Varanasi, January 12, Diana Eck
Varanasi, January 12, 2013, Diana
The traffic into the city from Lalbahadur Shastri Airport was a reminder of the most difficult urban problems of today –streets choking with cars, trucks, motor rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and roadsides littered with plastics, trash, mixed with garbage. As we got into the city, there were streams of people too, and an occasional policeman at an intersection, valiantly directing an overwhelming flow of traffic. It took over an hour to reach Asi Ghat and the Ganges View, an oasis on the river, where we were warmly met, shown our rooms, and served tea.
Here at Asi Ghat, we are beginning our preparation for the Kumbh. The congestion, the loudspeaker now at evening amplifying the discourse of a swami preacher, the women and children begging for alms, the pilgrim women with bundles on poles slung over their shoulders. As night falls and the street grows quiet; there are groups of women huddled around small fires on Asi Ghat, with others sleeping under blankets on the pavement. I thought of the remark made by a dinner partner in Delhi two nights ago, that most of the people who come to the Kumbh don’t stay anywhere at all, or should we say, anywhere in particular. No tent, camp, or shelter. Just on the ground.
The Kumbh has been constantly in the news. As we landed in India, there was the story of a baby born in one of the Mela clinics to a woman construction worker, appropriately named Jamuna. There was the press release from Swami Chidanand Saraswati on the meeting he would be calling for January 18-9 on the environment and the Kumbh, a meeting that five chief ministers and two state governors would attend, so they say. There were brief reports of the security, the police, and the fire department preparations. With the first big bathing day approaching, Makar Sankranti on January 14, the headlines read “One hundred million head for the Kumbh.”
Our group from Harvard has students interested in every aspect of the Kumbh. Some are seeing it primarily through the lens of the “mass gathering,” with all the issues that such huge numbers pose. Some are in the area of Global Health, interested in plans for health care delivery, sanitation, and the varieties of toilets that will be in use. Some are mapping the remarkable infrastructure of the “pop-up” megacity, with its roadways, electrical and plumbing services, and tele-communications networds. Several are looking an environmental issues: flowers, their profusion, their sources, and the destiny of these millions of marigold garlands, which are not supposed to be deposited in the River; the move to offer saplings as prasad for pilgrims to carry home; the Green Kumbh movement, with the concern to ban plastics and create a more environmentally conscious pilgrimage; and of course the Ganga and Yamuna, their protection and purity in an age of pollution.
And, of course, for some of us, myself included, the most remarkable aspect of the Mela is the massive ingathering of people from every sect and religious movement, villagers and urbanites, ascetic renunciants and celebrity pilgrims.