There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Allahabad and the Kumbh Mela: Part 5 of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh

The Kumbh Mela, the great Hindu pilgrimage, is held at 4 different sites, visiting each every 12 years. This year’s event, at Allahabad, was a special Maha Kumbh – a once in 144 years happening. The Kumbh, which lasts a month, is often described as the greatest gathering of humanity on the planet and on auspicious days as many as 80 million people come to the Ganges to bathe. Our visit was in a lull between peak bathing days - we would be joining only a few million pilgrims.

Varanasi to Allahabad is 120km, but Indian roads do not make for fast travelling and the journey took some three hours. We made a leisurely start – at least by the standards of the last few days…

…and fought our way through the bicycles and tuk-tuks of the morning rush hour.

The bicycles and tuk-tuks of the morning rush hour, Varanasi
Uttar Pradesh has 200 million people crammed together at a density of 820 per km² (c.f. England 407, California 93) so whether we were in a town....
On the road from Varanasi to Allahabad
.... a village....
Village stall between Varanasi and Allahabad
......... or in the country, the roadside was lined with shops and dwellings.
Rural activity between Varanasi and Allahabad

Nearing Allahabad we left the main highway and after some wandering on country lanes and several requests for directions, our driver left the tarmac and bumped across a field. On the far side was an empty car park and beyond that, a hundred or so tents.

He helped carry our bags up to check-in and then left. Apart from the receptionist we seemed to be entirely alone in a field of tents.

We were shown to our home for the next three days. The ‘Swiss Cottage’ was introduced into India by the British army in the 19th century and named by someone who, presumably, had never visited Switzerland. Our two room tent had two comfortable beds, electricity, which worked some of the time, running water, which worked most of the time, and a flush toilet.
Lynne outside our 'Swiss Cottage' the following morning.
Kumbh Mela, Allahabad

We walked round the deserted site. ‘For the next three days,’ our itinerary had said, ‘you will follow the programme at the ashram.’ There was no programme. There was a sign offering ashram tours but when we asked at reception we were treated to a quizzical look followed by a waved arm which said ‘This is the ashram.’ To us 'ashram' suggested a religious community, while this was just a campsite. There was a small shrine, but there was no one there either. Behind it a path passed through a tear in the canvas wall and we followed it down to the Holy Ganges. The river was only 100m away, but wherever the Kumbh Mela was, it was not here.

The shrine at a rare moment when it was not completely deserted
Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
The canteen, the receptionist had told us, would open at 1.15 but when we arrived there was no food, just a tent full of empty tables and a lad standing by what was presumably the entrance to the kitchen. There were two other people there, a woman and a younger man. The woman had a brief conversation with the kitchen boy, then turned to us and said, ‘He says they’ll be serving food at 1.30.’ Her switch from Hindi to English was so natural that she was clearly equally at home in either language.

We went away for 15 minutes and spent it wondering what we were going to do for the next three days.

We returned to find a vegetarian buffet had been laid out.  The food was adequate if a touch dull – and would vary little in the time we spent there. Apart from the staff there were only the two people we met previously, so we asked if we could join them. We needed to talk to somebody, preferably someone who could answer questions like ‘where is the Kumbh Mela?’

Our new friend introduced herself as Seema and her companion as her son Biku. She was, she said, a journalist on the Indian Express, an English language national newspaper we had encountered before (and it as a much more informative and reliable journal that its lamentable British namesake). Biku was a press photographer – his seriously impressive camera lay on the table as we talked. I asked Seema if she was there to work but she said she had come as an interested non-believer, maybe she would write something, maybe not. [She did write something - A Sceptic on the Bank. ]

We asked how to get to the Kumbh and she was amazed that our Delhi tour company had booked us a tent but no transport. She and Biku were going that afternoon and there was space in the car if we wanted to join them. We accepted gratefully.
Seema and Biku
Our benefactors at the Kumbh Mela

After lunch their driver bumped the four of us back over the field and turned left towards the river. We had not gone far when we encountered a roadblock. This was not the way the authorities wanted pilgrims to approach the Kumbh and neither Biku nor Seema had their press cards which might have justified special treatment. ‘Never mind,’ said Seema, getting out of the car. She approached the policeman, had a brief chat and two minutes later he pulled back the hurdle blocking the road and waved us through.

