Travel Musings – As I tie my lace

Road from Nichlaul to Gorakhpur

Road from Nichlaul to Gorakhpur

As I tie my lace sitting on my dorm bed  of the International Youth hostel,silence simply consumes me.

The single occupant of a dormitory in the International Youth Hostel, I organize work things into my backpack, put off the noisy fan and sit on the bed again. Just to observe in silence all the mundane things in the room, the fluorescent tube light, other three empty cots, reflection of trees on the floor. I listen to the chirping birds, some hooting men in the background and silence of the still leaves of a neem tree visible from the balcony. I sit again. I sit not more than a minute, but feels as if I sat there for some 15 mins.

I move out of the room and lock the door getting on to another journey. As I move out I wonder, why is it that all strange and new places away from home feels home and home feels stranger. Why does love flow out without any hesitation in unfamiliar places but become suspicious in my own place with my own people. Is it this hesitation and my mental image that has made home alien or is it the home and its people that has made me hesitant. I wish I quite naturally take the responsibility of the situation I am in and not look  at others to be blamed for the present situation. But my mind seems to be strongly conditioned to look for a person or a situation to be blamed. As much as the dynamics between the situation and myself logically are easy to perceived, observed and dissected logically , but it is as much difficult to not behave in compulsive patterns that our minds are trained into. May be that is the difference between ‘who seeks’ and ‘who has attained’?

I walk out of the room with my bags, wishing to be at home and peace, in any corner of this world…. including home.

Rethinking activism: Beyond seminars, conferences and forums on women issues.

This post reflects what I thought about gender, development and activism two years back. Looking at it again, I find that my basic concerns and position remains the same, only that I can reason it out better now.

School going girl from Himachal Pradesh

An altered version of this article was published on an online magazine- Womensweb in Jan 2011(http://www.womensweb.in/articles/re-thinking-activism-on-women-s-issues/) . The following is the original version with two cases as well as a more direct and critical tone. Plus, two references that I have added.

Indian society has fought gender discrimination actively for over 100 years but ever so often we start and stop with raising a question- something like, “What is to be done?”  Along with the discourse  at various forums, conferences and seminars,  academicians and scholars publish volumes of papers on the subject, out of which some studies  make the national headline.

It is beyond doubt that we have had a splendid run in making gender issues get heard all over.  Now for the progress report; one needs to ask if all this is really changing the situations that women find themselves in today? I’d say that it is about time we gave a fresh look at what forms of intervention can help women get their rightful place in the society and which they should get naturally – not out of someone’s “concern” for women or for “empowering” them! These kinds of assumptions have made more of a mess than helping women in any measure.

Beichi, from the Mushahar Community in Uttar Pradesh. She is packing dry curry leaves produced by her community. The Mushahar Community, known to be one of the most backward and with no access to any quotas from the government. With the help of local NGO that made information on their rights accessible to them, this particular village has progressed from neglected community to a community that can assert its rights. And the women in this community played a substantial role in it.

These remarks are likely to make some people balk, a few others fiercely point out the successes in women empowerment, and yet a few others reject it as naïve. Keeping these aside, I’d like to share some experiences from my work in the development sector in India and more specifically in environment and water related fields.  I would like to argue that there is a dire need to re examine the efficiency of the interventions that we make in conserving and ensuring women’ interests.

For instance, in areas (could be villages or urban settlements) which face acute drinking water crisis, the government as well as the non government agencies often start with holding a meeting with the residents before they undertake any project to address the problem. The stated goals of such  projects always include women’s health, reducing the drudgery of spending endless hours fetching water and some crafty statements like these. Needless to say this meeting is almost always populated by men. This would have been absolutely fine if the men were known to have taken active part in running the household and washed clothes, done the dishes, fetched water etc. The fact is none of these are done by men and consequently they have not the faintest idea of what their family’s water consumption is like.

Now, try making a decision on the total water demand of an area and average requirement of a family based on the men’s estimates. The fate of a project based on such a data is any body’s guess! Many from the sector would counter this observation by claiming that in such meetings it is ensured that women participate. While this may be true in some cases, it does not in any way reflect in the project’s design and planning considerations.

