Breaking bread on icy waters

Come January and the uneven banks of the Ganga-Yamuna will yet again play host to a jamboree of religiosity, culture, beliefs and plenty of frolic. An estimated 100 million people — s adhus , pilgrims, merchants, crooks, curious foreigners and revellers — will swarm the ghats of the s angam for 55 days.
The Sangam: Thousands swarm these ghats during the Kumbh Mela

Some hope to wash their sins into the Ganga, while others get dragged by tradition and faith. And there are those who cannot resist but be part of an unmatched human congregation called the Maha Kumbh Mela. Journalists will vie for exclusive shots of ash smeared s adhus bathing in icy waters, while anecdote after anecdote will be shelled at public memory.

However, some tales will remain unsaid and some pictures will never be framed. These stories are of the few hundred people, who break bread, gather water and make their living by the ghats and areas nearby. They occupy these lands illegally but with nowhere else to go, this is home.

“It’s uncertain. Sometimes I sell enough but sometimes I sell nothing at all,” says Janki. She feeds her two children by selling ‘puja items’, while her husband rows the boat for tourists.

Like her, many men, women and children here use their thatch-roofed bamboo huts or wooden trolleys to sell anything from oily snacks, beverages, coconuts and prasadam to necklaces, bangles, photos, idols, tikas and saffron cloths. Those who have nothing to sell need the ghats for shelter. But, with the water level rising rapidly, these ‘ghatwallahs’ will soon need to relocate to higher ground, where only those who already own ‘stalls’ will be allocated space. But beyond the ghats they will also have to reckon with congestion and competing vendors. And once the grand mela begins, the big merchants will set up shop.

For the many homeless who beg for survival, there is no respite. They will have to find new hunting grounds till the mela is over. They are usually banned from the premises but many still manage to sneak in. “Beggars have been traditionally known to be sent to forests till the mela got over. These days they leave on their own before the authorities come and chase them out,” says 62-year-old Ramesh Mishra, a Hindu priest from a village by the Ganga.

The rag tents, tied to trees, poles and signboards, and supported by the odd bricks, will be dismantled once the Army starts clearing the 500 acre mela ground. “Last time, I managed to save whatever clothes I could from the water. My husband can't work as he has tuberculosis. What shall we do? Save our children or our grains?” asks Munni, who traces her roots to Madhya Pradesh.

In the 46 villages of the three neighbouring tehsils , however, residents harbour a mixed feeling for the mela . While they revere the legend and sanctity of the Maha Kumbh, they also lament the disruption of normal life caused every year. With ever-increasing footfall, the number of villages allotted for the mela has increased since 2001, when 26 villages were allotted. This time, the mela will spread over an area of 20 km. Mela authorities have begun acquiring the allotted 5,522 bigha village lands for the next six months.

Though the villagers have been promised “a fair compensation”, some of them are not convinced. “Only those with ‘setting’ get proper compensation. Nothing is done for the poor ones. Nobody cares whether we live or die,” says Kishen Lal, a farmer.

“We are at peace for 11 months. But once the melas start, we are thrown away from our own areas for outsiders to enjoy and bathe in the waters we live on,” says Mama, a frail old man.

Not much change for the boatmen either. They continue to ferry people for holy dips at the sangam , where the yellowish waters of the Yamuna delicately merge with the muddy Ganga.

Meanwhile, on the lush fields toward the city, hordes of metal pontoon bridges are being built. Preparations at the ghats, however, can only start once the rivers settle down after flooding.

Akbar's Fort, built in 1583, still stands daunting over the north bank of the Yamuna. Its high red walls partially shrouded by overgrowth of bushes and flags fluttering over the boats beneath, make it irresistible for the outsider.

The people who live under it, though, do not seem to care much about history.

As the ghats are readied for Allahabad’s Maha Kumbh in January, people who have made their homes on the banks of the Ganga-Yamuna await another season of eviction

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