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Pilgrims' progress


3 March 2001

Story by CHRISTOPHER KREMMER for The Good Weekend

As millions of Hindus gathered in January for a holy dip, the religious hardliners among them tried to hijack the proceedings. Here, a look at the seething tensions behind the scenes at the Ganges.

Thirty-two million people were waiting impatiently to bathe where the milky waters of the Ganges blend with the blue stream of the Yamuna.

And in the pre-dawn darkness at the recent Maha Kumbh Mela (Great Urn Festival) - the largest human congregation in history - it looked like I would be going in first.

Close by, a naked, ash-smeared man sat astride a stocky white horse. He was brandishing a trident and, with the auspicious bathing festival not due to occur again for another 12 years, looked determined not to let anyone get in his way. "No photos!" shouted one of his attendants, a bearded young man in flowing saffron robes, who, upon learning I was camera-less, explained that naked sadhus had been known to take violent exception to being photographed.

The sadhu and his attendant, Swami Vedanta, belonged to the Nirvani sect which had the honour this year of dunking first. Naga (the unclothed) sadhus are religious ascetics who take vows of chastity and poverty, burn their clothes and wander India naked for the rest of their lives. To steel himself for such vows, Vedanta, still a novice, had spent the previous three years living in a cave in the Himalayan foothills near Gangotri.

As we chatted, the police flagged off India's great sacred ritual, with Swami Vedanta, the naked horseman and me in the vanguard.

Although I have lived in India for seven years, I have never become used to the crowds. The last time I was among so many Hindus, they were demolishing a disused 15th-century mosque, Babri Masjid, in the northern town of Ayodhya. The hated Muslim temple, they said, had desecrated the birthplace of their god Rama. Many Hindus doubt the birthplace story, but the Babri Masjid was obliterated by 400,000 pairs of busy hands on December 6, 1992. (In the months following, many Muslims would be killed in riots across the Subcontinent.) That day haunted me as the moment India's secular democracy was trashed by theocratic mobocracy, the dawn of an Age of Disintegration.

The Hindu nationalists, as they are called, want to build a temple at the disputed Ayodhya site, and decided to use the occasion of this year's Kumbh to reinvigorate their crusade.

The original pilgrimage, Maha Kumbh Mela predates the Muslim hajj to Mecca. It recalls a mythical battle in the sky between gods and demons for control of an urn containing the nectar of immortality. Drops of nectar spilled at four places, most importantly at Allahabad, where India's two holiest rivers meet. Every 12 years, when the planet Jupiter enters Aries, and the sun and moon are in Capricorn, Hindus converge, regardless of caste or sect, on the confluence.

Ashrams, temples, shops and bathing ghats spring up on the vast sandbanks that lie exposed during the dry winters. Hindu priests devise horoscopes, dispense medicines, and preach endlessly in a kind of spiritual Olympics. Among the exhibits attracting pilgrims this year was a sandstone and wood model of the proposed Rama temple of Ayodhya.

The naked sadhus, whose wild appearance has so fascinated the world's media over the past six weeks, were founded as a martial sect to ward off the threat posed by Buddha, who was born in India and won many followers by opposing the caste system. They no longer have that role but still see themselves as defenders of a pure Hinduism by their commitment to the ascetic way of life.

In today's Indian democracy, the 82 per cent Hindu majority has the numbers. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was catapulted to power by a "Hindu wave" after the demolition of the Babri Masjid back in 1992. Yet his coalition relies on support from more moderate parties. To stay in power, Vajpayee shelved the plan to build the Rama temple at Ayodhya, but hardliners carry on the fight, encouraged by the Prime Minister, who in December called the Ayodhya movement "an expression of national sentiment". It's a "sentiment" that challenges the vision of independent India's founders, whose Constitution gave equal rights to Indians of all religions.

"We believe that all Indian Muslims were originally Hindus who were converted by Mughal rulers, and we are encouraging them to return to their flock," says Sant Nawal Kishore Das, of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the self-styled World Hindu Council which is aligned with Vajpayee's party and has led the Ayodhya campaign. "If they do not, then we believe that they are not really Indians at all, and must go away to Pakistan, or some other Muslim country." As millions of Hindus arrived in Allahabad in January, the VHP made its move, announcing a Dharam Sansad (Parliament of Saints) to set a date for construction of the temple. Such a resolution by India's most revered religious leaders would have put Ayodhya back at the top of the national political agenda.

Like the two great rivers, the Hindu religion's two contradictory streams converged at Allahabad. Arguments raged in the enormous tent pitched

to accommodate the 5,000 sadhus. Some hurled choice epithets at the Muslims, and called for a holy war for the temple. But by the third day of the Dharam Sansad, the waters had cleared, and the path of non-violence had prevailed.

Hinduism's four highest spiritual leaders, who earlier had been the target of intense lobbying by the VHP to restart the temple crusade, boycotted the meeting. They later issued statements stressing that dialogue, not a deadline, was the way to solve the Ayodhya conflict. "The VHP is not serious about building a Rama temple at Ayodhya, but is more interested in garnering votes for the Bharatiya Janata Party," said Swami Gopalanand, accusing Hindu nationalists of having tried to hijack the Kumbh.

There had been an omen. As Kumbh organisers were making preparations, the Ganges had changed course, requiring a wholesale revision of the layout of a temporary city capable of accommodating more people than the entire population of Australia.

Now, like its fickle and powerful holy river, Hinduism itself seemed to be changing course.

The main Kumbh parade headed to the river, passing the huge gathering held back by flimsy bamboo barricades. As the waters of the holy confluence beckoned, Swami Vedanta, who had objected to photography when we met, produced a camera from beneath his robes. At his request, I took his photo, but the flash attracted the attention of the police, who were under strict instructions from the sadhus to keep photographers away. Despite Vedanta's pleas, they removed me from the procession.

Frankly, it was a relief. And anyway, something important had happened, something bigger than me, bigger even than the Kumbh. As a blood-red sun rose over the Ganges, I witnessed what I hoped would be the dawn of a gentler, more tolerant age.

"You have before you such multitude of men and women as you may not meet twice in a lifetime," observed Sidney Low, a member of a British royal party which toured India in 1906, when two million attended the Kumbh. Another European observer declared that, "Only as an immediate witness of some of the melas is it possible to realise the depth and extent of the roots of this faith." This year, after the sadhus had charged into the water, dancing and whooping like children, tens of millions of ordinary Hindus waded more cautiously into the shallows. Submerged in their common identity, they washed away their sins. Unlike in Mecca, non-Hindus are welcome here and the joyful spirit is infectious.

Lost in their millions I walked fully clothed to the water's edge, scooped up some of that nectar and splashed my face and hands. Humbling is the redeeming power of the Kumbh.


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