Words by Samaya Borom
The father of Indian filmmaker Pan Nalin was too sick to take the journey to the Kumbh Mela, a 55 day long religious festival in Northern India. In replacing his father on this journey to retrieve the holy waters, Nalin filmed a documentary about some of the characters that attended the festival.
The festival Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years where the Ganges, Yamunu and Saraswati rivers converge. Historically, it is said to be the place where a drop of nectar from the kumbh (a pitcher) fell after the sea was churned by Gods, and is thus considered to be a most sacred place to all Hindus. With an estimated attendance rate of 100 million pilgrims, it is easily one of India’s largest religious festivals and pilgrims and holy men come from all over India to attend it.
Nalin provides a glimpse into the personal lives of festival goers, teasing out their reasons for attending the festival but also allowing them the space to present their personality. One big personality in the documentary is ten year old run-away Kishan Tiwari, whose early tales of orphanhood and as a gangster wannabe are overshadowed by his increasing desire to become a Sadhu. Sadhus are key festival attendees, with vast areas of the festival set aside for different Sadhu sects. The set-up is much like exhibitors at festivals or trade shows, where each is vying for business from visiting patrons.
An equally interesting character is Hath Yogi Baba and his baby Bajrangi, who are not set up in an elaborate camp but rather seem to dwell on the fringes of the festival. Yogi Baba is a yogic master and has adopted Bajrangi after finding him abandoned as a three week old baby on the streets. His story is unique in that Sadhus are meant to renounce the world. However, upon finding Bajrangi, he takes it upon himself to ensure that he looks after the child. It’s an interesting insight into how events can forever alter the trajectory of a person’s life.
As Kumbh Mela stretches across a vast area it has local police and military patrols as well as coordinated lost and found centres. Huge boxes of papers with names and addresses of missing people fill the corners of the rooms. People wait anxiously inside the centres to be picked up by family members and hope that they haven’t returned back to remote villagers in the hope that their loved ones had already returned before them. The presence of police and military, as well as the centres, is important as people trafficking occurs during the festival. Children and young adults are often kidnapped for a mere $400 and their organs siphoned off for transplant operations.
Nalin follows a couple who frantically search for their child fearing kidnappers when they are unable to locate him at nearby shelters. It presents a disturbing dark side to the religious festival but one that is to be somewhat expected when such a huge amount of people converge together in a confined space. Organised crime doesn’t recognise religious piety and the kidnapping fears are well founded during the festival.
Kumbh Mela is a visual feast for those interested in India and Nalin captures the spectacle of the festival and the people that attend it beautifully. It will leave you wondering how the characters have fared post-festival and whether Nalin intends to do a follow up in twelve years. If he does, it will certainly be one of the to-watch list.