This rather small instance points to a much deeper problem. Water related issues are not exclusive or separate from the basic problems of income, livelihood, nutrition and sanitation. On all these counts data suggests that women fare much worse than the men. At the same time, it is important not to reduce this as a problem specific to rural areas or to women from poor households. Women in urban areas do not fare any better. Although, they do come across as literate and many of them also have a job but this does not mean that all is good. Gender inequality in urban areas often is not clearly visible but sure is present. Women’s representation in civic administration of most Indian cities is poor. Women in senior management in companies, in trade and industry associations as well as in elected bodies are also few in number. Poor representation in all these areas ultimately leads to a lack of equal concern for men and women and therefore a lopsided welfare plan administered by the cities.

For instance, the city utility boards which provide water and sanitation services to the households do not realize how important and necessary it is for them to have a gender focus. Making sanitation available to women is doubly important for the health of the household on the whole. Having latrines in their homes make a world of a difference to the women by doing away with the shame associated with going in the open for their chores, eliminating the threat of molestation and ensuring cleanliness and hygiene. These have a cumulative effect of making the woman more available for her family and reduce the pain of living in appalling human conditions. These priorities do not exist in the government departments and which should be a great concern today!

Alleviating this situation, in which most of the women are, needs interventions which start at the systemic level and which leverage the enormous institutional system of the country. While awareness and rallies sure have their role to play, I argue that these can hardly make any firm contribution towards improvement. Intervening at the policy level, regulatory level and pressing for institutional reforms produce lasting changes which in course of time alter public behaviour.

A case in point is the landmark amendment made in the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 in India.  One of the leading economists Bina Agarwal (who also played a key role in formulation of this amendment) wrote in The Hindu on Sept 25, 2005,

(http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/mag/2005/09/25/stories/2005092500050100.htm)

After 50 years, the Government finally addressed some persisting gender inequalities in the 1956 Hindu Succession Act (1956 HAS), which itself was path-breaking. The 2005 Act covers inequalities on several fronts: agricultural land; Mitakshara joint family property; parental dwelling house; and certain widow’s rights.

Further, she adds,

In Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and Uttar Pradesh, the tenurial laws specify inheritance rules that are highly gender unequal. Here, primacy is given to male lineal descendants in the male line of descent and women come very low in the order of heirs. Also, women get only a limited estate, and lose the land on remarriage. Moreover, in U.P. and Delhi, a “tenant” is defined so broadly that these inequalities effectively covered all agricultural land. U.P. alone has 1/6 of India’s population. This clause thus negatively affected innumerable women farmers.

The second significant change — making all daughters (including married ones) coparceners in joint family property — is also of great importance for women, both economically and symbolically. Economically, it can enhance women’s security, by giving them birthrights in property that cannot be willed away by men. In a male-biased society where wills often disinherit women, this is a substantial gain.

This is a lesser known case of policy reform which makes a dent in gender discrimination that has not been made by years of public activism.

Another case in point is making gender determination tests in pregnancy a criminal offense. No amount of moral appeal could bring this practice to a stop. But a legal recourse matched with public awareness did bring about a change in the situation.

Finally, I am of the opinion that the myriad forms of gender discrimination that exist in the society today  needs to be clearly understood and careful strategies must be developed to address them through policy and institutional reforms which could be slower but tend to deliver a lasting impact.  Women must understand that they have to move beyond the routine complaining about everything from their in-laws to the dominating bosses at work and instead seek recourse to address these ills for once and for all. Someone has to do the dirty work… it might just be our generation which fixes things for the rest!

