Dead cow in the Ganga

Photo: Shoba Narayan

The mission to clean the Ganga will be a pipe dream as long as Indians have no problem in perceiving and accepting the river as both pure and dirty

The Ganga would be a good place to jump in. The question that looms before me is whether to jump into the Ganga in Kashi: the holiest of rivers in the holiest of cities, according to Hindus.
I ask friends and family. My French friend Pasquale has jumped into the Ganga in Kashi. See, nothing happened, he says. Then again, he is a war photographer who thinks riding a motorbike through the Swat Valley is normal. Another friend, Ashok, recently returned from Varanasi, said no, he didn’t even dip his feet in it.
An older uncle says to go deep into the Ganga and jump in. “In the middle, there is flowing water, so even the pollutants will be washed away,” he says.
“To be in Kashi and not immerse yourself in the Ganga is a waste of a trip,” pronounces an aunt.
It is this unshakeable faith in the Ganga that causes millions of Hindus to plunge in even though they see sewage flowing into it. This type of faith ignores rationality, data about faecal matter, coliform bacteria counts, contamination or even their own eyes—which is probably why it is called blind faith.
It is a mind game really. You may see dirt; you may even see the dead buffalo a few yards downstream. But because you believe that the Ganga is holy, you don’t really care. She will purify your mind, heart and soul. The body doesn’t even enter this equation. It is superfluous to this world view; merely a carapace to be shed en route to liberation.
Ganga mata pavithra hai,” they chant. “Mother Ganga is sacred and pure.”
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

