Big Up for the Hindu Massive (Maxim. 2001)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.










How do you lose 252 children? In 1989 at the Kumbh Mela Festival in
Allahabad, India 252 children became separated from their families
and were never seen again. There were millions of people gathered by
the banks of the River Ganges. They were all there for just one
thing. To bathe in the holy river at the most auspicious spot at the
most auspicious moment in time. For Hindus this act of devotion is
believed to bring unimaginable blessings and good fortune. A way to
cleanse the soul of sin and leave the water with greatly increased
chances in the cycle of rebirth. It didn’t work for the 252 families
who lost their children. Most likely they were kidnapped whilst
wandering amongst the crowd and shanghaied to urban sweatshops and
brothels in Delhi or Calcutta. No one knows for sure. Nor did it work
in the Kumbh Mela at Hardwar in 1986. 50 people were crushed to
death. Trampled in a stampede to the banks of the river. Nor in 1954
in Allahabad when 800 died in a mad rush for good karma that ended up
in frenzy of death. If there were thirty million people at the last
Allahabad Kumbh Mela 12 years ago, now in 2001, 70 million are
expected to try and get wet at the holy spot. 30 million of those
people will all be there on the most auspicious day. 30 million
people all driven to cleanse their souls in the muddy waters where
the River Ganges meets the River Yamuna and the mythically invisible
River Saraswati. All at the same time. That’s the equivalent of half
of the population of Britain descending on a place the size of
Ipswich for a wash and a scrub and a chat with the vicar. We at Maxim
couldn’t get our heads round that. We decided to come to India and
take a look for ourselves.

For someone whose previous experience of big crowds involved watching
Charlton Athletic on grey South London afternoons, I am way out of my
depth. I am shuffling forward in a murky darkness exacerbated by a
mist so heavy that visibility is down to only three feet in front of
may face. If you think it is hot in India in January you are wrong.
It is freezing and because the natural history unit of the BBC have
booked up all the press tents I have had to spend 3 hours of fitful,
chilly dozing in the open air opening my eyes only to find myself
eyeballing rats or the occasional leprous beggar.

As the freezing fog lifts and dawn breaks the scene that is
revealed is awesome. I have been transported into the dusty
encampment of some medieval, mythical army and I am standing in what
feels like the largest post office queue on earth. I know all about
waiting in queues. I am British. But even for a
seasoned queuer from a nation that has elevated queuing to a national
symbol and looks down on other European nations as barging and
queueless, this particular queue is beyond anything I have ever queued in,
without exception, throughout my entire life.
Millions of people stretching as far as the eye can see marshaled into roped off
channels that wind back and forth and back and forth and back and
forth and back…….. Disappearing into a dusty haze on the distant
horizon. This crowd are queuing up for something worth having.
A leg up to the almighty. A watery word in the ear of the great God Shiva
himself. They have come from all over India to camp out on the Ganges
plain in a tented city the size of New York. 40,000 of them are holy
ascetics. Naked warrior monks smeared with ash, their hair matted
into waist length dreadlocks brandishing tridents and swords. They
have descended from their mountain and jungle hideaways to lead the
advance to the river and claim their ancient perogative of first
lucky dip.

I am about to witness a ritual that according to Hindu myth goes back
to the dawn of creation. The word Kumbh means pitcher (that’s a thing
you put liquids in; not a bowler in American cricket). At the start
of time the gods and the demons churned the primeval ocean in search
of a pitcher containing the nectar of eternal life. As soon as the
pitcher was found an almighty barney ensued. The great God Vishnu
grabbed the pitcher and bolted for the exit. During the punch up a
few drops of the nectar of immortal life fell to earth at the four
cities where they now hold Kumbh Mela. The exact timing of the
festival depends on the position of the planets. Every twelve years
when Jupiter is in Taurus and the Sun is in Capricorn the Kumbh comes
to Allahabad. This Kumbh is the most auspicious one for 144 years
because the planets are in a spectacularly good alignment. A dip just
now is the best chance any Hindu will have to book a first class
ticket to Nirvana for the next 200 years. That’s what one of the
ladies in the queue told me but she was having to shout to make
herself heard above the deafening sound of policemen blowing
whistles. She didn’t tell me who actually won the fight and got to
keep the pitcher.