For further reading one might want to look at these papers:

  1. WID, WAD, GAD : Trends in Research and Practice , a paper by Eva Rathgeber

https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:hxMgAdOlpGwJ:idl-bnc.idrc.ca/dspace/bitstream/10625/5225/1/34345.pdf+&hl=en&gl=in&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESi4cEsLDxmMz0rWaqvSrarAZQ5m6ODoXTNMxQ9su0LEacNP3lDBhqKdXSImcbDAssNmXySgLhop5jKQ9NRYTynRSyoz0f6IaeM08NjbEXzVncrdnlQaEQdwq0Wytg9uXBbDp2P-&sig=AHIEtbR8hz7phH2rYERV09O1AOPzPEqZ7A

  1. Emergence of Women as a Constituency in Development, a paper in the book – Reversed Realities by Naila Kabeer

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=dLPWBScdOygC&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=emergence+of+women+as+a+constituency+in+development&source=bl&ots=a4_h7jf8oU&sig=RPYT3faAKDys6iaTAHV3EmykPzc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jENWUaaEO4uSrgfilIDIBg&ved=0CEkQ6AEwAA

Fascination with pricing

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Govind Sagar Dam

The imminent water crisis in many parts of the world some say can be addressed by the way of political (read policy), technological and economic interventions. In emerging economies particularly, the talk is of a severe crisis situation developing in case these countries don’t act now. In an extensive study across India, China, Brazil and South Africa, McKinsey’s Water Resources Group suggests that the gap between available water resources and the projected water demand in 2030 will be about 40%.

This reminds me of a discussion last year which was called for by a big consulting firm and a state government for deliberating on water scenario in that state in 2030.  An interesting discussion by all means but it also appeared that we haven’t yet arrived at a clear understanding of how things work and that we tend to re-size issues to fit our conventional understanding of water use and management of resources. While many in the meeting acknowledged that the set of problems and context in India is unlike other countries, there was an inclination towards using methods and models which have been successful as well as have been widely studied. For example, on water rights which can be traded and water pricing Australia’s Murray Darling Basin was discussed. Some thought it could be worthwhile to see if such a market for water can be an answer for India too.

Now, this is what I think is wrong in the current set of practices in water management in India. It is sure worthwhile to explore models which have been successful elsewhere, but when there is a widespread consensus on the fact that the legal, social, political and economic context here is unlike other countries then maybe we need to start from a scratch! There is an inclination towards the economic idea of incentives and pay for what you get. Inherently, this isn’t wrong. Only that the application of this idea in our context in its present form is flawed. What this approach fails to account for is the myriad forms of incentives and payment systems that exist in the Indian society. Not accounting for these, we are sure to see the interventions turning into problems themselves.

The talk was on agricultural sector interventions because this sector accounts for the highest amount of water use. That the farmers must pay for the irrigation water that they consume, it appears would address the loss of revenue as well as curb the wastage as pricing would lead to judicious use. Top it up with allocation of water rights and may be a market where there rights could be traded and we have created a system which not only addressed the water consumption but also monetized it! If this worked I would sure want to see it. The reality in fact lies somewhere else. Water rights have been a difficult issue to address due mainly due to a disperse legal framework and policies governing water resources in India.

Besides, water holds a certain religious, spiritual and emotional significance in India, not only for the Hindus but a vast majority of Indians across all religious groups. What actually happens in India is always somewhere in between scientific logic, economic sense and religious sentiment. A case in point is the stopping of hydroelectric power projects in the upper reaches of Ganga, near to its origin in Gangotri Glacier. This leads to a loss of close to INR 1000 crore. The groups which lobbied and agitated against it were largely religious orders and spiritual organizations.

On the agricultural front, the sector accounts for 16% of India’s GDP (2010). More importantly, this sector is responsible for ensuring the country’s food security. This is one area where India’s bitter experience of the past must not be forgotten. Those “ship-to-mouth” days were the trigger to the famous green revolution which led to a great productivity growth in agricultural output. The technological advances have now played their potential and productivity has hit a plateau. For many crops, India has low productivity by global standards. The total factor productivity (TFP) for Sugarcane has dropped from 0.79 to -0.1 during the period from 1971-86 to 1986-00. Over the same period TFP of Wheat decreased from 1.28 to 0.68. Only Rice has shown an increase from 0.64to 1.08.

Considering what an Indian farmer contributes to the national GDP and to the nation’s food security, it is inappropriate to ask him to pay for the water that he uses to irrigate his fields. At a time when 52% of the population is employed in this sector which has been constantly hit by crisis and distress it may not play out well to go address water demand by pricing mechanisms.