The problem is the semantics—the difference between pollution and purity. Indians know that the Ganga is dirty. They also believe that she is sacred and pure. After all, that is why she descended from the heavens and came to earth: to wash away sins.
It is the reason for her existence. Her power originates in her creation myth. She is liquid Shakti; a tangible reality of divine power. She connects the heavens to earth; washes away the sins of us mere mortals.
This is why she is a great tirtha or pilgrimage site: because of what she takes from us (our sins) and what she gives to us (moksha, or liberation from death). This is why the Ganga is pure even though she is dirty.
When then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan in 1986, he alluded to this distinction. Standing on the steps leading to the Ganga, Gandhi said, “The purity of the Ganga was never in question.” The problem was that a river “that was a symbol of India’s spirituality was being allowed to get dirty”.
Pavithra versus gandhagi: purity versus dirtiness. The Indian mind has no problem in perceiving the Ganga as both pure and dirty. It accepts both ideas, without really wanting to do much about it.
This is a problem for the Clean Ganga mission launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose links with this city are both obvious and tenuous.
Unlike in Chennai, where billboards and hoardings of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa are all over the place, Modi’s photos thankfully do not take over Kashi’s urban sprawl. Yet, of all the constituencies from which he could have stood, fought and won the 2014 Lok Sabha election—and he could have literally written his own ticket—Modi, significantly, chose Kashi as his constituency.
At Madison Square Garden, where he performed like a rock star, Modi asked the Indian diaspora to contribute to his dream of cleaning mother Ganga. In short order, the National Mission for Clean Ganga was set up under the newly renamed ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, headed by Uma Bharati. It has commissioned surveys and reports.
In August 2013, a 134-page interim report was submitted by a venerable group of institutions—seven Indian Institutes of Technology, Banaras Hindu University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, National Institute of Health, World Wildlife Fund and others. It states—no surprises here—that “the Ganga river’s present-day water quality is abysmal due to anthropogenic (human) wastes polluting the river network in various ways”.
This is obvious to anyone who stands on the Ganga’s banks. People bathe, wash their laundry and defecate all along the 2,510km long river that serves a staggering one-third of the Indian population. Faecal coliform bacteria levels are off the charts. Chromium levels are at least 10 times the permissible amount. Untreated sewage flows directly into the waters.
Add to that the fact that industries dispose their waste into the river—leather tanneries along its banks in Kanpur; carpet factories in Mirzapur; paper factories; distilleries and dyeing units—and you have the makings of an environmental disaster.
The Ganga is essentially dead, say activists. Her vaunted oxygen levels and ability to regenerate are being choked by the sheer amount of garbage being thrown into her, ranging from corpses to contaminants.
A Kanpur-based uncle of mine, who I will call Mahen, said that when he was young, crocodiles and tortoises were teeming in the Ganga, eating up corpses. “Within Modi’s term, the Ganga will get salvation,” he says. “It has to because it is a huge part of his promise to India.”
The Ganga’s pollution is linked to India’s population. Sometime in the 16th century lived a Bengali scholar named Raghunandana, who wrote 28 books on tattvas, or elements, which could be viewed as “how to” books. Vivaha Tattva: how to get married; Daya Tattva: how to show compassion; Grihastashrama Tattva: how to live as a good householder; and Durgapuja Tattva: how to celebrate Durga Puja are some of the books.
One of the books is called Prayaschitta Tattva, and it means how to make amends; or how to expiate sin. This section contains a verse about how to treat the Ganga.
Ganga punyajalan prapya caturdasa vivarjayet
Saucamacamanam kesam nirmalya madyamarsanam.
Gatrasamvahanam kridam pratigrahamatho ratim.
Anyatirtharatim caive anyatirthaprasansanam,
vastratyagamapaghatam santaram ca visesatah.
The verse talks about how to treat the Ganga. It lists, or rather prohibits, in some detail, 14 acts. Comments in parenthesis are mine. The prohibited actions are: no excretion, no bathing, brushing teeth or spitting out gargling water (only holy dip permitted); no cleaning of the ear and throwing earwax into river (Seriously? People did that?); no shampooing of hair; no throwing of used garlands (done all the time these days as a commercial activity—the Ganga is full of leaf candles and marigold garlands); no frolicking or playing in the water (come on—not even frolicking); no obscene acts (meaning nude bathing or sex?); no attachment or praise of other sacred places (meaning that they viewed the Ganga as a goddess who could get jealous?); no washing clothes and throwing garments (we discharge corpses these days); and in particular, no swimming across the river (I wonder why—because the river is so broad that people could urinate en route?).
Not a single one of these dictums has been followed. Instead, people believe that the Ganga will self-rejuvenate; that her waters, considered healing and self-perpetuating since the dawn of Hindu civilization, will simply continue to do so.
This is alluded to in a type of literature called Nighantu literature, a Sanskrit materia medica of sort—a glossary of words and objects that delineated the characteristics of herbs, trees, forests, water bodies, minerals, rocks, humans, animals and, well, pretty much everything that was available at that time. Some 30 works were written in this manner, empirically classifying among other things, water.
Nighantu is a hard word and concept to translate. It alludes to the secret meaning inherent in objects. Madanapala Nighantu, for instance, says that coconut water is an aphrodisiac, digestive stimulant and a cardiac tonic. How would the ancients know this? By making thousands of people drink gallons of coconut water and seeing the effect it had?
