Moksha, or liberation, is what millions seek on the ghats of Hardwar. Pilgrims believe that the Ganges takes away the burgeoning humanitys sin, transports all the guilt and confessions to the vast sea and purifies them. And, Har-ki-Pauri is the ghat where Vishnu himself walked once, as mythology puts it.
With the Kumbh Mela being held this year, Hardwar will be packed with pilgrims and tourists for the three-month duration of the event. The projection for this year is at least five crore visitors. Held every 12 years, the mela is also the largest religious congregation in the world.
Over Rs 550 crore have been spent on the beautification of Hardwar and to create infrastructure for the Kumbh Mela. Security arrangements are unparalleled and around 16,000 police and Army personnel are keeping a close watch to avert any untoward incident during the mela, which culminates on April 28.
Among the millions will be thousands of Naga Sadhus, who hold their initiation ceremonies during Kumbh. The Juna Akhara, which is the camping ground for Naga Sadhus, or the warrior Sadhus trained in war and use of arms, is the oldest. Around 5,000 young men will shave off their heads, smear ash and walk naked to the river in a procession after they are initialised into the Naga sect.
At Jwalapur, on the outskirts of Hardwar, where many of them are camping before they march to the temple town in a grand procession on January 30, the sadhus are preparing for the feats of magic they perform and polishing their swords and spears.
For these ascetics, the appeal of Kumbh is in its promise of nirvana, freedom from the endless cycles of rebirths and ensuing suffering. In their lifetime, they have managed to break free from the materialistic world, shunned its corrupting influences, choosing to stay naked and without possessions. But while they controlled their lives, the thought of afterlife bothers them, says Parshuram Giri, a Naga Sadhu.
We come to take the holy dip because we want liberation, he says, adding, Kumbh is special for us. Thats why we come. Its the promise of Kumbh. It unites us all.
For the hijras that flock to Hardwar from other states, like Noori who has come from Punjab, moksha would be in stages. They arent seeking a shortcut to nirvana like the Naga Sadhus or others who dont want to be born again, as humans or as anything else. Moksha to them means liberation from the identity of a hijra, of someone who is unfinished and unfulfilled.
As Sonia says, We are the real fakirs because the sadhus can return to their people, wives or homes whenever they want. Where do we go
Then there are the chillum seekers, who come looking for a trip to heaven because they say sadhus have the best of the hash and are more than willing to pass around the peace pipe.
The Kumbh phenomenon is for anyone and everyone. Not just for the seekers of salvation, but anyone who wants to experience the reach of faith or the conviction of people who brave the icy waters and take a dip because they dare to believe.
The town swells to accommodate the millions during Kumbh and is dotted with tents all over. There are luxury tents, too, for the rich and elite.
Salvation and the quest for it is Hardwars promise, which makes the town special for everyone who believes.
After the Kumbh ends, the town will take a break for another 12 years. But while it lasts, it will continue to enchant and convince that religion is a force. It doesnt matter if you dismiss its promises, but you clearly cant challenge its appeal.