A much effective alternative is technological interventions in terms of seed technology, water saving irrigation techniques which can enhance crop water productivity and cultivation techniques which reduce input costs. Strengthening agriculture extension services hold a much greater potential to generate desired water savings. While we try to find a way out of the impending water crisis it is necessary that we strike a balance between approaches and sometimes let human values and greater common good precede economic consideration.

Image

Sutluj as she flows in the irrigation canals of Punjab

As someone in the meet asked, whose reality counts? The water management experts’? Or the planners of India’s economic growth? Or is it the farmers’?

A visit to Dakshinachitra – painting/ excellence of south

Dakshina – means south , Chitra means picture/image/painting/excellence,.  Born in Chennai and visiting the city every 3 odd months, I have never seen this place until yesterday.  A small, wooded place on the east coast road, 20 odd kms  off Chennai.

The website of Dakshniachitra describes itself as:

“DakshinaChitra is a center for the living traditions of art, folk performing arts, craft and architecture of India with an emphasis on the traditions of South India.”

My experience visiting this place was in line with what the description is. Before visiting this place, I expected it to offer me an experience of a museum.I have been to museums across the India and few other countries. Museums are either an exciting place or a dead place. Things that have made museums exciting to me earlier were the information that accompanies the artifacts, design of the museums and the architecture of the museum building.

Dakshinachitra, is no comparison to any of the places, as it doesnt serve the purpose of a museum alone. The 4 houses that house traditional instruments, accessories and art works from the states were something like a museum. But I have seen far better exhibits of traditional wears, art, sculptures elsewhere.But Dakshinachitra stands out in the way it engages people who visit it in art.

There are breakout areas where artists from different regions of the country come and exhibit their work, its artists, nots sales people. So, visitors get a chance to interact with these people. Second one is the variety of workshops that keep happening all through the year at this place. So people who are not from arts background, but have little interest in the arts ( painting, pottery, puppetry  dance, music and other performance arts and others) can come and engage with these forms and learn more and create more. This builds and nurtures individuals and at a later point a culture that appreciated art and values it.

I have always felt we as a nation, although rich in art, culture and heritage, do not know to appreciate it and value it.

Here are pictures of Dakshinachitra from the visit:

Doorway into one of the breakaway areas.

Doorway into one of the breakaway areas.

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Bhoota mask from udupi. This mask has both a mustache and breasts. Is it trying to depict the duality that everyone of us embodies?

Way to karnataka house , one of the four house ( Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka)


Way to karnataka house , one of the four house ( Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka)

Puppetry workshop that was held during the time of my visit.

Puppetry workshop that was held during the time of my visit.

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Line of puppets lined up ready for the workshop.

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Wooded walkways of Dakshinachitra
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Rustic, rural string instrument ektara sold from one of the houses.

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Interior of Andhra house.

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Original wooden dolls painted few centuries ago.

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Around 100 to 200 children visit Dakshinachitra every month. I wish I was taken to places like these when I was a kid, rather than to Essel worlds and Kishkindas.

This visit was possible, because a dear friend was kind enough to allow me to ride his splendorous Herohonda Splendor and roam around the city. Hope he moves on to a Bajaj bike soon.

And apologies for the poor quality of photos. All these were taken from a phone.

Water and sanitation crusader killed in Karachi attack

I always thought that whole noise about water going to be the next reason for wars and violence on planet to be overstated. But this news piece is quite in those lines. Reading such news pieces, I really shudder that possibility.

Sanitation Updates

Perveen Rahman, director of the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI), was shot dead in Karachi, Pakistan, on Wednesday 13 March 2013. The internationally acclaimed and widely replicated project that she led, succeeded in bringing low-cost sanitation to Karachi’s Orangi squatter community of 1 million people.

Ms Rahman’s associates believe her death was linked to her work on exposing Karachi’s land grabbing and water mafia. The police suspect Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants of being behind the killing. The Express Tribune reports that Ms Rahman had also worked in a Taliban-controlled area in Karachi.

