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Sunday, August 24, 2003
Lead Article

Seeking salvation at Nashik
S. Iyer

For the devout, there are no constraints of age or health
For the devout, there are no constraints of age or health

AS Nashik soaks in the rain gods' generosity, the devout take the vagaries of nature in their stride. "The rains are heavy this year, but one is used to such things," says Swami Jagannath as he gingerly finds his way out of the Nashik bathing ghat and on to terra firma. Despite the ankle-deep water and low temperatures, small groups of sadhus and priests haggle with devotees and strike bargains, trying to make most of the twelve-yearly opportunity. Elsewhere, groups of sadhus attempt to keep out the cold puffing chillums that exude the sweet aroma of ganja.

Salvation-seekers come to Kumbh via several routes: unreserved railway bogies that disgorge upcountry pilgrims; homes on wheels parked apart at parking lots scattered around the Kumbh venues; Tata Sumos ferrying Gujarati road trippers and bagloads of snacks for the evening antakshari that follows the bhajans and kirtans. On August 27, the day of the main bath, nearly eight million devotees are expected to congregate at the two Kumbh sites.

 


"I would have loved to be here on August 27 for the shahi snan, but there are other things for me to do at home," says Ramdas Surve, a technician at a Mumbai MNC. Having driven for four hours in a jeep from Dadar in Central Mumbai, Surve and family will be back late at night. A first-time visitor to event, there were no opportunities for Surve to attend the earlier melas.

Sadhus of different akharas taking out a procession in Nashik
Sadhus of different akharas taking out a procession in Nashik

In keeping with tradition, the Kumbh Mela here was kicked off simultaneously at Nashik and Trimbakeshwar. Saffron flags with a golden border and featuring the face of a lion were hoisted at both places on the dot at 11.51 am to coincide with Jupiter's entrance into the zodiac sign, Leo.

The simultaneous Kumbh at Nashik and Trimbakeshwar is a relatively recent tradition. Till 1770, the Kumbh was held at Kawnai, 58 km away. And it was an important enough event to find mention in the travels of Hieun Tsang who is believed to have gifted the temple with its Chinese gong. According to historians, the twin venues of the Nashik Kumbh were a compromise formula, effected in 1770 by local ruler Sawai Madhavrao after members of the rival Shaiviite and the Vaishnaviite sects warred with each other over who would bathe first. The battle left scores of sadhus dead and injured.

As a peace-keeping measure, Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao made Kanwai off-limits to both the sects. As per the ruler's decree effective to this day, the Shaiviites bathe at Trimbakeshwar, the Vaishnaviites make use of the facilities at Ramkund in the lower reaches of the Godavari at Nashik.

The ruler's edict, etched on copper plates, is found at these spots to this day. In subsequent years, road and rail networks connecting the two spots to the rest of the world ensured that Kawnai continued to remain on the fringes of collective memory.

With the promise of a grand spectacle, television crews have staked out vantage spots all over Nashik and Trimbakeshwar. Some of the bigger television stations have ferried in as many as eight television crews and promise to bring in more over the next fortnight so as not to miss out on the action. Security concerns are already high in Maharashtra following the series of bomb blasts in Mumbai. Security at the Kumbh sites is on high alert, following warnings from intelligence agencies about a fidayeen suicide squad from the Lashkar-e-Toiba infiltrating Nashik. Police officials here say, a number of suspected sympathisers of the Students' Islamic Movement of India have been picked up from areas neighboring Nashik as a precautionary measure. Security has been tight at all religious places in Maharashtra in the wake of the terrorist attack at the Akshardham temple in Gujarat last September. In all 10,000 policemen and paramilitary personnel have been posted at the Kumbh Mela venues.

Mumbai itself has suffered six bombings in trains and buses since December last. In the latest incident, a bomb was set off in the central suburb of Ghatkopar on July 28. The blast killed six persons and injured more than 50 people. The sheer spectacle overshadows the enormous development works undertaken by the central and state governments at the Kumbh sites. A sum of Rs 448 crore has already been spent on providing civic amenities to Nashik and Trimbakeshwar. Of this, Rs 34 crore have been spent only on enlarging the Ram Kund bathing ghat so that 12,000 sadhus and 1.2 lakh devotees can bathe there every hour. But in just under a year, all the sheen wears off and Nashik returns to its former state of semi-hibernation, barely aware of the pilgrims trickling in day after day.

Vignettes

THE Kumbh is an important spiritual gathering that takes place once every three years, by rotation between four major Hindu pilgrim centres of India Allahabad, Hardwar, Ujjain and Nasik.

According to Hindu mythology, before the universe took shape, the gods and demons churned the waters. Dhanvantri, the physician of the gods, rose from the ocean carrying in his hands a kumbha (pot) of nectar that would guarantee immortality. As the gods and demons struggled for possession of this precious liquid, drops of nectar fell at Allahabad, Nasik, Hardwar and Ujjain, goes the myth. The mela is held in each of these places in a twelve-year rotating cycle.The largest and most famous, the Maha Kumbha, occurs in Allahabad once every 12 years.

The two-faced idol of Hanuman, the Dutondya Maruti, is an unlikely watermark at Nashik. But local residents gauge the town's rainfall by how much of the idol is submerged by the Godavari every year. The 15-foot idol, on the banks of the river, was neck-deep in water till the Kumbh began. "There were times when the idol was fully submerged," say locals. In the 1960s, the idol was even washed away by floods. Subsequently, a devotee got a new one constructed.

* * *

The beer bars and restaurants serving butter chicken have turned completely satvik during the Kumbh. Posters of Kingfisher and Foster Beer have been hurriedly papered over as restaurants here serve pure vegetarian food often without even onion and garlic. "The locals here abstain from meat during the month of Shravan," says a restaurant owner. But on the outskirts of the town, chicken and beer are sold freely.

* * *

The presence of a number of boys as young as four and five years with the sadhus has alarmed child rights activists in the country. Several akhadas or theological schools of holy men have young boys initiated into religion, or so say the sadhus. They claim that parents "offer" a child to the sadhus in gratitude following fulfillment of their wishes. Child rights activists in Mumbai are hoping the matter to be investigated by the authorities.

* * *

Local residents who have to put up with the crowds are, however, making money from consumer product companies. Walls of several houses have been rented out to marketers of soaps, biscuits, tea and coffee for unspecified sums. Anyone with a window opening onto a street has metamorphosed into a small shopkeeper selling colas, torch batteries, soaps, shampoos and biscuits.

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