Kumbh Prayagraj: The city prepares for the Ardhkumbha beginning in January 2019. Journalist Raman Nanda’s recollections of the Mahakumbha in 2001, are shared here.
The Kumbh is an experience. Shared by millions. As I discovered at the Kumbh in Prayagraj in 2001, it can be an intense experience.
It was a bright afternoon. Sunshine gloriously gushed into our tent on the banks of Ganga. We were lazing around, exchanging notes on what the Kumbh Mela had meant for each of us. Naturally, the conversation veered towards God. Certainly, an ideal subject in the setting we were in.
There were three of us: Barret Standboulian, a Russian born Jew, who lived in the UK and was at the Kumbh as part of the Channel 4 team; Asra Nomani, a Muslim, born in Mumbai, had grown up in the middle east and lived in America. She was reporting for the Wall Street Journal. I was aware of being a Hindu, though religious identities were subdued for all of us. So I wondered aloud: “Religions divide humanity. Why can’t there be a religion that gives primacy to human beings?”
Immediately, I asked, “What do you mean?”
She replied, “Well, it’s your religion that regards humans as God”. Seeing me perplexed, she held forth, “Don’t you know what the word Namaste means? It means I bow to the divine in you”.
Oh! I remember lapsing into silence for a long time, oblivious of the rest of the conversation. Yes, there was a time – aeons ago – when people of this subcontinent consciously invoked and evoked godliness in one another. Surely, this gesture of greeting must have created an atmosphere of humility, respect, love and harmony. Certainly, ‘Namaste’ is a philosophy by itself, a complete guide to wellness all around!
Indian Policemen are so well Behaved
Walking in the Kumbh mela one evening, we came across a five year old child crying. Because he had been separated from his parents. A policeman was consoling him, as lovingly as a father would. Soon, the policeman, noticed an old woman having problems crossing the road. Holding the child by with one hand, he walked to the woman to guide her to safety with the solicitous concern of a son towards his mother. “Man, your cops are angels compared to our Bobbies”, remarked Barret.
I found that remark most ironical. Immediately I recalled the friendly smiling face of a British police officer. He was armed only with a small T shaped wooden contraption. Rather than pistols that our officers wielded. He had given me directions from Victoria Railway station on my first visit to London. I remember telling colleagues at the BBC that the British police was very civilised compared to our police back in India.
However, Barret was right. Yes, there was something about the energy of the Kumbh – the calmness, the serenity, the humility – that Indian police acquired angel like qualities. Violence is very relative. On a major bathing day, when crowds were jostling for every square inch of the space, mounted police waved their batons in the air to clear the way for a caravan of Sadhus. Not a soul was touched. And yet, the gesture of cops waving a baton in the air seemed violent. Because of the vibes that one soaked at the Kumbh at Prayagraj.
Footnote to Kumbh Prayagraj
When I was back in Delhi, I related my experiences at the Kumbh to a group of friends. Consequently, I became the butt of jokes. “He says cops at the Kumbh are civilised!” I was chided at a gathering at a friends place that included an IPS officer. O.P – as we called him – had done a stint as Superintendent of Police at Allahabad. He affirmed: “We conduct special training for policemen in crowd management. Besides, the serenity that pervades the Kumbh has a profound impact on the psyche of the police!”