I landed in what was once the Nizam’s Hyderabad which is now being enhanced by the high-tech area of Cyberabad. I then proceeded to travel to energetic Pune which is a couple of vowels and a few decades removed from its artsy Poona days. Before departing from Calcutta (renamed into Kolkata with a brighter future but still only a faint glimmer of its imperial importance), Mangla and I took a serendipitous detour through the middle of India. In my decades of travel, I’ve learned that the world rewards the traveler who strays off his itinerary, and this trip did not disappoint us; we had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, now called Prayagraj by some. Perhaps all this renaming of Indian cities reflected the false duality of my business-cum-spirituality travel. As those rocking philosophers The Grateful Dead might say, in the end we’ll all realize “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” There really is no separation as we find ourselves truckin’ down the road of life. Modern-day rockers make accessible what the eighth-century rishi Adi Shankaracharya expounded in his Advaita Vedanta, a wonderful treatise on non-dualism. If the rishi were alive today, he might have suggested that my “family yatra resulted from a creative combination of consulting and Kumbh.”
The consulting was courtesy of a Silicon Valley client which had engaged me to help its leadership manage organizational churn for greater customer success; the Kumbh Mela (which means churning fair) was courtesy of Mangla’s sister, Madhuri, and her husband, Mukesh (whom I respectfully refer to as Mukeshji). Mangla and I have seen much of India because of Colonel Mukesh’s postings throughout the country. Now with retirement pending, he had returned to his hometown of Pune for the post-Army stage of his journey. My sister-in-law Madhuri is a teacher like my wife Mangla. Because she had to attend an education conference in Delhi while Mangla and I were in Pune, we were not going to be able to see Madhuri there. With last-minute planning, a good deal of flexibility, and a thoughtfulness that can only be called love, we met in Delhi for a day and then proceeded with Madhuri and Mukeshji’s son, Shravan, to Allahabad.
Ah, Allahabad. We arrived early in the morning having taken the Duronto Express overnight train from Delhi. Mukeshji had reserved a guesthouse in the cantonment. The Army defends India but seems so unlike India in some respects except for the way in which its nearly two million force represents Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis, and agnostics who make up its nearly two million force. The Army has discipline, cleanliness, respect, and quiet; it all adds up to a peaceful shanti-ness that is only broken by the cooing of a bird. It is a respite from the rest of India; even the chilled out high-tech campuses that I have visited in Bangalore (Bengaluru), Hyderabad, and now even Pune don’t have this pervasive calm that is ever-ready to spring into unified action.
But we didn’t come to Allahabad to meditate on the Army’s lockstep Zen. We came to attend the Kumbh Mela at Sangam, which is where two rivers – Ganga and Jamuna – meet. Some say that a third river – the mythological Saraswati – is also at the confluence of the mighty Ganges and her sister Yamuna (the other name for Jamuna). Given that both my paternal and maternal grandmothers were named Saraswati, I’d like to believe that I was meeting my ancestral mothers at this sacred riverine meet-up.
Throughout our stay in Allahabad, I looked for faces that would remind me of my now-deceased grandmothers. They were there at the Hanuman Temple where no one seemed in a rush to move on from taking darshan of the reclining Hanuman. They were there in a youthful avatar at the ticketing desk for the boat ride to where Ganga and Jamuna would flow into each other. Maybe they were even there amongst the seagulls that were scattered by our motorboat. And they were certainly with me in spirit when Mangla and I did a puja at Sangam, which means confluence.
It was Mangla’s birthday, and I was open to most anything she wanted to do. She and I stepped out of our boat and onto another boat which was linked to a long chain of parked vessels. Each boat had a ghatia (priest) and a series of middlemen who facilitated our taking a dubki in the water; in order for us to do the sacred dip, they smilingly dipped their heads with the belief that believers would further dip into their purses and reward the facilitators. When the ghatia was at the midpoint of his rituals, he asked us whether we had children; we nodded in the affirmative. He asked us if the children were married; we nodded in the affirmative. He asked us if our children had children; given that our daughter would soon be giving birth to our first grandchild, Mangla and I gave a hopeful nod. He asked us how many ancestors we wanted to honor by feeding a Brahmin at Rs. 200 per person; I thought five sounded right, but Mangla said eleven, so eleven it was. A paan-stained smile spread across the ghatia’s face at the thought of Rs. 2,200 for a quick mantra.
The stain polluting the Ganga and Jamuna for the past many decades of India’s incessant urbanization does give one pause. While Mukeshji did a full dubki, Mangla and Madhuri purified only their faces, hands, and feet with the confluent waters. As for me, given my experience with typhoid, I was a bit dubious about the government’s efforts to clean our holy rivers and merely dipped my fingers and toes into the muddy green Gangetic flow.
Perhaps the same caution restrained me from fully embracing the babas who are at the heart of the Kumbh Mela. There were a wide variety of holy men physically or virtually present. The virtual presence was unavoidable with loud, colorful hoardings of the ever-smiling Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with his Art of Living followers, and the ever-expanding Baba Ramdev with his yoga practitioners and Patanjali-product consumers. But I found these well-known babas less interesting than the scowling mad man with his seemingly lost, teary-eyed, blonde-haired acolyte and the baba who seemed content to sit by himself on the banks of Jamuna, far away from the maddening crowd. Their idiosyncratic quirkiness brings the Kumbh alive and accessible, makes it less of a slick, glossy brochure for an “Incredible India” ad campaign. Even the begging baba who stuck to us like an over-eager fly hovering over an offering of gulab jamuns brought a smile to my face.
