Hindu holy men on warpath at Ganges festival

Peter Popham in Hardwar sees a dangerous mix of the sacred and the profane
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The Independent Online
ON THE DAY India's new Hindu nationalist-led government was confirmed in power in Delhi, the most fanatical and extreme of all Hindus - think Socialist Workers Party or Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist- Leninist) as compared to the British Labour Party - were attacking one another with swords and sticks in one of the holiest cities in the country.

On Saturday evening Atal Behari Vajpayee's government won a confidence motion by 13 votes. Several hours earlier, naked, ash-covered sadhus, some brandishing cutlasses, others galloping on horseback, drove crowds of panicking pilgrims from the streets of Hardwar, northern India, and settled their differences in hand-to- hand fighting. At least 50 people were injured. The occasion was the Kumbh Mela, the most important and popular festival in Hinduism and claimed to be the largest gathering of humanity on earth: when Jupiter enters Aquarius, the Sun enters Aries and the waters of the Ganges at Hardwar are temporarily transformed, it is believed, into nectar.

This only happens once every 12 years, and when it does, millions of Hindus converge on the city (normal population 200,000). By the time this year's event reaches its climax on 13 April, it is expected 10 million will have plunged into the Ganges to wash away their sins.

The focus of activity is Har-ki-Pauri, "Vishnu's Footprint", the most upriver of the bathing places, or ghats, which during the fair lives up to Geoffrey Moorhouse's description of it as a combination of Blackpool and Lourdes. Dozens of temples, gaudy with new paint, sparkle in the sun. Yhrongs of pilgrims, exhausted by journeys that may have taken weeks, plod across the bridges to the ghat and lower themselves gratefully into the bracing, fast-flowing water.

The scene is medieval: vast crowds, bags and bundles on their heads, wrapped in blankets against the morning chill, trudging along the river; sannyasin (holy men) in saffron or pink robes and turbans, bearing staffs or tridents; the vast encampments with thousands of campfires; the main street jostling with pilgrims, fragrant with incense, betel nut, bidis and spices. The festival has been held here since the third century BC.

But there are modern stresses, too. Recent fairs have been dogged by tragedy. In 1954 at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad - another holy city - hundreds of pilgrims were crushed to death. At Hardwar's last Kumbh Mela in 1986, many more died in another stampede. To avert disaster, the police are ubiquitous, and have banned much of the pomp and colour - caparisoned elephants and camels processing through the streets, for example, which were blamed for the mayhem at past events.

It remains quite an occasion, all the same. All night the streets rang with shouting and singing and laughter and chanting as pilgrims poured in. In the morning they lined up for the main event of the fair, the procession through the town and along the river to Hara-ki-pauri. The gurus of each sect, in saffron robes, were in thrones on decorated carts surrounded by attendants and sheltered by golden parasols. In between, raucous and anarchic wedding bands, done up in white suits with mauve or crimson caps and puttees, blasted away on silver trumpets and horns and drums.

This was from 9am, as the procession got itself into order. Suddenly there was a weird ululation, and down the street came hundreds of naked sadhus, their hair long and matted, bodies caked with the ash of cow dung, crowding together like the tribesmen in Apocalypse Now, pressing madly through the streets towards the river.

As the holiest figures in Hinduism, they are central to the festival: this is their big day. Organised (despite their disorganised appearance) into rival akharas or monastic orders, the sadhus are the wild men of Hindu spirituality: "extremely uncontrollable" as one bystander put it with feeling. Their regime of cold baths, meditation, dope-smoking, wrestling and utter frugality combines unattractively with aggressive narcissism and an irreligious degree of pride. Two of the sects, the Juna and the Niranjani, have had a long dispute over which should be first into the Ganges during the festival. On Saturday their hostility erupted in street fighting, as naked sadhus duelled with cutlasses, belaboured each other with sticks, or threw stones. Sadhus tossed policemen into the river, vengeful police beat up pilgrims and foreign tourists, and it was five hours before order was restored. Next day the city was still tense.

Townspeople were shocked by this unprecedented violence. A student suggested a political explanation: "Now the Hindu nationalists are in power at the centre, the sadhus feel more self-assertive. But at the same time, the BJP [the Hindu nationalist party] has distanced itself from Hindu extremists, so they feel frustrated and confused."

Think of the mood of the hard left in Britain when a Labour government gets in, and you may have some idea how they feel.

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