The village priest leading his horde of devotees chants sab teerth baar baar, Ganga Sagar ek bar. You can go to all the holy places, but a pilgrimage to Ganga Sagar equals them all. A dip means redemption for all wrong done. This place is Sagar Island, on the confluence of the Ganga with the Bay of Bengal. The day Makar Sankranti or the last day of the month of Paus (December).
Legend has it that, before joining the sea, the Ganga watered the mortal remains of King Sagars 60000 sons liberating their souls once and forever. It was standing on the Sagar Island that the mythical Kapil Muni condoned th sins of the sons of King Sagar who had dared to stop the horse blessed at Lord Indras Aswamedha Yagna and tied it to a post near his temple. It is this legend that attracts people to this little island in a remote southern corner of West Bengal.
The Ganga Sagar mela (fair) is the largest annual assemblage of devotees in India. The greatness of the mela can be assessed from the fact that over a million pilgrims come from far-flung corners of India and beyond, speaking different languages and belonging to diverse castes and creeds, for a sacred dip at this holy confluence. For this, no invitation is given. No propaganda is carried out and overall no authority exists for carrying out the mela.
It is indeed a tough journey. A few days in packed buses and trains bring the pilgrims to Calcutta. From there, again a long bus journey to ferry ghats or jetty in Sunderbans area, followed by crossing the tidal river stretching for miles across. The last leg involves either walking or traveling by a local bus upto 30 kilometres depending on the location of embarkation point.
The journey can be tiring but religious fervour of the pilgrims overcomes all hardships. Kapil Muni ki jai, Kapil Muni ki jai, (Hail Kapil Muni), the din rises above the grinding motors of the launches ferrying the pilgrims across the Ganga and the countless buses plying between Calcutta and Namkhana. The problem of traveling doesnt deter even the weak and vulnerable. Old people in their eighties, and village women carrying babies and little children in tow are a common sight.
The never ending stream of pilgrims keeps pouring in throughout the day and night before the auspicious day and occupies any available space on the sandy beach. They move about the place in groups, many displaying saffron and red flags, identifying the religious Akhara (group) they belong to as well as acting as beacon to the members who stray out of the group.
People walks to the sound of the bells, blowing conch shells and chanting prayers. Strains of devotional songs can be heard from far and near. And, the ceaseless din of loudspeakers. An array of shops, stacked with heaps of vermilion, rudraksha, colourful beads, conch shells line the pathways. Many a visitor stands wide-eyed before the shops selling everything from food stuff, household utensils to remote controlled toys.
People crowd around the naga sadhus (naked ascetics) without whom the Ganga Sagar mela is incomplete. Sitting naked in little huts near the temple and enjoying a chillum of ganja, (cannabis) they are also the target of tourists camera.
While devotees jostle in front of numerous temporary shrines of Hindu deities to pay homage, Kapil Munis temple remains the chief attraction. The temple of Kapil Muni, as we see it today, is by no means the spot where the sage meditated. It went under the sea millennium ago followed by the many others built in its place, which subsequently was also swallowed, by the advancing sea.
The present one was built only a few decades ago, quite a bit away from the sea. The tall dome of the temple is visible from a distance. In the temple, three images engraved in stone are displayed, the one in the middle is that of Kapil Muni. The sage is seen in a jogasana; his eyes wide open, looking towards the sea with millions of devotees before him. The idols of Ganga and King Sagar flank Kapil Muni and the horse of the sacrificial yagna stands at a distance.
The typical Ganga Sagar pilgrim is a country rustic, generally elderly, hardy, remarkably disciplined and fervent in his devotion. His dhoti seldom going below his knees, a cloth bound packet, containing everything needed for survival, on his head. And, of course, his women heavily tattooed and clad in colourful saris.
As the night, pregnant with the auspicious moment, descends, all wait for the precise hour to take the dip. The sandy track to the waters edge is crowded with people who sit around fires before proceeding for the bath, chanting devotional songs and prayers. The seaside presents a spectacle in the darkness before dawn with the large bonfire lit by the bathers to keep off the cold.
At midnight, the high tide drives the pilgrims back. The biting cold wind of mid January from across the sea lashes the bare body. But there is a confidence on their faces and a kind of fire in their eyes. The confidence in God and the fire of earnest faith makes them brave the chill.
The stars in the sky have
quite a long time to fade when the moment of truth comes. As soon as
the priest announces, the auspicious pre-dawn hour, the crowds surge
forward to meet the tide with a loud chorus Kapil Muni ki jai
and plunge into the sea. Suddenly the place is charged with the
extraordinary power of the believers.
After taking their holy
dips, the shivering devotees trudge the one kilometre expanse leading
to the brightly lit temple of Kapil Muni, where prayers were
performed. Coconuts, flowers, vermilion, sweets, and money are
offered to the image of the ancient sage.
The bustle of activity
continues for quite sometime in the morning as the pilgrims perform a
series of rituals including the symbolic godan to Brahmins. A
calf is symbolically handed over to the Brahmin priest by the
devotee. Many perform the symbolic crossing of the river of blood,
baitarani to attain moksha or transcendation. It is
interesting to observe the people, clutching the tail of a cow and
wading through a puddle a few paces. Many people shave their heads
and perform the last rites of departed relatives.
A number of marriages are
solemnized on the beach during the day. Also, many local girls get
married to the sea. This will ensure that theoretically they never
become widows, even if their menfolk, braving the rough sea and tiger
infested jungle for a living, die.
It is no wonder that for
many tourists from abroad, like though French couple I met, Sagar
mela is something more than a mammoth religious congregation. They
have visited the mela twice and found something which has
disappeared from France and Europe at least half a century ago.
Naturally this large an
affair leads to some confusion. People get lost. The public address
system works overtime as relatives try to trace those they have lost.
But the majority of the
pilgrims take it easy. After the rituals are complete, they dry
their clothes and hair, cook their food on open fires, eat and rest.
Happy, contented and smiling, having made the pilgrimage.
The Ganga Sagar mela
continues to throb with life, with the energy of millions of
pilgrims. The pilgrimage may be extremely tough, but the pilgrims
know that the visit will purify their souls. The visit fulfils their
lifelong desire and often one can see tears of joy rolling down their
cheeks. That is the magic of religion.