Or did some sage who had meditated for centuries to the point where he was so attuned to the nature of things, drink the coconut water, get a— shall we say—rise, and decide it to be an aphrodisiac? I say this tritely, but honestly, I am a secret practitioner and admirer of these subtle ways. Cowrie shells, alternative medicine, astrology, crystal gazing—you name it and I am interested.
I studied acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I believe that the ancients in most cultures took an empirical approach towards health and healing that resonates with me more than the randomized double-blind clinical trials of drug companies all of whom have a commercial agenda to sell drugs.
As my cousin who worked for years in the US pharmaceutical industry says, “The permissible diabetes numbers used to be 140—no problem. Now, they keep reducing the acceptable level every year so that drug companies can sell more Metformin.”
I’d love to know how the Nighantu literature was composed. How did our ancients know that buffalo milk was soporific, that sheep’s milk was easy to digest and that Ganga water was different from the waters of the Narmada, Bhagirathi or Saraswati?
Amid this materia medica approach is a particular type of literature that fascinates the tree-lover in me. Like Prem Koshy, the ebullient proprietor of the Koshy’s restaurant in Bengaluru, I hug trees. There is a particular brand of poetic convention called “Dohada” rituals.
Do hada literally means two hearts and it talks about cravings that pregnant women—and pregnant trees—get. These Dohada rituals allude to the intimate connection between trees and women; and allude to the hunger or yearning that comes about when you are pregnant with children or buds. The simplest way to explain this is to describe the trees and their rituals. In the Parsvanatha Chaitra, there are descriptions such as the following:
“The Priyangu tree bursts into blossom when touched by beautiful maidens. The Bakula trees bursts into blossom when sprayed by a mouthful of liquor from maidens who are giddy with sport and merriment. The Asoka tree waits to be kicked by the heel or foot of young maidens who have red lac as decorations on their feet before it gives itself to flower. The Tilaka tree is happy with just a glance from maidens. The Kurabaka tree needs to be embraced and enfolded by heavy-breasted young maidens. The Mandara tree likes pleasurable talk; the Champaka likes to be surrounded by scantily clad, laughing young maidens who sport under the full moon. The Nameru tree likes songs and is partial to young women who sing to it before it blooms.”
The over arching motif is the intimate connection between women and trees, all of which is described by the word, Salabhanjika: she who seizes the branch of the Sala tree and breaks it.
As a birdwatcher and tree-hugger who gains strength and solace from trees, I can totally relate to plants blooming when touched, sprayed, kicked, talked to and sung. Jagdish Chandra Bose, the scientist who discovered that plants are sentients beings with feelings (as exemplified by the quivering of injured plants) would have approved.
If plants have life, why not water? Even in our time, our mothers and grandmothers treat river water with a respect and sanctity that those of use who use rationality to mask our receptiveness towards the sacred cannot ignore.
Water that is exposed to the sun’s rays in the morning and the moon’s rays at night is considered rejuvenating, promoting strength and intellect, and balancing to all the body humours.
My mother does this. She places water in a copper pot, throws in some tulsi or holy basil leaves, along with some cardamom and cinnamon, leaves it out in the sun in the morning and makes it “absorb the moon’s rays” through the night and then drinks it on an empty stomach the next morning. All good things; all prescribed in Ayurveda. But how did my mother know? Through word of mouth and homespun wisdom that she heard from her parents, perhaps; or through the all-encompassing word that we call tradition.
The Sanskrit word for tradition is agama, or “that which has come down”. The word, gam, meaning “to go”, and the prefix a, which means “towards”. Agama means “to come towards” us. The word, Ganga, flips this around. Gam-ga, or “because she goes, she is Ganga”.
River waters, too, are classified in the Nighantu literature. In an English translation, titled Materia Medica of Ayurveda: Based on Madanapala’s Nighantu, by Vaidya Bhagwan Dash, the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Sarayu and Satadru are considered to have healing properties because they have fast-flowing water that originated in the Himalayas and flows through rocks.
In contrast, rivers that flow out of the Sahayadris—the Sahya mountains—like the Godavari causes kustha or obstinate skin diseases like leprosy. Rivers like the Shipra and Reva, which originate in the Vindhyas, cause anaemia and skin diseases. If I were a non-Himalayan river (and I know I am anthropomorphizing here), I would be really pissed.
A Kashmiri polymath called Narahari Pandita took this riverine water analysis to the next level. He is believed to have lived in the 17th century (some say the 14th century), knew 18 languages and wrote the magisterial Raja Nighantu, with chapter headings such as the following:
1. 47 types of forests with details of names, properties, actions and uses
2. 40 types of fragrances
3. 154 types of human beings with age, qualities, character and ailments
One of the 24 chapters talks about the Ganga’s waters, which have the following properties: coolness, sweetness, transparency, high tonic property, wholesomeness, potability, ability to remove evils, ability to resuscitate from swoon caused by dehydration, digestive property and ability to retain wisdom.
Consider this: people actually believe that the Ganga gives you the ability to retain wisdom. Our ancestors believed that, and to some extent, that belief has percolated down the centuries. For a Hindu, wisdom is the highest of aspirations, falling just below moksha.
If Indians believe that the Ganga can give you wisdom, the highest of all human desires, then pollution and defecation are trivial problems. If faith can heal the planet, then the Ganga doesn’t need human intervention. The reason why cleaning the Ganga is so complicated is because it requires behavioural modification—or brainwashing—on a scale that is staggering.
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