We only caught a glimpse of the tents where the akharas were based. This is where ascetics, following in the path of Adi Shankaracharya, carry forward a way of life apart from the mainstream; their espoused renunciation of material goods is unique in a modern world where the overwhelming religion is market capitalism. While the religious militancy can be offt-putting to those coming from a secular world-view, and the in-your-face nakedness may be too stark to those preferring modesty, there is no denying the eternal Hindu heterogeneity championed in the various philosophical camps of intellectuals and warriors.
Perhaps it is fitting that there is an ordinance depot in the Allahabad Fort towering above the Kumbh Mela. Mukeshji gave us a tour of this fort that Akbar built in the 16th century. Part of the tour included an opportunity to see the Akshaya Vat tree. It had been many years since pilgrims to Kumbh were allowed to visit this tree, which has been verdantly vibrant for centuries. Legend has it that although Mughal rulers had attempted to destroy it, the tree never dies; and to this day it is said that the Akshaya Vat does not shed a single leaf.
The fort is but a stone’s throw away from the churn of the Kumbh, but a world apart in its serenity: peacocks roam the grounds, magnificently sashaying their colors; parrots make nests in the fort’s walls, flitting here and there like pilgrims going from one akhara to another; and political leaders stride up a staircase to take in the grandeur of the rivers bringing millions together over two months. Indeed, just a few days after the current Indian President Ram Nath Kovind attended the Kumbh Mela, we were fortunate to be at the fort’s viewing platform which India’s first President Rajendra Prasad had inaugurated shortly after Indian Independence.
Of course, in India, religion and politics mix together like the Ganga and Jamuna coming together (though perhaps the green muddy flow is more of a brown muddy muck). Photographs of Prime Minister Modi were more omnipresent than those of any baba. With elections just a few months away, local politicians jockeyed to have their faces plastered over the same hoardings occupied by Modi’s visage. Most prominent among the faces was that of the monk-turned-saffron-robed-politician Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Yogi-ji, as he is known to his followers, conflated Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid v. Ram Mandir debate with a small temple inside the Allahabad Fort by proclaiming, “This is the first time Akshaya Vat and Saraswati Koop will be opened during the Kumbh Mela. Mughal emperor Akbar commissioned a fort there and that’s why people were not able to offer prayers there.” I must say that I was much more pleased to hear a pandit tell the story of Akshaya Vat’s immortal sacred banyan tree and to imagine the Saraswati River flowing nearby than to see them “weaponized” by politicians.
Allahabad has long been home to politicians, dating back to antiquity when it was called Prayagraj. So on our last day in a city whose name has Muslim echoes but has been renamed to its Hindu roots by the state’s current Chief Minister, we took a tour of Anand Bhavan and Swaraj Bhavan. These museums were once the ancestral homes of the Nehru-Gandhi clan that ruled India for so many (too many depending on your politics) of the post-Independence years. Regardless of one’s political leanings, there is a thrill to be had in walking through the rooms of an estate where Jawaharlal Nehru lived, Indira Gandhi was born, and leaders of India’s freedom movement convened. I must confess to goose-bumps as I reflected that the Mahatma (Gandhi) and the Sardar (Vallabhbhai Patel) had marched through the same hallways in which I found myself wandering back in history to a pivotal time of wonder.
Although the time in Allahabad/Prayagraj ended with a hasty realization that we had a train to catch, the feeling created with goose-bumps stayed with me. We took Indian Railways to Varanasi and sat at the Ghats mesmerized by the Ganga Arti chants and then onward to Sarnath where in a deer park, at another confluence of rivers – the Ganga and the Varuna – the Buddha first taught the Dharma to his disciples. Serendipity followed us as the Prime Minister was feting members of the Indian diaspora with a Pravasi Bharatiya Divas hosted in Varanasi, the constituency from where he was seeking re-election. The public spaces of Varanasi/Banaras/Kashi were clean, the walls were transformed into frescoes as part of an imaginative street art initiative, the meeting venues were patriotically decorated in the saffron/white/green tricolor of the Indian flag, “Jai Hind” could be heard inside and outside the Army cantonment, and even the venerable Banaras Hindu University was spruced up with a light show for the foreign sons and daughters of India’s soil. But these are stories for another time.
We ended our trip to India in Calcutta/Kolkata, spending time with family in Mangla’s childhood city. I was taken aback to be received as an enlightened carrier of the Kumbh’s blessings by so many younger and elder relatives. To be sure, the youngsters have always bowed down to receive my blessings, but I recoiled from an elderly uncle doing the same. It was only when I humbly realized that I was a simple vessel for the Kumbh Mela’s ashirwaad that I fully embraced the role reversal and passed along blessings to one and all.
And so, gentle reader, I end here wishing that in the next six to twelve years, you, too, receive the purifying blessings of Ganga, Jamuna, and Saraswati. But until then, perhaps the words you’ve read here can be an ashirwaad of sorts.
In appreciation of Madhuri and Mukeshji, who have immeasurably helped the author expand his knowledge of India from words in books to people in places.