Rabri Devi (not the famous one), standing in ankle-deep water on the muddy beach, is lovingly holding the tail of a decorated calf; eyes firmly shut; she is chanting mantras after the priest who is obviously in a hurry to complete the ceremony. (A long line of customer is waiting for him). Rabri Devi is rehearsing the crossing of Baitarani – the river separating life with the afterlife, which she is supposed to cross safely holding on to the tail of the calf. So she is offering this calf in advance to propitiate Yama – the god of death and in the belief that if not this one, then some other calf will be waiting for her on bank of the Baitarani when she reaches there after her death. A few paces apart, Gajendra Sing – a strapping youth with a huge moustache, from Khuri of Rajasthan is performing the same ritual with another priest. Habeliram from Chhapra has prostrated himself on the beach. He is praying before taking the holy dip. A few feet apart, from the scene of these heavenly affairs, men and women are openly urinating & defecating. Gentle lapping sea-waves are carrying away all the offerings — flowers, coconuts, incense sticks, flaming little earthen lamps and the faeces– to the sea.
I am on the muddy beach of Gangasagar Island where the Ganga flows into the Bay of Bengal and the day is the Makar Sankranti — the last day of Pous, the most auspicious day for a dip in the confluence and for offering puja in the nearby Kapilmuni temple, which houses among other deities, Devi Ganga, Kapilmuni and king Sagar. Three and half lakhs pilgrims have already reached and a few thousands are on the way. A vast mass of humanity, stretching as far as the eyes can see, covers the muddy beach.
As we reached the Harwood Point of Kakdwip from where we are to board a launch to cross the wide Ganga, Utpal Mukherjee- the Addl. District Magistrate of South 24Pargana, who happens to be a senior colleague, welcomed us. We boarded ‘Pitambar’-a small launch and within fifteen minutes reached Kochuberia – on the other side of the mighty Ganga and one of the entry point to the Sagar Island. Chemaguri, the other entry point, can be reached from Namkhana.
The asphalt road that leads to the ‘Mela’ is lined up with pilgrims of all ages, creeds and castes. Men and women from all over the north India are walking towards the Sangam. It is considered to be a pious act to walk to the confluence. The prospect of walking 30kms to the Sangam dissuades us from this pious act and we boarded a car that was waiting to take us through this mass of humanity. Out there, it was a mini India where Rajasthani men and woman in colorful turban and dazzling Gagra walking side by side with people in tatters; cycle vans full of passengers are trundling along side brand new Maruti Zen. Buses, brought from the main land for the occasion, are speeding merrily, oblivious of the slow moving vehicles and the pedestrians, pumping out obnoxious pungent black exhaust into the chaste air of the island.
51 small and big islands constitute Sagar Island with an area of 581sq.kms. During 3rd century B.C. to 2nd century A.D. all ships that anchored at the Tamralipta port had to pass through the Sagar Island. So most probably, human settlement of the island goes back to that time. But cyclone, a regular visitor of the island, destroyed these settlements time and again. In modern times, the British started the first settlement with five Mog (Burmese) families. After withstanding a few cyclones, these settlements flourished and now the population has crossed the three lakhs mark.
According to the Puranas, Kapilmuni, who claimed a linage directly from the Bishnu- one of the holy trinity, had built his ashram in this island. In the Satya Yuga, king Sagar performed an Ashwamedh Jagna and according to the custom of the Jagna let the Jagna- Horse wonder all over the earth. Indra – the king of gods, stole the horse and hid it in the Ashram of the Kapilmuni without the knowledge of the Muni. The sixty thousand sons of Sagar, on a mission to find out the stolen horse, came to Sagar Island and found it there. Suspecting Kapilmuni to be the thief, they insulted him. The angry meditating muni turned them into ashes. Much later, Bhagirath—a grandson of Sagar, brought Ganga to this island to resurrect them. With the touch of the sacred water they were resurrected and Sagar Island became one of the most revered religious centre of the Hindus.
On reaching the mela ground, we were led to the camp of Sagar Gram Panchayat. . We were ushered into the VIP enclosure, courtesy, Utpalda. With a flourish of his hand, the Upa-Pradhan opened the locked door of the enclosure that led us to two small cottages, built entirely with Hogla (a type of reed). It is the only locally available building material. We were ceremoniously led into a room devoid of any furniture, not even a cot! Two Hogla mattresses spread on the sandy ground, is our VIP bed; toilet is out side. Well, ‘be roman when in Rome’, stoically we accept!
The temple, on the northern end of the road no2 (five roads, from the north-end to the beach and numbered one to five, are specially constructed for this occasion), had a new coat of paint. The centre of the sanctum houses an image of Kapilmuni. On his right are images of Ganga and Hanuman and on the left, king Sagar and Bishalaskhi – on a roaring lion. This temple was built in 1974. A number of temples were constructed during different ages before this modern one. The old temples were washed away either by high tide or destroyed by cyclones.
As I hang around the mela, a montage of colourful diverse images confront me; naked Naga monks inside their claustrophobic thatched temporary homes – ever ready with blessing for a few rupees, crippled beggars and leprosy patients spread out on the road showing off their cripplehood and raw sore, a group of Bauls singing away merrily, one Sadhu standing on one leg and another displaying his 12 feet locks.
On the beach, every body is busy with the ritualistic bath and priests are having a field day. Suddenly Bramhacharini Chinmoyi confronts me with, “ how much do you charge to a take photograph?” Bowled over by her brazenness, I had to comply with the request and got a dazzling smile for payment. She is on the road for the last seven years. Christina, well-known photographers of her country, is from Spain. Her vocabulary in English does not extend beyond ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. With her 4.5 feet “towering” and equally wide body and wearing a half-pant, she is literally mowing down every nook & corner of the mela ground in naked feet for that elusive lifetime photograph.
Out of this seemingly confused pictures, Sankar Mondal stands out. Sankar, a resident of Baruipur and a member of the local Panchayat Samity to boot, has taken off his clothes to become a Naga Monk. He unsuccessfully tried to enter the fold of the Naga sect in an earlier attempt. But this time he is determined to pull it off. His whole family –two kids and wife, are waiting for his return and they have nobody to lean on. He is distraught between his family and his yearning. Holding my hand he started to cry inconsolably.
As the sun sets over the Ganga, I left the mela ground, wondering whether Sankar Mondal will go back to his waiting families. May be, he will realize – “ Miles to go before I sleep.”