It is a bit surreal to think that we have already been back to Cambridge, back to classes and meetings and syllabi, for a whole week. By comparison, the few days we spent at the Kumbh Mela pursuing our various forms research somehow seem more meaningful, densely packed as they were with experiences and discoveries. My own project was concerned with the role of trees and tree-related traditions in the discourse and activities of environmental and developmental initiatives present at the festival. I was hoping to perhaps document the giving out of some planting material and the veneration of certain established trees, in addition to obtaining more detailed information about the ideas and ideologies as well as practical logistics behind such activities.
Yet what I found once at the Mela went far beyond a few sound bites about tree planting or a smattering of sacred saplings. Throughout the enormous fair grounds there were plants – rows and rows of potted Norfolk pines and palms, dahlias, chrysanthemums, and roses, impromptu lawns laid out in freshly germinated grain and cleanly edged In brick. Many an encampment sported full-out landscaping, with not only formal lawns but creatively laid out pathways, sculptures, and fountains, even artificial trees and hills. I stumbled across the stall of the state-run Horticulture and Food Sciences Research Center at the edge of the fair grounds – they, too, will be giving out tree saplings towards the end of the fair, guava plants to be precise. Not with a specific environmental aim but simply because Allahabad is famous for its guavas and they therefore make a fitting souvenir for visitors. I also visited some of the many nurseries in Allahabad proper and talked to their staff about their dealings with the Kumbh Mela encampments. They all said they have been selling large numbers of potted plants – hardy foliage favorites that can take neglect and popular flowers like chrysanthemums for color – to the camps. Yet while admitting that business was good, they also all showed a certain ambivalence about these sales, as if they regretted submitting their carefully reared plants to an almost certain death in the dusty, smoky, and – worst of all – temporary camps. Every nursery man and woman I spoke to emphasized the transient nature of the event, often with an almost angry precision – “fifty days only, then everything is thrown away!” – as if it were a moral flaw. And perhaps to plant people, accustomed to propagating and nurturing in accordance with nature’s slower cycles of growth, that is what it is.
The importance of these cycles even in the temporary city occasioned by the Kumbh Mela was brought home in a conversation with the sadhu Prahlad Puri of the Juna Akhara. Asked what he does with the marigold garlands used for worship and decoration once they have served their purpose, he said that “since they are given with love, they cannot be thrown away but have to be put in a respectful place, so I put them in the Ganga or hang them on a tree… You cannot bury them in the ground because they are full of seeds. Marigold plants will germinate everywhere”. And sure enough, on a sandbank in the middle of the Sangam of Ganga and Yamuna (and Saraswati) where flower offerings are washed up and where the volunteers of Swami Chidananda Saraswati’s Green Kumbh initiative were burying garlands collected along the edge of the river, there were hundreds of marigold seedlings, emerging singly and in bunches, the product of people’s devotion and the nurturing waters of the sacred rivers, but also of the latter’s inadvertent pollution.