The occasion: Maha Kumbh Mela, often described as the ‘greatest show on earth’, wherein millions of devout individuals, led by naked ascetics (called sadhus) with ash smeared on their bodies, plunge into the icy cold waters of India’s holy Ganges river, in the belief that it can wash away their sins.
The timing: A once in a 12 year event, from 14 January to 10 March, when over 110 million people are expected to take a dip in the holy waters.
Gold is on everyone’s mind in India.
A sea of humanity that has converged for the religious event in Allahabad, has opulence rubbing shoulders with austerity.
Many grand processions throng the streets, where naked ascetics with matted hair and little or no clothes mingle freely with religious leaders of other sects who are atop well decorated chariots, horses and elephants. And adorning the chariots and animals are heavy, chunky gold sheets, gold thrones and crowns and gold trinkets.
Though some of the ascetics race to the river to take a dip in its auspicious waters, wearing only orange-gold marigold garlands in a cacophony of religious chants, heavily decked up chariots, most done up splendidly in silver and gold, wind their way down to the river.
Several hundred followers are in the procession on foot, beating drums and blowing conch shells, with dangling, heavy gold chains on their chest.
That the ancient festival grows in size each time it is held reflects India’s expanding population. It is also evidence that spiritual life continues to thrive alongside the country’s new found affluence and love for the precious metal.
This year, the Indian administration is expecting a nearly 10% rise in the number of pilgrims attending the mass pilgrimage, as compared to the previous Maha Kumbh held here in 2019.
The festivities are called Mela. Though the administration has put in place elaborate security arrangements to thwart any kind of terrorist activity, prevent stampedes of any kind or any other law and order situation, some of the ascetics have brought their own bodyguards.
The reason? Most of the seers are wearing around 4-6 kilo of the precious yellow metal on their person.
The seers fondness for gold has caught the attention of tourists, passers-by and religious folks alike. The saffron clad seers camping in the sprawling premises have been preaching salvation and guiding the teeming millions on faith and spirituality.
Most, however, are attracting eyeballs for their fondness for gold jewellery, gold crowns and everything shiny.
A five foot something build, matted hair, a twirled moustache and a pot belly are de rigueur among the seers, but the five layers of gold chain are not.
But for his glistening gold jewellery, Sudhir Kumar, nicknamed Goldbaba (Goldman) given his fondness for the yellow metal, would have merged among the millions of seers at the hundred camping sites near the river. Goldbaba Maharaj claims to be wearing gold ornaments worth millions of rupees.
Dangling around his neck are heavy gold chains with lockets of most of the Hindu Gods. (Across India some 330 million Gods are worshipped). A resident of New Delhi, he says he has been wearing the gold ornaments for several years.
Though he does not call himself a seer in the truest sense of the term, Goldbaba says he has not renounced the world, as is the wont of seers, who have to give up all their belongings and forsake the worldly riches to live a life of penance, to attain peace and liberalisation (Nirvana).
Goldbaba runs a readymade garment shop in Delhi, but says he is close to the saffron league, milling the shores of the river, in heart, thought and spirit.
Then there is Manish Bittu, a resident of Gandhinagar in Gujarat. Dressed like a sage, Manish is often stopped for the numerous gold chains and gold anklet that he possesses. Unfettered by the laws of logic, Manish calls himself a true devotee. That he is – of gold!