I became a journalist at the Kumbh Mela. All of 17 in 2001, I found myself in Allahabad for a mass pilgrimage I didn’t quite understand the significance of. I was a curious adolescent, not a pilgrim. Two years older, my cousin had more cunning plans. He slung his camera over his shoulder, and asked me to carry a pen and notepad. We wanted access to the akharas of the Naga sadhus. They had a reputation of being reclusive, impulsive and hostile. When faced with a camera, however, these naked, ash-smeared hermits performed their asceticism. It was clear they didn’t mind our audience. They brandished their tridents with glee, and guided us through the proof of their austerity—nails that hadn’t been cut for a decade, hair that hadn’t been washed, and chillums that helped forget all hardship.
I asked one of them, “Why do you celebrate the way you do? What’s so special about the Kumbh?” The Shaivite took his time to reply. “We believe the nectar of immortality can be found here. This is where the Ganga meets the Yamuna and the Saraswati. No place could be more holy. But you tell me, why are you here?” His question had taken me by surprise. “Who doesn’t want his sins washed?” I replied. I was too scared. Looking into his fierce eyes, I didn’t think I could be candid. I was fascinated by pilgrimages, their rituals and purpose. There could be very little disappointment at the end of a journey whose goal was always noble, and whose primary attraction was an ever beneficent, present, very resplendent god.
A pilgrimage is also a collective affair. To take a dip in the holy waters of the Kumbh Mela, my cousin and I had to brave a teeming crowd of boisterous sadhus. Similarly, Shreya Sen Handley writes about surviving Kolkata’s Durga Pujas whilst being pushed around by thousands of revellers. Akhila Krishnamurthy stands in a queue for hours to get a glimpse of Tirupati’s Lord Venkateswara. Faith may well be a private matter, but the travel it encourages is often very public.
My agnosticism sometimes makes me guilty, but that ambivalence seldom comes in the way of considering ideas that are bigger than me. Speaking in early October, Amish Tripathi was categorical—“You don’t have to be a believer to be a pilgrim.” Many of our contributors in this issue were outsiders who looked in to find splendour in both, mythology and devotion. Vivek Menezes found home in Majuli. In Hong Kong, Bhavya Dore discovered religion without structure and stricture, and Ashima Narain photographed a pilgrim whose faith defied her cultural otherness. Pilgrimages can sometimes force you to transgress.
Writing about Banaras, Aditya Sinha asks, “What would happen if Lord Shiva suddenly appeared on Earth—would people seek his blessings or selfies?” We have only tried to answer that question.
Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.