Many Rivers, Choose Your Speed:
Ready when you are, Mr. De Mille.
Kumbha Mela Diary Entries:
by Joy Shayne Laughter.
You know those 45 million people expected to attend the Kumbha Mela 2001? They arrived yesterday. All of them. Rivers, tides, a relentless slow-motion avalanche of humanity trudged down roads, across pontoon bridges, into the sun-baked dust of the Mela grounds. Slow, enduring, eternal humanity, hypnotized by their purpose - to step into the river and pour its waters over one's head, the head that has carried baggage for miles, for days. "It's Biblical," my photographer friend kept whispering.
The great parade of ash-covered sadhus to the banks of the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers started at 4 am today. These naked, wild holy men who have rejected social norms and conventions have the place of honor - they are the first to step into the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers at the moment when the planets are lined up in heaven. After them, the rest of the millions upon millions crowd into the waters.
Now it's the end of the biggest, most spiritually important day at the Mahakumbhmela 2001. The videographers of our traveling group are ecstatic. "I had a blast, I got shots of everything I could get my hands on!" "We got to the river ten minutes before they made the photographers leave, but we got great footage." "I got right down there with the naga babas at the river, too bad this other photographer got thrown out by the police, there was nothing I could do." Their eyes blaze, their faces glow, they fall into the shower and stagger off to bed.
The River of Humanity is patient and enduring, but the River of Media is urgent, sudden, excitable, daring. I asked Nadeem, a Bhopal-born documentary filmmaker, what has been going on inside him while he runs tirelessly through the heat and choking dust, wielding his state-of-the-art video camera. What has moved him about this experience?
"The devotion," he replied. "The spirit is so alive everywhere. I saw a little old woman who was having so much trouble walking, but she held the hands of her family and they all walked together, smiling. People are here to participate. There are lots of smiling faces everywhere. Even the very poorest are very rich in spirit."
Hindi is Nadeem's native tongue. The continuous songs, discourses and sermons blaring over loudspeakers have been full of meaning for him, while they are just crazy-making noise to the rest of us. Nadeem told me that the gurus and babas are constantly praying for vish, the world, and speaking of subdharm, the unity of all religions in a message of peace, love, hope and compassion. "Their emphasis is on the good of common humanity, on doing good," he said, "not just having faith and following the rules of one religion." He added his hope that the media will be able to communicate some of this message of peaceful spiritual unity, and not just dwell on the exotic spectacle.
Others of my traveling group have agreed that the energy of the Mela has become more unified and concentrated, as the curiosity-seekers have been squeezed out by the growing crowds. Now everyone is a real pilgrim. The desire to do this thing has driven millions of them to endure such hardship that they are worn down to their essence - the soul that seeks salvation at the river.
One of our group, a 19-year-old man from Seattle, was getting some water at a spigot. A solitary, sinewy old man sat on the ground nearby, massaging his bare, dust-caked feet. The old man asked the young one, "Been walking long?"
"Yeah, about two hours," my friend replied. The old man pointed at his own feet, which were thickly callused and cracked, like slabs of wood.
"Nine months," he said. "Nine months."