After coming to Varanasi and being here for a few days, looking back at Kumbh is like rubbing your tongue in the hole left by a pulled tooth. Kumbh is a distant memory, every white person in Varanasi has because we all bailed at the same time. The build up to, then the event and the aftermath we all seem to have similar sentiment towards it, ‘meh’ and apt American word for ‘yeah been there done that…Next!’. Im glad I went, Im glad I saw it, but Im left with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction.
The Kumbh authorities and organizers out-did themselves in terms of putting this unprecedented event together. 120,000,000 people in a 56 square mile area of Indian military engineering mastery; supplying fresh filtered water to everyone, workable roads paved in steel plate, and pontoon bridges, and the policing of such, and the refreshing level of sanitation, litter control and basic but fully functional hygiene and the army of workers who provided it was completely impressive.
The first time I stepped out of the Kumbh grounds I was approached by two students from Allahabad University who were conducting a detailed survey for non Indian travelers and what we thought of the event. The questions themselves were somewhat revealing in that they were asking a lot about what we thought about the administration of the event and whether or not it had much of an impact on us (yes it did), and whether or not we felt more devout about the high levels of celebrity Baba’s and whether or not they needed the level of coverage and pomp they received (no they didnt).
I went to see what millions and millions of people would look like and to feel the presence of such levels of humanity in my face, and the the most part the benevolence of the Indians meant that it was a peaceful affair. Everyone was on vacation, or were there in devotion and to seek enlightenment from their Baba and to bathe in the sacred Ganga, and to take little bottles of it home for their shrines.
The people that impressed me the most were the blue-collar workers, not necessarily only the lower caste, but the people who had put their lives on hold to go.
The Baba’s were a mix of the high profile dicks with their giant self promoting posters plastered everywhere expressing hollow and borrowed promises to their followers, then there were the smaller Baba’s who had less money prowess and smaller numbers of devotees and offered rudimentary accommodations in the shape of thatched huts with straw beds or tents with straw floor coverings, and then the lowest levels of Baba’s who had nothing but their meagre paraphernalia, a tarp and some pillows to offer their flock to come pray in front of a cleansing fire. And maybe share some of their hashish.
Then there are the various levels of holy men, most of which blend into one another without much of a difference in their ways, some stand out;
The humbleness of the Brahmen monks and their generosity is breathtaking. They are the ones who shave their heads and mark their forheads with stripes and lines, wear orange and carry with them a sick which has a small roof attached so they always have a place to stay. They fed me good food and asked only to be photographed. I would later meet the same Brahman in the chaotic twisted streets of Varanasi where he recognized me and gave me blessing.
Ahgori’s who relish death and devote themselves to it, who eat the flesh of the dead to consume death, they (of course) wear black, and have some party piece like bones or a skull to embellish themselves with a talisman. Later I would find out that they usually have to get mangled on whiskey before they can perform their flesh eating rituals..
Then there were the Naga’s. They are the renounciates, the ones who are naked, and cover themselves in ash and wear marigolds around their necks, and paint their faces and look like something from a White Zombie album cover.. They are also the ones everyone wants to photograph because they are the most outgoing and flamboyant, they are also the most conceited and have been known to smash a camera if you make a picture and dont pay for it. Asshole celebrity photographers have ruined for everyone including non photographers who want to follow their beliefs because the Naga’s know that they are currency in of themselves. I still managed to get the best shots of them on their way to the bathing just because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The Maha Kumbh Mela is more about show and pomp now then it could have been back in 2001. I saw awesome arrays of film making equipment with cranes and dollies and entire film crews squabbling with each other over locations.
Then the rain came, a giant storm, so much rain, and wind that smashed and destroyed anything up to 60% of the grounds. Some say it was an act of god, and how it would wash away the pomp and leave the devout. Im not going to argue with that.