A visit to the Ardh Mela

We arrived in Allahabad on the 22nd of January, clutching our jackets against the biting morning wind as our train rolled into the jam-packed train station. My friend Clay and I had come to witness the Ardh Mela.

This Mela is the 6 year counter-festival to the famous Kumbha Mela. Both the Kumbha and the Ardh mela are India’s largest and most revered religious festivals, attrating millions of people from across India. I have heard varying numbers, but many seem to think between 10 million and 20 million people came to this years Ardh Mela in Allahabad. It filled the month of January, and swelled to its maximum capacity on three particular days, known as “bathing days” – a code name for the celestial alignments of the Vedic astrological calendars which denote auspicious days in which to bathe in the confluence of three very holy rivers. The three converging rivers are the Ganges, which flows southeast from the Himalayan glaciers in the north, the Yamuni River, and the Saraswati River, an invisible underground river believed in by the faithful. The ritualized act of bathing in the holy rivers is the central and underlying theme of the Melas, and it is on such days that all the sadhus gather and make a procession to the waters to bathe. And mother luck was with us, as we landed the day before the final bathing day, and the last procession of sadhus.

Only vaguely aware that it was a day “for bathing”, Clay and I woke up on our first morning and headed straight into the swirling whirlwind of chaos, and quickly realized that we had to abandon any and all plans or agendas we might have had; the seething sea of people was alive with its own intelligence, and we quietly accepted the fact that we would have to follow where it led us, surrender to its instructions. After only half an hour, however, of attempting to navigate a decent route through this tumultuous underworld of madness, we heard the sounds of drums and trumpets, and could soon after see colorful flags whipping about in the wind. Interesting, we thought, and approached the lines.

It was the beginning of the Sadhu procession, and we found ourselves staring back at dozens of sadhus, swamis, pundits, and gurus, all standing patiently in lines that were not moving, and looking amusingly similar to school children antsy and excited to get somewhere. There were certain prestigious swamis – with connections – who were at the head of the procession on elaborately decorated horses and bearing certain weapons or staffs. As they began to move, haltingly and somewhat uncertainly, we followed it, slowly, as it approached the banks of the rivers. To briefly outline the logistics, the sadhus had their own fenced-in and protected route, including a large well-protected bathing ghat that was for the sadhus (and some of their families) only.

Then there was a massive bathing ghat for regular pilgrims alongside it, both separated by a thin, off-limits VIP type buffer zone filled with loafing police and military men… clay and I attempted to approach the water in the civilian/pilgrim area, but never have I seen so many people uncomfortably crammed together in a frantic and tumultuous mass, seething and groping towards the waters. Insane. Literallly. No, we could not have this. We approached the spaciest and least authoritative looking army man in the buffer zone, and ignoring his semi-automatic machine gun slung around his shoulder, we shouted something about being photographers from America and needing more space take pictures. Seeing surprise, awe in the face of white skin, and a vague sense of non-understanding I began pushing myself in between the bars. Clay followed suit, and we found ourselves shuffling down the open zone towards the water, smiling at the dozens of confused militia men as if we were perfectly confident that we had every right to be there.

We made it to the water to witness the hundreds of thousands of peole bathing from countless different banks, in a massive area around the merging mouth of the three rivers. We could only see so much, but we were utterly surrounded, sandwhiched between one major pilgrim bathing ghat and the reserved pen for the coming sadhus – but I got the instinctinve sense that our neighborhood was a sliver, a fraction, of the entire seething, living, massive conglomeration of human beings that constituted this Mela. There had to have been dozens more such bathing ghats, all equally as swollen and pulsing with life, but they blended into the haze and smog along the horizon.  We knew there was identical action and insanity occuring all around us for many square kilometers.

