Thousands throng to Gangasagar-the point where the Ganga flows into the Bay of Bengal-on the occasion of Makar Sankranti to purify their souls.
Instant moksha guaranteed, the priestís teenage assistant told us. If we crossed the Vaitarani clutching the tail of a calf, nothing could prevent our souls from going to heaven when we breathed our last, he added. The lean calf seemed to swish its tail in agreement. A narrow strip of water symbolised the Vaitarani or the mythical river that linked earth to heaven.
We had already been convinced by a priest officiating at the waterís edge that a dip at Gangasagar had absolved us of our sins. Hearing this, my companion had immediately taken two more dips to make doubly sure she was not carrying back any. However, we werenít exactly willing to hold the calf by its tail to cross the mythical line. But that did not worry the young boy. He was already besieged by a crowd of pilgrims eager to perform the ritual. At ten rupees per head, it was a small price to pay for a permanent seat in heaven. For a festival whose genesis is rooted in the washing away of sins and attaining salvation, it is hardly strange that people are more concerned about life after death.
Only 130 kilometres from Kolkata, Gangasagar is the popular name given to the point where the Ganga drains out into the Bay of Bengal. Located on the western edge of the Sunderban delta, it is a part of the Sagar island. In an age gone by, these islands were part of the dense forest. Sometime in the late 19th century, the forest was cleared by the British and converted into settlements.
At the edge of Sagar town-adjacent to the beach-is the colourful temple dedicated to Kapil Muni, the sage responsible for initiating the chain of events that ultimately resulted in Ganga coming down to earth from heaven and giving mankind an opportunity to wash away its sins in her pure water. Inside the temple, a vermilion-smeared stone panel is the object of worship. Carved in the centre is an image of the saint holding a small pot of water in his left hand and a rosary in the right. Flanking this image are two others-of Ganga, the four-armed goddess with Bhagirath sitting on her lap and another one of Sagar, the bearded king.
Bathing in the sea and worshipping at the temple are the two objectives of the Gangasagar mela. Unlike the Kumbh mela-where successive days are considered holy for bathing-at Gangasagar only the day of Makar Sankranti (14-15 January) is earmarked as the most important day, with dawn being considered the most auspicious moment.
We stayed away from the sea of humanity which rushed to the waterside at dawn and watched from a distance. Cries of ĎGanga mai ki jaií, ĎKapil muni ki jaií thundered across land and water. Sadhus and other holy men and women led the pilgrim brigade. Attired in various shades of saffron, their wooden staff and tridents raised, the sadhus were the first to jump into the water. The unclothed, ash-smeared naga sadhus were accompanied by a huge entourage. Most walked, while a few rode horses. As they returned to the shore, pilgrims rushed to touch their feet.
As we slowly weaved our way to the seaside, past the sprawling tent colony, it was almost as if we were in the middle of a swarming beehive. People moved in all directions-most of them had arrived from different parts of the country-with the teeming mass of people often cutting across each otherís group. Suddenly there was a great commotion by the waterís edge-an elderly lady had slipped and fallen into the sea but the team of lifeguards rescued her in no time and applied first aid. Although instances of fire and drowning are not common, improved arrangements have reduced the number of accidents.
Sprawling across the beach is the main fairground. Tented colonies, thatched sheds and akharas jostle for space. The local administration strives to provide adequate shelter, drinking water and other amenities to help pilgrims enjoy a comfortable stay. But the cold weather, gusty wind and occasional rain, coupled with the arrival of five to six lakh people, make all arrangements seem inadequate. In the evening, as the mercury dips several degrees, pilgrims try to keep warm by singing bhajans at various congregations, while a few take comfort in their hubble-bubble. Most pilgrims arrive the day before, by land and water, and leave soon after the ritual bathing and worship are over. The day after, the island returns to normal-almost as if the sea of humanity had never visited it.
The origin of the ritual and history of the temple are still unknown. The earliest mention of a bathing ritual is found in the Mahabharata where a learned sage explains to Bhisma the significance of taking a dip at the confluence of Gangasagar. In the modern age, the earliest reference to the annual event can be found in an announcement made by Governor General Lord Wellesley in 1802, where he banned the ritual of drowning the first-born child at the confluence.
A newspaper report published in 1837 provides a brief history of the temple, mentioning an extract which states that the temple was around for 1,400 years and the deity was installed by Guru Ramanand in 1437 AD. The present temple was constructed in the 1970s after a succession of temporary sheds were destroyed. It is also believed that the mela ground and the first temple that formed part of Kapil Muniís ashram have been washed away by the sea.
In the earlier days, the journey to Gangasagar was fraught with danger. People had to travel by boat for several days and make their own arrangements for food and shelter. Now, one can easily travel to Kakdwip from Kolkata by bus. From Kakdwip, the pilgrim has to reach Harwood Point Lot Number Eight by local bus or auto rickshaw. From Harwood Point, ferry boats or barges take you across the river to Kochuberia on the other side. From Kochuberia, buses and jeeps are make the final journey of 30 kilometres to Gangasagar. From Kolkata, it takes about three hours to reach Kakdwip.
During the fair, Gangasagar takes on the look of a miniature India. But during the rest of the year, it is no different from its neighbouring islands. Except for the summer months, it is also a nice weekend getaway for those who want to enjoy a quiet holiday