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Art to us Indians is a way of living. Many of us do not recognize it, but it is so. There are no specific galleries or exhibitions that one needs to go to pursue or understand art or make it a part of our living. Its in the scriptures, the epics most of us ( irrespective of our religion) are exposed to as children from stories narrated to us to TV programs that remake these epics over and over again, or rituals followed in the households on a daily basis.
Our lives are so vibrant and colorful as a consequence of our rich cultural history and heritage. Its a boon and a bane that such integration of art and culture into our lives exist. Its a boon because the creative and imaginative part of our brains have enough stimulus from early childhood. Its a bane, because we take many things in our culture for granted and do not take proper care in preserving art and art forms- paintings, architecture, performing arts etc. And to a great extent we ‘(mis)use’ this heritage to perpetrate discrimination, biases and superstitions. But for a bit lets leave aside the serious bane and misuse of Indian culture and enjoy this lovely post. This post is a beautiful articulation of one such instance of imagining Hanuman, a mythological character from the epic – Ramayana.

CONTESTED REALITIES

With his head then held so high

Gained he size for task on hand.

Sundar Kand! That is where I had first heard of Hanuman’s colossal leap across the ocean to Ravana’s Lanka. In this part of the epic – Ramayana, Hanuman prepares for traveling across the ocean to Lanka where Ravana has kept Sita after abducting her. Kand in Hindi language means a ‘canto’ of a poem. Sundar is another name of Hanuman (his mother Anjana called him Sundar) and this canto of Ramayan bears his name because in this section he is the hero. It talks of how Hanuman leapt across to Lanka and searched for Sita. When he finds her, he urges her to return with him but Sita refuses. She insists that Ram must come to Lanka and avenge her insult. It is a fascinating account of Hanuman’s abilities, his challenges and finally how he sets…

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Sardar Taxi Uncle – A potrait of an old friend whom I respect

A wonderful person who lives his simple life by the principles of Sikhism. I find him to a genuine and very beautiful human being. His company is always a pleasure. There is always something to learn from him. I was so reminded of him when a friend shared his experience at Nanded and the story of Nagina ghat.  One time while driving back from airport he shared about his experiences going to  he gurudwars in Pakistan and many others including Nanded.

He is old today but he can not rest and lead a peaceful life. There seems to be no time in his life where there is nothing to worry about.
His son who was newly married ran away after some money swindling. And the police visited uncle’s place few weeks ago.

He had two daughters, the older one passed away long ago leaving behind two little ones, but they are taken proper care by their paternal family.

The younger one has two kids one 6 yrs old and another 2 yrs old.  She works in a bank, but has polio and is dependent on uncle and aunty to take care of her kids. He husband passed away in a road accident on july 4th. This is the most recent tragedy in his life.

Taxi uncle is past 70 and he no more can see well in nights and drive taxi long hours. And his problems seems to be not reducing at all.  It seems like some people can never have good times in their lives.  But still they don’t come across as very sad people. He is one of those.

I want to do something for him. But I can’t think of how. It has been bothering me since I heard of it yesterday. I am sad and can’t even gather the courage to talk few kind words to him. Only thing I do is pray for him and the family.

Life seems to be so harsh on some people . Taxi uncle is a good man. He has done no harm to anyone. Why can he not rest at this ripe age ? For all the inequity that ‘development’ programs want to address and make equal playing grounds…. Life itself doles out things unequally. It is very hard for me to perceive that Taxi uncle has “reaped what he sowed”, so what ever his situation is not completely self  created. 

Shit happens,it matters and is a serious business! – Sanitation experience from Kumbh Mela

It is a very essential subject but a most people feel repulsive about. It is our own solid waste/feces and liquid refuse/urine, especially in a country like India with a high population density. I have been working on water and sanitation for over 5 years now. But I have  never had such close quarter encounter with sanitation, its management and issues like I did at Kumbh Mela.