Just like one of those sad cases you see interviewed on local TV who
camps out all night to be first into the January sales, Maxim is
determined to be as near the head of the queue as we can be. It is
not long before I am getting close to the banks. By now the crush has
begun to get frightening. Children are screaming and clawing at their
mother’s arms to be lifted above the throng. Policemen are blowing
whistles every other second. Usually right in my ear. Strangely, even
though it looks like people are in real danger of getting crushed,
many of them have expressions of complete resignation on their faces.
I get the impression that in India getting nearly crushed to
asphyxiation in huge dusty crowds is a fairly common experience. This
giant rush hour gridlock is simply an exaggerated echo of daily life.
The holy men have already taken their ritual bath, charging down the
sandy banks screaming the name of Shiva. They line the river doing
yogic exercises, engaging in mock swordplay and brandishing their
tridents at tourists or cameramen who come too close. Some are
simply bouncing up and down on one leg. Now it is the turn of the
pilgrims and the holy Ganges and Yamuna are now joined by another
river. An endless river of people. As I get to the water’s edge I am
pushed and shoved from all directions. The little old ladies seem to
be the fiercest and eventually it is one of these single-minded
geriatrics who forces me to go arse over elbow and take the holy
bath I had only meant to observe. Frozen and drenched, waste deep in
the freezing waters, I watch mothers totally emerse their children in
the holy river. Ancient, emaciated old men weep with joy as they
shiver in the shallows making the holy prayer that they hope will
wipe clean the sins of a lifetime. Whole families are holding hands
and splashing about as if they were in the shallow end at the
local swimming pool. I know there is no understanding this if you are
not a Hindu. For me it’s a cold muddy paddle I have reached at the
end of a stressful morning. For them it is something they will spend
their life savings on achieving. Something that goes right to the
core of their existance. My musings are interrupted by yet more
whistling, shouting policemen. This lot mean business. Because Channel
4 have upset everyone in India and all the Hindus in the world with
their docu-soap on the festival, all filming of the bathing has been
banned. The police think I am taking covert pictures rather than
simply trying to avoid being crushed, drowned or mugged by willful
old ladies. One of them chooses to make his point with a big stick,
so shivering and shouting with a gut full of holy (and no doubt deeply
infected) water, I am dragged off to the nearby police station where I
have to spend an hour being lectured by a man in uniform with a ‘tache
resembling half a packet of weetabix. India is a land of, “law and
order” and, “these are rulings that may not be trifled with.” That’s
the power of tabloid television. Thanks Channel 4.

On my way out I see a huge pile of shoes. Thousands of people lose
their shoes as they go to the river to bathe. The lost and discarded
shoes are collected and now there are pilgrims trying to match up
pairs. It could take them years. The pile is already virtually the
size of a public library. Staring at the multitude, my mind addled by
the noise, the crowds and those bloody whistles deep and fundamental
questions start to stir in my blancmange like consciousness. Where on
earth do all these people take a dump? How do they all get fed? What
happens if they get ill? Answers to these imponderables were
furnished by a Mr Kumar. An elegant gent from the Ministry of
something or other in Delhi. The Indian government has employed 8000
elite and highly trained turd pickers to prevent the whole place
becoming submerged in a sea of shit Mr Kumar tells me. There are 6000
newly constructed public toilets. There are 35 temporary police
stations where they will lock you up if you are caught with alcohol
or a cheeseburger and 12 hospitals where you can be treated if one of
the holy men decides to stab you with his trident. Food is brought in
a constant stream in trucks and on people’s heads. It is doled out to
the mass of pilgrims in yet more queues by the side of the road or
within the precincts of temporary temples by near naked chefs. Rice
and dahl. Dahl and rice. India is a country where chaos works, but
this particular episode of chaos is planned with precision. It has to
be. Without it this place could become a scene of plague, starvation,
thirst and mayhem in a sea of feces.

As I walk away from this seething mass of humanity I am still left
with a corner of my soul that remains strangely unenlightened. At
first I can’t put my finger on it. This has been the most inspiring
event of my life. Then the realisation dawns that in amongst
all these millions of people drawn to this one place in this
astounding congregation of worshippers the one thing that would have
made it all make sense to me was missing. The aspiration that
separates me from every other individual amongst these 70 million
pilgrims and visitors seeking enlightenment and a cleansing of the
soul in vast and complex rituals more ancient than the bible. I
looked and I looked but I couldn’t find it……. There is no beer tent.
Awed and impressed as I am by this epic gathering of massed humanity
all moving in a single spiritual direction, I realise that it’s time
to head out in search of my own spiritual anchors. A cleansing lager,
a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and evenings voiding my mind with
re runs of Fawlty Towers and the latest Kylie video on MTV.

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