You cannot even point fingers and say that it is the peasants, the illiterate, the great unwashed hordes who are causing this contamination. It is People Like Us (PLUs). My cousin Vikram studied economics at Princeton, went on to Harvard Business School and now works in public policy. When his father died, he acceded to his mother’s wishes and brought his dad’s ashes to throw into the Ganga. He knew that this act only increased the amount of anthropogenic waste (or waste from human activity) that went into the already burdened river.
“As a climate change activist and someone who believes in sustainable living, what I did to the Ganga was abhorrent to me,” said Vikram. “But as a son, it was the least I could do for my grieving mother, who firmly and fervently believes that throwing my dad’s ashes into the Ganga will take his soul to heaven.”
There are tens of millions of Vikrams in India who do this every single day. Eighty million of them converge during the Kumbh Mela to bathe in this holy river at a holy moment. This happens all along the course of the river and its tributaries, across 29 cities in 11 states—Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and West Bengal.
Kashi, as it turns out, is one of the worst offenders. And while we are at it, I might as well tell you that I am going to refer to the city by its ancient, intimate name—one that is used by locals and all over south India.
Not Banaras, the name given by invaders beginning with the Sultans, the British and even Mark Twain, who famously observed that “Banaras is older than history; older than tradition; older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Not Varanasi, the city’s official name, denoting the stretch of land between where the Varuna river and the now-dry Assi river join the Ganga. The name I love is Kashi, from the Sanskrit root, kash, which means shining; as in Pra-kash; as in “moksha prakashika kashi”, the effulgent city that offers the path to moksha or enlightenment. Kashi, the city of light, the luminous one.
In some parts of south India, wedding rituals include the Kashi Yatra, where the bridegroom mock threatens to walk out of the wedding and head to Kashi to become a sanyasin—an ascetic scholar. My husband did this. With a great deal of merriment, all my relatives charged after him to make nice.
“Please don’t leave for Kashi,” my father repeated after the priest. “I will give you the hand of my daughter: a good woman who will stand beside you for the rest of your life.”
And there the wedding rituals take over with a lot of flower throwing and drum-beating so that the poor bridegroom or bride cannot think—which perhaps is the point of these rituals: to literally beat the young people into thoughtless submission.
My husband didn’t leave: not then; not now.
Kashi was not just the place where eligible young men went off to escape getting hitched. At one time, it was a centre of learning where young ascetics and students flocked—to study with scholars, formulate their beliefs, and search for the divine.
Like Greece in the time of Socrates and Plato, Sanskrit scholars used to stand in the street corners of Kashi and invite other philosophers to debate with them. Anyone who came up with a new theory or a new philosophy had to road test it first in Kashi.
The famous grammarian, Patanjali, who wrote the yoga sutras, taught here in the 2nd century. Vatsyayana lived in Kashi in the 3rd century and wrote the Kama Sutra, the treatise on sexuality. The three great Hindu philosophers—Shankara in the 8th century, Ramanuja in the 11th century and Madhva in the 13th century—all spent time here.
It wasn’t just the Hindus. At least two Jain tirthankaras (sages and teachers) spent chunks of time in this city. An entire sect of people who believe that Jesus was buried in Kashmir also believe that he spent time in Kashi. The Buddha spent his summers in Kashi. Many of the Jataka tales about the previous births of the Buddha—he was called Bodhisattva before he became the Buddha, the enlightened one—were centred in Kashi.
Several stories begin with the line, “Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta ruled Kashi…” The Jataka tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD, and they referred to events that happened a few hundred years ago, all of which lends weight to the Hindu claim that Kashi is the oldest continually occupied city in the world.
Kashi was to Indian philosophy what Florence was to Renaissance artists, what Paris was to the Impressionist painters and what Silicon Valley is to today’s entrepreneur—an intellectual hub where ideas could cross pollinate. It was the place to be; to learn from other scholars engaged in the same pursuit, whether it was philosophy, logic, metaphysics, spirituality or poetry.
“There is hardly any city that can claim greater antiquity, greater continuity and greater popular veneration than Banaras. Banaras has been a holy city for at least 30 centuries,” said the great Indologist and Sanskrit scholar P.V. Kane, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna. “No other city in India arouses the religious emotions of Hindus as much as Kashi does.”