Think about 30 million people visiting a place as small as 58.3 Km2 on few auspicious days. And a floating population of 2-3 million people on a daily basis. This for a period of not few days but 2 months. In such situation to ensure proper sanitation and maintaining the environment becomes very critical for the health of pilgrims and smooth running of the Mela. During my time at the Mela ( 7 days ), I rode through the all the sectors looking at varied facilities made available to manage both solid and liquid waste produced from the temporary settlement. I was quite impressed by the sanitation facility and arrangements made available at the Mela. But some observations were quite depressing and concerning.

 Things I was impressed about were:

Defecation enclosure for women. Here women defecate on the mud. Later it is covered with chlorine and another layer of mud.

Waste water pool that collects all waste water from the temporary settlement. To its left is Ganga.
  1. Enclosures across the Mela areas, simply a scaffolding of metal sheets to provide people privacy. This both for men and women separately.
  2. Waste water pools, that collected waste from temporary settlements and some urinals and overflows from water taps.
  3. Designated locations for defecation. Both open defecation and mobile toilets.
  4. Mobile toilets from two companies X and Y in main Sangam area, which sees the maximum density of crowd through out the day. No open defecation spots in this areas with high pilgrim density. These toilets do not dispose waste into the river or ground.
  5. Regular sweeping and cleaning of garbage on regular intervals and burning up the garbage in the evenings.
  6. Regular chlorination of open defecation plots, urinals, mobile toilets and other wet areas of the Mela.
  7. Regular cleaning and maintenance of most mobile toilets by young boys working round the clock.

Things I am concerned about:

A child defecates in a chlorinated open defecation plot beside the river. This plot is in higher elevation than the river, therefore when it rains water drains from this plot into the river.

A woman relieves herself beside a trash bag.

  1. Large open defecation plots right beside the river in sparsely populated sectors of the Mela. And these were very near some temporary tents and some children were playing around this area. There were heavy rains during the Mela. I am quite sure all the feces from these plots flowed into the river.
  2. Location of many open defecation spots were upstream to the Sangam area.
  3. Waste water pools were layered with sacks of bags of sand on the surface. But the waste water was still seeping into the soil. This because the soil her is alluvial.
  4. Many waste water pools were very near the river bed.
  5. Some of the mobile toilets from company X were releasing their waste directly into the river.
  6. Living conditions and hygiene practices followed by sanitation staff in the Mela was concerning.
  7. Pilgrims visiting the Mela have very little sense of hygiene and they do not bother about the cleanliness of the environment or its bearing on their health. So people would sit down anywhere and urinate. Some of them also urinated right beside trash bags, some sitting right outside the toilets or urinal enclosures.
  8. People shaving their heads to  offer their hair to the river, sitting right beside the river.

This post to Rohit, Krishna, Ajay, Santhosh and many other sweepers,cleaners and safai- karmacharies  who have worked relentlessly to keep Kumbh Mela clean. Although much remains desired, what ever has been done is still laudable.

Sanitation in Kumbh Mela, a set on Flickr.

