The Greatest Show On Earth – Kumbh Mela, India
Going with the goddess
I traipsed onwards across the sandy floodplain towards the Yamuna’s northern bank, slaloming through a tide of buoyant bathers who were flowing towards the Sangam. My progress was slow; I stopped repeatedly to pose for photographs – in this industrialised city, which rarely features on holiday itineraries, foreigners are a novelty.
That said, Allahabad has one very noticeable attraction: an impressively chunky fort overlooking the Yamuna, built by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1583. A breakaway tributary of pilgrims poured through a gateway in the fort’s eastern wall and swept me into its 2,000-year-old underground Patalpuri temple. In this dark catacomb, I shuffled millipede-like past icons of elephant-headed Ganesh and wrathful multi-armed Kali.
The temple passageway exited near a well of murky sludge. “It’s the Saraswati River, the only place you can see it,” enthused one pilgrim. “Do you feel Goddess Saraswati’s energy?”
“Oh yes,” I lied. The toxic gloop below looked like a fast track to the next life.
Beyond the fort I took brief respite in the corporeal world, sipping gingery masala chai served in terracotta teacups and snacking on fried pakora triangles while watching a man who’d decorated his cow in sequinned cloth make a killing from baksheesh. A wailing drone nearby turned out to be a Wall of Death circus act. Motorcyclists careered centrifugally around a wooden velodrome that vibrated so much it looked like it might buckle at any minute.
Searching for sadhus
I ventured back onto the floodplain to seek Kumbh Mela’s most brazenly photogenic spectacle, the akhara camps. Sadhus are India’s most recognisable holy men: wandering ascetics who’ve renounced materialism and family to dedicate themselves to attaining moksha. Characterised by saffron and orange clothing, long beards and dreadlocks, several hundred thousand of them attend the mela. Akhara refers to loose groupings of them brought together by shared doctrine and deities.
A furious horn-blaring jam of auto-rickshaws and Ambassador taxis announced the akhara camps. Hundreds of pesky Hare Krishnas were holding up traffic, chanting and dinging cymbals in front of a portable shrine pulled by the two biggest oxen I’ve ever seen.
I asked a policeman if he knew the whereabouts of Juna akhara camp. He pointed the way, adding: “They like to keep hidden to preserve their decency but be careful because they can be fierce.”
He was referring to Juna akhara’s pre-eminent naga babas (naked sadhus). I had been captivated by their ferocity at the 2010 mela, when I watched thousands of these naked followers of Shiva parading, waving swords and tridents, as their leaders rode chariots.
A fug of marijuana smoke hung over Juna akhara, announcing these enigmatic ascetics’ predilection for THC-assisted ‘clarity’. Taking renunciation to the extreme, they sit naked in lotus position smeared in ash, mimicking Shiva for whom ash symbolised death and regeneration. I watched Indian visitors queue for blessings equally agog at the sadhus’ ghostly pallor, wild matted hair, tousled beards and faraway eyes. Some burned logs to keep warm; others conversed on unrenounced mobile phones.
It’s challenging to talk to them – and not just because they are stark naked, often with their penises looped around their waists like belts. The wisdom they dispense is cryptic; perhaps scrambled by repeated drags on marijuana-infused chillums. However, what some endure to express devotion defies belief.
I met one sadhu with a withered arm, atrophied because he’d kept it raised above his head for a decade; his uncut fingernails corkscrewed like springs. Another sadhu dozed upright, draped over a suspended swing to support his ulcerated legs – he’d chosen not to sit down for eight years. Jhoola Baba had 21,000 needle piercings. The sadhus with 10m-long hair and 50-year-old beards were tame by comparison. Later I saw drunken Aghori, ascetics who shatter all of society’s taboos, from alcohol abuse to cannibalism of the dead at cremation grounds.