Then the Sadhus arrived, stripping down, derobing, some immediately running and jumping into the chilly waters like little children. Some took their time preparing themselves, removing their sacred bling – rudraksha beads, malas, amulets, necklaces – and unfurling and retying their bundles of nappy dreadlocks. Others sat and meditated on the invisible gods gathered at this auspicious confluence, and the sacred promise they had made to humans: to purify and cleanse the people who bathe here of their accumulated sins. Chanting, laughter, and prayers spilt and blended together through the smoke-filled air; ash-smeared bodies and burly ancient dreadlocks coexisted with modern mobile cellphones and packs of GoldFlake cigerettes, and olive brown weathered skin was illuminated by bright orange and red  robes, the age-old colors of the renunciant’s garb. Clay and I watched on with silent wonder and sheer amazment. We felt like stationary sponges in a bristling ocean of activity, silently soaking in the energy through every pore in our bodies. Here we were, sandwiched amongst countless breathing bodies, and we could feel the raw magnetism of the roaring crowds. The sheer intentions and belief of the people gathered here, from every corner of India, was palpable. These pilgrims were storming the Gods’ castle, taking the Heavenly Abode by sheer force of will; a wild, excessive, unbridled, stubborn, and uncompromising surge, rising up into the smoky air as if trying to pierce the heavens.

After a while, as the sadhu crowd began to die down, clay and I finally made the decision we had been weighing since the morning. We decided to bathe. In a breathless moment we slipped through the security people, ignoring questions about special permits, and we found ourselves alone inside the sadhu ghat, stripping down and exposing our bare white skins, garbed in goofy boxers. But we could tell people respected our desire to share in their sacred customs, and they let us be. Ignoring the sheer filth of a river in which millions of (perhaps not so clean) people had already bathed – and which had recieved the waste and rubbish of hundreds of cities and villages –  we entered the icy waters and submerged ourselves up to the necks. Offering prayers to the invisible gods of this ancient land, to the sun Surya, the Moon Chandra, the Amrit of the immortals, we offered our bowed hands to these sanctified banks, made holy by the thousands of similar melas that has ceaselessly transpired down through the ages. Images of ragged, weary mahatmas, sadus, beggars, and pilgrims who had trekked hundreds of dusty miles to touch these waters in ages past, their troubles and concerns just as urgent to them as ours are to us, flashed through our minds. Following in the footsteps of a tradition outlined in the Ramayana and Mahabarata,  the footsteps of generations past that had produced great saints and sages, so now two whities from Los Angeles bobbed momentarily in the chilled and murky waters of the Ganges, having searched for something defining, quested for the ineffable, longed for the miraculous, and finally found the extraordinary.

Returning home, amidst the roaring crowds now heading away from the Mela in a continuous stream, we scrubbed ourselves clean and feasted with the multitudes on the free food served in caked banana leaf bowls given out to pilgrims on the street. As we sat there on the dirty, noisy sidewalks covered in trash, a realization of where we were suddenly sank in; we were in the heart of hearts of the largest gathering in the world, a gathering the size of a large city and containing the madness of several, a gathering which descended upon this dusty land with the unbridled, uncompromising intensity of a natural disaster, a gathering so excessive in magnitude and extraordinary in spirit, that we felt the very foundational walls of our worldview moan and creak under its weight. Our rational faculties buckled and our hearts opened as we looked about us, witnessing first hand everything that God had used to spice this Cosmic Masala Dosa: bustling tea stalls, screeching rickshaws, conversations shouted over the constant cacophony of honking horns and ringing bells, clouds of incense smoke wafting into the dusty street haze, garishly greasy orange Hanuman statues, merry and perhaps senile granddads in white dhotis and thick old fashioned rimmed glasses, dead dogs, vats of puri and dhal on the streets, grungy cows – indifferent to the human madness around them – gently meandering through trash piles, screaming babies, mangy dogs and their playful puppies, grinning teenagers eager to practice their English, wandering herds of mud-covered goats, men with white beards stained orange from beetle nut, women in glittering saris the colors of deep sea fish, epic mustaches that look like they could come alive and jump on you, missing teeth and blistered feet, rugged sadhus with hardened jaws and blazing eyes, bent grandmothers – battered, torn, worn, and tattered, as old as the land, whose heavy, sunken expressions speak of ages past and names forgotten, deformed lepers, drug dealers, and military men walking alongside each other holding hands, and through all of it still the ineffable, indefinable humane-ness of struggling Spirit in this crazy world. Perhaps the entire experience of this living, breathing Mela can be described as humanity’s groping attempt to reunite matter and spirit, to reconcile the temporality of the profane with the eternity of the sacred. An attempt to fuse the grace and the grit. It was about the universal human condition and its primal longing; the hidden, innate desire for confrontation with the unknown. And it is this very desire that points to something defining; a movement towards the mystery.

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