In Kumbh Mela, among the believers

A pontoon bridge full of pilgrims, the stream of pilgrims flows as incessantly  through the day as the river beneath it.Empty pontoon bridges from Lalbahadur Shashtri bridge on Ganga, AllahabadPeople come in dorves to have a holy dip in the Sangam. On 25 Feb Kumbh Mela saw 30 million pilgrims from across the country and different walks of life come to Allahabad for a holy dip.A cow with 4 hind legs on display in Mela. Some people were overlooking with curiosity (like me) some pilgrims bow down, some offered some money and some others fruits and flowers.Offerings done to the river flowers, coconut, milk float on the river. It was quite amazing to spot very few plastic bags and bottles there.When thousands take the boats to take a dip at the confluence of the three rivers, millions stick to the ghats of ganga to take their holy dip. Rich and poor young and old, destitutes and wealthy all become one in these ghats.
When thousands take the boats to take a dip at the confluence of the three rivers, millions stick to the ghats of ganga to take their holy dip. Rich and poor young and old, destitutes and wealthy all become one in these ghats.As the sun rises, Sangam ( the place on the riverbed where the three rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati meet ) begin to get crowded with boats filled with pilgrimsAs the sun rises, Sangam ( the place on the riverbed where the three rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati meet ) begin to get crowded with boats filled with pilgrimsFleets of boats row the passengers to take a holy dip in Sangam on an auspicious  fullmoon dayA silhouette of boat with the pilgrims on their short journey to Sangam from Arail ghat. This image gets me longing to be on such a row boat, quietly observing the passengers and the environs around.Beggers sit in a row to collect grains and lentils offered by pilgrims to Kumbh . All of them pool all the grains by the evening and sell it amongst each other.
Birendar from Bhatinda, is here in the Mumbh Mela to do Annadana ( giving food to pilgrims, poor and others as alms)Birendar with his friends and family members from his village in Bhatinda. They are all here in the Kumbh Mela to conduct Langars ( annadana) or offer food to pilgrims and other travelers as alms.Crowds on the ghats of Sangam. This is on a regular day of Kumbh Mela. What ever little ground you see, it will also get covered with heads on a auspicious day.People come to Kumbh walking long distances  from near by towns like Mirzapur, Rewa, Satna and many more from other states across their country, just this way. A small bag of their belongings on top of their head.A goat pilfers from a closed vegetable stack on the roadside in Allahabad.Chotu, one of the kids who fish out currency coins thrown as offering by pilgrims into the three river confluence - Sangam
9270 - Kids fishing for coins thrown into the river as an offering by the pilgrimsRamadas from Mirzapur, is selling garlands, coconuts and other offerings people buy to do conduct their prayers at Ganga. He is here ( in this photo )  with his one year old son Rohit.Sanitation workers, burning the garbage from the day.I thought that these people are pilgrims without any money to pay for tents in Sangam. They turned out to be beggars who make their living on almsA boat tethered to a pontoon bridgeA sparsely crowded pontoon bridge on a not so auspicious day.

Kumbh Mela, a set on Flickr.

I was in Allahabad from 20th – 27th February on an assignment in the Kumbh Mela.

This is how Kumbh Mela is described in its official website :

The Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth is held every 12 years on the banks of the ‘Sangam’- the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The Mela alternates between Nasik, Allahabad, Ujjain and Haridwar every three years. The one celebrated at the Holy Sangam in Allahabad is the largest and holiest of them.

The Kumbh Mela considered the most sacred and greatest of India festivals where the ceremonial dip in the Holy river is an important ritual. It is believed that bathing on the auspicious days cleanses one of all sins and attains Moksha (meaning liberation from the cycle of life, Death and Rebirth).

And it indeed is one of the largest gatherings I have ever been to. An experience worth every bit. To host the Kumbh Mela there was an entire new district setup, one of the largest temporary settlements in the world.On an auspicious day (according to Hindu custom) this place receives about 30 million people. And contrast this with Allahabad’s population – 1.2 million. So there, we have a city swelling 30 times over in its population!

A seemingly simple belief – that a holy dip at the confluence (sangam) can absolve a person of all his sins and from the cycle of rebirth – is an overwhelming thought for a ‘modern’ and ‘rational’ mind. The projected numbers for all the holy dips this year was not more than 5 – 7 million. But actual number of people who turned up this year crossed 30 million people.

During the time I spent there ( 7 days) I noticed  that the pilgrims to Kumbh Mela were from lower middle class and poor sections of the society (could be a crude observation).   For such a section of society a visit to a fair or Mela like this can take a substantial portion of their monthly income.

These observations aside, there is something spiritual about this amazing congregation of people. For me it is a celebration of faith and of devotion. I am running the risk of romanticizing it (as some would allege) but I do notice the plurality of motivations that bring people to this fair. What fascinates me is to think of reasons or the drive that leads such a massive number of people to make their way to this holy river, to this site, undertaking an arduous journey across the jam packed (with people and activity) Gangetic plains and camp there besides the river for a dip in the holy waters, an immersion which appears at that moment in their lives to be the only moment where they can experience the same nativity, same purity as their scriptures often talk about! 

Jai Ganga Maiyya!!

PS: The title of this post is inspired from V.S.Naipaul’s book  Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey