Seeking salvation at
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.
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