We soon reached the river but our right turn was again blocked. A formidable looking sergeant barred our way, a man with a huge moustache and even bigger lathi. The driver stopped and Seema again got out. A few minutes later the sergeant’s craggy face was wreathed in smiles and he saluted as he waved us through.

There was no real entrance to the Kumbh. The dirt road was surrounded first by tents,…..

Approaching the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad

then by tents and stalls…..

Roadside stall, Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
…… and then there were more and more people - and even an elephant.

And even an elephant, Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
Eventually further progress by car became impossible so we parked and walked across the long floating footbridge to a sandbank in the river. This point is particularly sacred as it the confluence of three holy rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Saraswati, (this last is a spiritual rather than physical river but, for the devout at least, no less real for that).

Across the floating bridge, Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
Picking an uncrowded spot Seema ventured carefully into the water.

Seema ventures carefully into the Ganges
Not to be outdone, I ventured in too. Wikipedia, indulging the American obsession to rank anything that can be ranked, considers the Ganges the world’s fifth most polluted river with both sewage and industry making substantial contributions. The clean-up, the ‘Ganga Action Plan’ has, according to Wikipedia, ‘been a major failure thus far, due to corruption, lack of technical expertise, lack of good environmental planning, and lack of support from religious authorities.’

Up to my knees in the Holy Ganges,
Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
As can be seen from the picture I was only blessed up to my knees, but I was happy to emerge from the water and find neither of my legs had dissolved. Having considered the picture carefully I am confident there is no similarity between me and Mr Gumby.

'I want a tax on anyone standing in water'
Lynne was more circumspect in her 'bathing', blessing only the soles of her feet. Around us were many who immersed themselves completely – I suspect most will survive.

A minimal blessing, Lynne at the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
A little further along we encountered these two ladies cooking puris to offer to Mother Ganga. While admiring their devotion, I fail to understand what a river wants with fried bread products - but maybe that was the wrong sort of thinking to bring to the Kumbh.
Frying puris for Mother Ganga
Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
[Seema writes* 'Fifty-year-old Nirmala, who makes small puris on a fire by the bank ... is singularly disinterested in anyone else’s reasons for being here. She focusses on her own special ritual.']

This girl was nearby, but I have no idea what was going on here.
Blue girl, Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
The nearer we came to the confluence the more crowded it became.
Nearer the confluence, Kumbh Mela, Allahabad

Spotting a seller of blessings, Seema decided this was just what she needed
The man used a GPS device to tell the deity exactly where the supplicant was. I would have thought that any deity with the power to improve your life would know where you were without being told. Wrong sort of thinking again?
As can be heard on the video the blessing was carried out against the background of a relentless public address system. Most calls were for the inevitably separated families and lost children. [Seema writes* 'Countless announcements blare from the public address system. A young girl’s heartbreaking wail rents the air as she asks the control tower to find her parents. A pilgrim from Andhra Pradesh tries to speak to his “missing” Telugu-speaking wife over the PA system.'] We like to think of India as a society that respects its elders, but there is a persistent story that families bring the aged and infirm to the Kumbh and dump them in the belief that they will be looked after by someone - or die in a sacred place. Whether this is a regular occurrence or has happened only once or is merely an urban myth I do not know, but it chimes perfectly with that sector of society – as prevalent in India as in England – that is convinced that everything is always getting worse.
Several times we were approached by groups of people wanting to say hello, and have their photograph taken with us. Seema and Biku found this surprising, but we have often encountered it in places where foreign faces are few. Generally conversation is limited, ‘Hello’ being their only word of English, while our Hindi is limited to 'biryani', 'sag aloo' and the like, which have their uses, but do not make for much of a conversation. Occasionally more communication is possible, as with the two lads below, students from Allahabad University and mathematics students to boot, so we had something in common (probably the wrong sort of thinking).
Me with two students from Allahabad University

As afternoon threatened to tip into evening, which happens early in these latitudes, it became time to leave the Kumbh. It had been a breathtaking swirl of sounds, colours and smells (the less said about some them the the better). Even as we turned to walk over the floating bridge I had to glance behind me to check it had all been real. It had been a privilege to be the smallest possible part of it.

Leaving the Kumbh, Allahabad
‘Have you been into Allahabad?’ Seema asked before suggesting we should visit the Nehru house.

The Kumbh was on the southeastern edge of Allahabad, a city of some 1.5 million. It is known as the ‘City of Prime Ministers’ as 7 of India’s 13 prime ministers were either born there, studied at Allahabad University or represented the city in Parliament. 3 of those 7 were from the remarkable Nehru dynasty

Motilal Nehru (1861-1931), a lawyer and leading light in the independence movement was the family patriarch. His son, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) was the first prime minister of independent India. His daughter Indira Ghandi (no relation of Mahatma Ghandi) was prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. She was succeeded by her son Rajiv Ghandi who was prime minister until he too was assassinated in 1989. His widow Sonia Ghandi, though Italian by birth, wields considerable power as president of the Congress Party. Other, younger, members of the family wait in the wings.

After fighting our way through dense traffic we arrived at the Nehru house, or rather houses, just before closing time. Indira Ghandi was born in Anand Bhavan and we started there, walking round the balcony and staring into the rooms on display. It was a grand house, but nowhere near as grand as Swaraj Bhavan next door.

Anand Bhavan, Allahabad

Before we reached Swaraj Bhavant one of the attendants found the courage to tell Seema that we needed tickets. When she bought four 10 rupee (12p) tickets I took out my wallet, pointing out that 10 Rupees was the price for Indian nationals and that Lynne and I needed 100 Rupee foreigners' tickets. Seema waved my wallet away. ‘Your British,' she said, 'you didn’t leave us very long ago, and anyway we’ve forgiven you,’ and that settled that.

The guardian was locking up as we arrived and for a moment I thought we might be unlucky, but after a word or two from Seema he decided to accompany us round the house, giving us a guided tour and shutting off the lights behind us we moved from room to room.

Swaraj Bhavan, Allahabad
Motilal Nehru bought the house in 1900. On his frequent visits to Europe he bought furniture and china with the intention of turning the mansion into ‘an elaborate replica of an English country estate … bifurcated between East and West’ (Wikipedia). He was outstandingly successful.

There are many pictures of the Nehru family, dressed formally and informally in European and Indian style. These were people who could move so effortlessly from one culture to another and operate at such a high level in each that I felt sorry for the British viceroys who had to deal with them; they were out of their depth.

The house was donated to the Congress Party in 1930 and Anand Bhavan was built next door as a more practically sized, though still substantial, family house.

On the way back to camp we dropped in at Holy Trinity Church, a Colonial-Gothic pile built in 1839 and modelled on St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. If it was not for the blue (though rapidly darkening) sky this picture could be of St Martin’s.

Holy Trinity, Allahan=bad

As darkness fell we crossed the bridge over the Kumbh Mela site as we drove back to our campsite.

The Kumbh Mela site at night
Despite encouraging texts from India Telecom, Lynne’s phone could not be persuaded to connect with anybody, so we borrowed reception’s laptop and emailed our man Mohammed in Delhi and told him we needed transport.

There were more people in the canteen that evening, mostly Indian pilgrims, but with a smattering of curious westerners. We dined with Biku and Seema and enjoyed an interesting and wide ranging discussion. Seema had worked for the BBC World Service in London and was formidably well informed on British current affairs and we knew far more about Indian issues by the time the meal was over.

[Update: what Seema did not tell us. The day’s events had persuaded us that she was perhaps more important and influential than she had let on. She had described herself as an ‘associate editor’ of the Indian Express, a vague term that can cover anybody from tea boy to managing director. At home, ten minutes Googling established that she is actually a very well-known journalist in India. Her husband’s Wikipedia entry describes her as ‘former Delhi editor of BBC Hindi Service and presently Resident Editor of the Indian Express’. And her husband (whom we did not meet) represents West Bengal in the Rayja Sabha (India’s Upper House) where he leads the Communist Party of India (Marxist)]

As we made our way back to our tent the man from reception approached to say that someone called Mohammed had phoned and a car would be waiting for us in the morning.

It had been a remarkable day, at one time looking like a disaster, but turning into a triumph, thanks to Seema and Biku. We owe a big ‘thank you’ to Seema, particularly, for her kindness, for the refreshing modesty with which she displayed her erudition, and for her spectacular ability to bend people to her will and leave them thinking she had done them a favour.

* A Sceptic on the Bank by Seema Chishti, The Indian Express 02/03/13

1 comment:

  1. The sun shines on the righteous! You were so lucky to meet Seema and Biku, they saved the day for you both. Hilary