As I stand in front of the goddess Annapurna, I am trying to feel aroused—religiously, I mean. All around me are men and women, palms together in supplication, staring at the goddess with her large black eyes, muttering appeals, their gaze unwavering, lost in hope and prayer.
I envy their transcendence, their engagement with divinity, even if it is self-perceived. I want to feel it. If Kashi doesn’t do it for me, I am a lost cause. Please, I mutter, let me experience divinity. Instead, my mind remains stubbornly observant, questioning and judgemental.
Something is wrong with me. Do these devotees actually believe that the goddess will change their lives? How? How can they surrender free will, ego, pride and sense of self to a nebulous higher power?
The goddess gazes back at me passively. Don’t tempt fate, I think to myself, a little fearfully. I remember the Tamil movies I watched as a child in which a wrathful god decided to teach a disbeliever a lesson by throwing hardships and life lessons her way.
Those movies showed a beautifully simple cause-and-effect relationship between humans and god. You go to this temple and voila, your blind son gets his eyes back. Sudama offered Krishna some beaten rice. When he returned home, his hut had become a mansion.
Having grown up in a religious family, I am not an atheist. I am not even agnostic. I am a Hindu—a questioning one, perhaps, one who is hypersensitive to petty religious hypocrisies for sure. But I have long lost the boundless self-confidence with which I could dismiss the divine.
The school of hard knocks has made me a little more humble; it has taught me that everything in my life is not in my control, that there is such a thing called luck—or the divine hand if you will—and that random acts can change the course of a life.
A priest stands in front of the idol, chanting Sanskrit mantras, some of which I recognize.
Annapurne sada purne, Shankara prana vallabhe…
Oh Annapurna, always whole. The one who gives Shiva his life force. Please give me the boons of wisdom and detachment. “Jnana Vairagya Siddhyartham, Bhiksham dehi cha Parvati.”
Man, my ancients were obsessed with detachment as a path to wisdom. Yoga says the same thing. It says that vairagya is letting go of attachments, of fears, of sins, of false identities. Put that way, it is uplifting. You fly free of all these illusions or delusions of grandeur and remove yourselves from the shackles of fear. If a goddess can do that, I will stand in line.
My grandmother used to say these shlokas to Annapurna, which is why I know this bit by heart.
Above the stove in my home is a tiny bronze image of Annapurna, given to me by my grandmother after she visited Kashi. My cook, a devout Hindu, places steaming hot rice in front of this tiny idol and allows the steam to envelop the goddess, offering the cooked food to her first before setting it on the dining table.
In Kashi, I view first-hand the goddess who has been part of my family for three generations. Two women stand on either side of the idol. They are folding saris into long strips and placing them on top of the idol. Stalks of yellow wheat are placed next to the idol.
Annapurna is the goddess of grains. She epitomizes sacred food, holding in her hands a vessel and a large ladle to dole out a nourishing, unending supply of food to her people. She is the queen of Kashi. The story of how she came here is one that I relish, as a spouse and a feminist.
It turns out that Shiva and Parvati, or Shakti, as she is called in this story, were having a philosophical discussion in their Himalayan mountain abode. Shiva grandly pronounced that the whole world wasmaya—an illusion. Only he (or the realization of him) was the true reality.
“Is that so?” asked his wife. As Shakti, she was the material half of the world, manifested in all things. Stung by her husband’s dismissal of her role in creation, she vanished.
The world came to a standstill. Time stopped. The earth became barren; devoid of sustenance. All of creation suffered. Seeing this, the compassionate goddess Shakti appeared in Kashi as the goddess Annapurna. She set up a kitchen and began feeding the world again.
Shiva did something that all men ought to do when they are proved wrong in a spousal quarrel. He showed up at his wife’s door and made nice. The mythological version of an apology is that Shiva appeared with a begging bowl in hand, shame-faced and sheepish at his grandiosity.
“Say it,” the wife must have said.
“I realize that the material world is as important as the spiritual,” Shiva must have mumbled. “I shouldn’t have dismissed it. Your role is as important as mine. More important.”
The smiling wife fed her husband. All was forgotten.
The husband and wife made a deal. In Kashi, Shakti would take care of the people during their lives. Shiva would help them after they died. Living and dying: a good division of duties. Both are important in Kashi.
This is the second in a four-part series from Kashi. Read the first parthere.
Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

