

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