“India as a country,” wrote Shashi Tharoor many years ago “manages to live in several centuries at the same time”. Sangam~the river-confluence~ that lies on the outskirts of Allahabad is a living example. Mythological time, historical chronology and this hi-tech 21st century~all seem to overlap here. All year round you find pilgrims rowing out in boats to where the rivers meet for the ritual of a sacred dip whose origin goes back millennia, even as they capture the process on their smart phones and promptly upload it on social-media sites!!
And so we too got into our motor-boat (courtesy the Indian Army) from Saraswati Ghat and sped down the swiftly flowing greenish Yamuna to where it meets the more sedately flowing silty-white Ganga and the invisible, ethereal Saraswati (Is it just a mythical river or one that has dried up or an underground stream…that debate continues!). Once our boat crossed the Allahabad Fort wall, we could see preparations on full swing for the upcoming “Magh-Mela”(more on that below) on the far bank. Our local friend pointed out the mini tent-cities taking shape on the river banks. From those banks boats loaded with pilgrims were rowing in towards or away from the “sangam-point”. The most enchanting sight was undoubtedly the specks of white that suddenly dazzled on the sparkling waters of the rivers. A closer sight revealed them to be birds…dozens of them bobbing on the waves.
We were told they were flocks of migratory birds that come at the onset of winters, flying across thousands of kilometres all the way from Siberia! The confluence specially attracts what is commonly known as the Black Headed Gull. These winged visitors from a far away land happily mix with the tourists and pilgrims almost as if they too are here for their annual holy dip! You find a flock of them rushing and hovering around a particular boat as the humans scatter some food for them. Cashing in on the tourist craze to feed the birds are small boatmen who appear alongside your boat selling small packets of eatables to feed the birds with. We bought some and soon had our very own flock following our boat and captivating us with their flapping wings as they dived into the water for the tit-bits thrown. Once our stock of morsels got over they promptly flew away to another boat!
Meanwhile our boat reached the ‘sangam-point’, the confluence of the river waters clearly visible. The Yamuna which is almost 40 feet deep near the point of convergence appears greenish in colour, while the Ganga only 4 feet deep is muddy. For the faithful the invisible Saraswati too merges with them, her hidden presence felt only underwater. Those who study classical texts tell us that the corpus of ancient and medieval poetry has many a lyrical description of this confluence, the most famous being the much-quoted lines from Kalidas’ epic poem “Raghuvansham” where Ram gives Sita an aerial perspective as he points out the confluence from their Pushpak-Viman (flying chariot) on the way back from Lanka. In a prosaic translation of these metaphorical lines from the mahakavya the colours of the merging-rivers are compared to
“a necklace of pearls set with sapphires,
a chaplet of lotuses white and blue,
a row of snowy and dusky swans on the Mansarovar lake,
the moonlight dappled with the shade of leaves”.
Once you see the sight for yourself you know exactly what the poet is referring to.
To identify the ‘sangam’ wooden platforms are erected from where pilgrims take a dip in the holy waters. For those interested in performing rituals here (specially in honour of their ancestors) there are vendors selling flowers, diyas, milk for pouring as an offering and a host of other items, as well as pundits spewing mantras—all ready to help with the ceremonies for a price (a price you can negotiate to get a good bargain!)
(next week…in conclusion)