Kumbh Mela Cover Story

Immersed in India: The Kumbh Mela festival

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Mar 20, 2010

 

The royal religious procession begins in Jwalapur, a dusty town an hour outside Haridwar, where two million sadhus (Hindu holy men), ascetics, healers, mystics and saffron-clad monks have camped out overnight. The fifth royal bath, shahi snan, or ritual immersion into that holiest of Indian rivers, the Ganga, whose cold waters run through Haridwar, is taking place. This royal bath coincides with the auspicious Shivaratri, or Night of Shiva, on February 12, and marks the halfway point in this mammoth celebration and spectacle, which ends this year on April 28. I’m standing in line on the road to Haridwar to watch the saints go marching by; the crowd and procession is orderly, thanks to a large police presence, but the religious fervour is palpable. With me are Hindu men and women offering sweets, water, fruit and flowers to the sadhus.

They mutter prayers and prostrate themselves on the road, clasping their hands in a fervent namaste. Countless camera-toting Indian and foreign tourists squeeze through for better vantage points, their faces delirious, as if they cannot believe they are actually here. Occasionally, burqa-clad women emerge from within homes to throw flowers at the saints. “The Kumbh Mela is a symbol of our secular democracy in action,” says Swami Avdeshananda, whose sprawling ashram (religious hermitage) is in the old Kankhal neighbourhood of Haridwar. “For example, most of the Hindu religious offerings used in the Kumbh are packaged by Muslim craftsmen, and the music bands have Muslim and Christian performers.” The bands are actually the sideshow. They walk along with the saints but even their spirited drums and trumpets cannot drown out the chants of “Bum Bum Bole” and “Har Har Mahadev”, words that refer to Lord Shiva, from whose matted locks, the legend has it, the river Ganga sprang forth.

The origin of the Kumbh – which means rounded pot in Sanskrit – dates back to the Vedic period some 4,000 years ago. According to Hindu mythology, the gods and asuras (demons) churned the Ocean of Milk for the nectar of immortality. When the holy pot bearing this nectar of immortality arrived, one of the gods took it before being chased by the asuras. The four places that the god rested the kumbh were Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nasik and it is in these places that the Kumbh Mela is now held on a rotational basis. Devotees believe that drops of the nectar of immortality fell from the pot at these places, which is why bathing in the river is so sacred. For a Hindu, it symbolises many things: the triumph of good over evil, a glimpse of immortality as well as being in the presence of countless revered sadhus.

