Relational Ascetics

Left: A holy dip on Paush Purnima, the last full moon of the first month of the Hindu calendar. Right: The entry to Sector Nine of the Kumbh city. (Photos: Dan Morrison)

THE MAHA KUMBH MELA, a fifty-five-day Hindu festival at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati rivers in northern India, is said to be the largest gathering of humanity on earth. From the masses of poor and middle-class Indians seeking a purifying immersion in India’s holiest river, to the armed companies of ash-dusted (and hash-fortified) ascetics eager to display the might of their holy orders, tens of millions of pilgrims converge on the stately city of Allahabad, which hosts the festival every twelve years.

It’s a scene that’s impossible to ignore, and an essential experience for an author researching a book on the mysteries of the Ganges River. I hadn’t come for purification but to learn the stories of some among the millions who had, and also to behold the quantum logistics at work in the accommodation of so many people in such a small area for this one time.

New to the ways of the Kumbh, I spent my first night here in a “luxury” tented hotel that was as near to the divine as Walmart, and quickly shifted to the more basic camp of a respected swami, where sermons and chanting filled the day and everyone washed their own dishes and bathed with buckets. Each Kumbh Mela sees more pilgrims than the last, an increase that regularly outstrips the abilities of government administrators. Last Sunday, February 10th, thirty-six pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the Allahabad Junction railway station during one of the most important bathing dates.

On that day, a massive procession of sadhus from thirteen ascetic orders, or akharas, many of them brandishing cutlasses and tridents, descended from their tented camps to the sangam, as the confluence is known. According to official estimates, as many as thirty million people bathed in the river over the weekend. “It’s all the things which are wonderful about India in its most exotic way,” Prashant Panjiar, a photographer and veteran of several Kumbh Melas, told me. “Photography thrives on the spectacle.” And of course many visitors—be they researchers, artists, explorers, or tourists—are drawn in by that very spectacular documentation.

Saddhus with a work by Kay Walkowiak. (Photo: Kay Walkowiak)

Sadhus are the defining image of the Kumbh Mela, and they are the sounding board for conceptual artist Kay Walkowiak, who has been visiting the ascetics in their camps and asking them to “interpret” minimalist-style painted panels. While a few were dismissive, others have indulged Walkowiak by explaining what the panels might mean. “I use these pieces as a trigger,” he said. “A field of play is set up and then it is not up to me anymore. Art is about communicating; I thought it would be interesting to get their reaction.”

Katarina Weslien, a multidisciplinary artist, had been here since the mela’s January 14th opening. Sadhus are an easy point of access to the Kumbh Mela, but she’s less concerned with the parade of naked ascetics than with questions of “how people make individual meaning and find moments of privacy in absolute chaos.” On January 27th, an important bathing day marking the last full moon of the first month in the Hindu calendar, Weslien, armed with a camera and an audio recorder, stood at the confluence for ten hours and watched as a trickle of pre-dawn bathers swelled to a peaceful torrent arriving by foot over a series of pontoon bridges from their mist-shrouded encampments across the Ganges. “It was flow,” she said, “and every one of those people had their own individual moment as they dipped into the water.”

To accommodate these visitors, a 7.5-square-mile tented city has been erected outside Allahabad on the silvery Ganges floodplain. There is an odd technocratic feeling to the place. With its incongruous grid of clearly-signposted and assiduously-swept streets, guaranteed dusk-to-dawn electricity, plentiful water and sewer connections, and a near-absence of disorder, this temporary metropolis can feel, initially at least, like Singapore-on-Ganges.

A sadhu and his friend pass a group of oglers. (Photo: Dan Morrison)

At night, readings from the Ramayana, public-service announcements, and Hindi devotional disco numbers—all amplified to wedding-strength volume—dominate the night air, their cacophony infiltrated at times by the pious music of a single harmonium or acoustic ritual chants. Large tethered balloons float over the vast grid of tungsten street lamps, advertising mobile phone carriers and Close Up toothpaste, and calling to mind the aura of Blade Runner.

It’s a strange brew, this pop-up city of salesmen and swamis, bathers and bureaucrats. While the Kumbh Mela doesn’t want for artists, India’s art scene lacks an institutional presence in a space where its political parties, retail brands, and popular godmen are capitalizing on the visiting millions. “There should have been a large space for the common man of India to interact with Indian art,” argued Navneet Raman, director of the Kriti Gallery in Varanasi. “No museum has done that. No big gallery has done that. This community of so-called Indian artists feels that they have nothing to gain from it.”

Dan Morrison is a journalist and author of The Black Nile.