Some call the Kumbh Mela the world’s largest religious gathering, with an estimated 60 million people attending over the course of four months. As Mark Twain said in 1895, after attending the Kumbh, “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.” The gathering has gone from strength to strength in how it is organised. Haridwar, for instance, has troops from the elite Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to help with law and order, a separate budget to fund the set up of a sprawling campsite for the visiting sadhus and feed them over the four months and a media centre especially for the event.

The time and place where the Kumbh Mela will be held depends on a specific astrological confluence. The Haridwar Kumbh happens when Jupiter enters Aquarius, the Sun enters Aries and the Moon enters Sagittarius. During this time, millions of Hindu ascetics, called naga babas, who spend their lives sans clothes, desire and food and drink, converge at the Kumbh Mela to engage in religious discourse. They live in makeshift campsites and take holy dips in the Ganga on 10 bathing dates. It is estimated that somewhere between five and six million people pass through on these bathing dates and today is one of those days. First in line in the procession are the mahants, or seers, who are at the top of this particular hierarchy. As they go by on grand golden chariots we throw yellow flowers at them.

After the mahants come the heads of the various religious orders or Akharas, Swami Avdeshananda among them. He rides by along with many of the religious heads, whose faces are plastered on billboards all over Haridwar. There is Pilot Baba (Baba means saint), so called because he used to be a military pilot. There is Somnath Baba, riding along with some western women, drawing stares from the crowd. “What is he doing with these foreign women?” people mutter. Next in line are the senior sadhus (a holy person, often referred to as a mahatma or given the prefix Sri before their name), riding by on horses, elephants and camels. Finally, the younger ones come walking by, and the true spectacle begins. The walking naga sadhus are, in the main, completely naked, their matted locks coiled on top of their heads. Gray ash is smeared all over their mostly lean and lithe bodies.

As the procession heats up, many of these naga babas engage in feats of skill and strength – stick and sword fighting, pulling chariots with their bare hands and lifting other sadhus on their shoulders. All these displays are to prove to their eager audience that they can and will protect Hinduism: the naga sadhus’ declared purpose. They demonstrate their strength and skills all the way to the river, where, in a final act of purification, they immerse themselves en masse into its chilly depths. It would be hard to overstate the importance of the river Ganga to the Hindu Indian. For my mother, who accompanied me to the Kumbh, the high point of the visit was not the parade, prayers or blessings from the sadhus. It was immersing herself into the Ganga every morning while chanting “Ganga Mata Pavitra hai”, or “Mother Ganga is pure”. “Make me pure too,” she would whisper to the river.

Although my mother had visited Haridwar before, it was her first time at the Kumbh, which somehow made the Ganga more sacred to her. Like many older Hindus, my parents had made the prescribed pilgrimage to sacred Hindu towns like Varanasi, Allahabad, Rishikesh and Gaya to pay homage to their departed ancestors, but the Kumbh Mela was another matter altogether. Most Hindus I know, particularly those who live in the south of India, far away from the spots where the Kumbh is held, rarely attend the Kumbh, even though they long to. They are intimidated by the crowds and the accompanying inconveniences, like the lack of suitable accommodation. When I returned home after the festival, I got dozens of phone calls from relatives and friends, all of whom were thrilled and envious that I had attended. They wanted photos, detailed descriptions, links to the article I was writing. They wanted the Kumbh experience even though they were afraid to make the actual trek.

I had come to Haridwar determined not to bathe in the Ganga. I didn’t buy into Hindu ideology and I was worried about contracting germs because I was sure the river would be polluted and dirty. I was wrong. The Ganga in Haridwar, which is relatively close to the river’s head in the Gomukh glacier upriver in the Himalayas, is fast-flowing and playful, just like the long-haired tempestuous maiden she is depicted to be. She is always freezing cold. As the sun rises and the glaciers melt, the Ganga gets colder, which is why the faithful bathe before sunrise. Over breakfast at the Haveli Hari Ganga, Haridwar’s best hotel, where I am staying, a British couple tell me that they had come with the same qualms. “But it is so clean,” exclaims the retired man called Tony. His wife, Claire, adds, “When I immersed myself in the Ganga, I began crying. I don’t know why. I mean, we aren’t Hindu or anything. But I saw the faith of the people here, I suppose some of it rubbed off.”

Also at my hotel, some 80 yogis from Europe and America have descended for 10 days to attend the Kumbh. I speak to a handsome Swede who is clad in saffron but has short platinum blonde hair. He tells me that the group are all teachers of the Sivananda yoga method. They plan to spend their mornings learning scriptures from a visiting guru who speaks English, and the afternoons visiting the campsites and talking to the sadhus. Har ki Pauri is the most sacred place in Haridwar and it is where the procession ends. It resembles a water tank with a strip of the Ganga running between two concrete platforms, interlinked by bridges. By late afternoon, I am positioned on a wooden platform that has been erected for press photographers. People are squeezed together as far as the eye can see. Finally, the first batch of sadhus arrive for their holy dip. With smiling faces, they run down the steps of the bathing ghat and jump into the Ganga.

I had expected pandemonium, masses of people running -helter-skelter down the steps. I feared stampedes. It wasn’t an orderly march, but it wasn’t a stampede either. The naga babas came lithely down the steps and immersed themselves into mother Ganga to the reverberating chant of “Ganga Mata Pavitra Hai”. Cameras click furiously all around me. After the requisite three auspicious dips, the sadhus climb out and make their way back up in a streaming U-formation that never seems to stop. The river bank at Har ki Pauri is bordered by temples on either side (one to the river Ganga and the other to Shiva). Strange and wonderful things happen during the ritual immersion. One naked yogi stands in a corner, dancing in sheer delight. He demonstrates a series of virtuoso yoga poses before melting back into the crowd. Somnath Baba – he who rode with white women – appears wearing a fire-engine red loincloth. “Must be a present from his foreign devotees,” titters someone and we all laugh.

People wait in serpentine lines to pour milk on the Shiva-ling idol in the temple. Monks with begging bowls march past, collecting donations from the waiting masses. As the sun sets, the lines of sadhus keep coming. Having had my fill of the mass immersion, I too melt into the crowd and walk along the river to my hotel’s private bathing ghat. The Haveli Hari Ganga and its two sister properties have prime locations along the river, each with private access to the Ganga. As I wade into the Ganga’s chilling depths, I ponder my predicament. You see, I am at the Kumbh to make peace with my faith. Although I grew up in a devout Hindu family, I am uneasy about religion for all the usual reasons.

The Kumbh, I figured, was a good way to watch the Hindu faith in action. It had everything: temples, sadhus, prayers, rituals, colour and especially the Ganga upon which is posited much of the Hindu faith. Jawaharlal Nehru explained it best: “The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilisation, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same.” As I take my first dip into the river, the temple bells clang. Is it a sign? No, it’s just the beginning of the daily evening aarthi or lamp-lighting. Soon, tiny boats made of leaves and flowers come floating by, each carrying adiya, a little twinkling oil lamp. Devotees send these lamps down the river to make their wishes come true. So many wishes, I think, so much pollution.

Swami Avdeshananda thinks that devotees shouldn’t throw a single thing into the Ganga. “I just dip my flower into its waters and bring it back,” he says. It is a progressive thought for someone steeped in ancient Hindu principles but then, Haridwar is a special place. The entire city is vegetarian. Drinking is not allowed and police can throw people into jail if they are caught with alcohol. But Haridwar too, like Hinduism, makes allowances. The naga babas eat and drink little beyond tea, but in their campsites they all smoke.

The day after the procession, I wake up early and take a walk along the Ganga. As always, men and women are immersing themselves into its waters, temple bells are clanging, roadside carts are selling tasty hot samosas, kachoris and jilebis, saffron-robed sadhus are walking the streets. It’s just another day in the holy city. For information about the remaining baths this year, visit the Kumbh Mela’s websiteShoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary (published by Random House). Available at www.amazon.com