If you type in Gangasagar into Google maps, you will come up with a pointer on the tiniest of islands at the southernmost end of the state of West Bengal in India. It's roughly 5 times bigger than the Vatican state and has the river Ganga and the Bay of Bengal as company. The river must have given rise to the island in the first place, dropping all the burden of millions of people feeding off its blessings across the great plains of India. In its final throes, Ganga, or Maa(Mother) Ganga, divides herself into innumerable streams of sluggish pace, before resting finally in the bosom of the bountiful waters of the sea. Venerated for ages and worshipped as a goddess, Ganga not only is a life giver, but she has become one of the family, for every Indian living along her shores.
In line with the Kumbh, a tad smaller affair occurs every year out of this love and devotion for the great river mother in Sagar Island. This entire extravaganza, the place, the ritual - altogether comes to be known as the Gangasagar.
Our journey took us from the heart of Kolkata at the dead of the night, to this divine congregation and back in a non-stop, sleepless ride that extended for close to 30 hours. There were times we walked through roads completely shrouded in darkness, guided by only our senses and a general perception of the lay of the land. There were instances where we stood in endless queues of the faithful for an incredible 5-6 hrs straight, with our cameras being the only medium for expressing our feelings. The pictures we took that day of the entire journey, speak as much about our own experiences as about the place and people themselves.
I, and a junior from my college, had taken the train from Sealdah at 4 o' clock in the morning. Stop was to be made at Kakdwip from where we then took a flatbed rickshaw and rode across 5-6 kms to Harwood Point for the river-crossing that now was more akin to a sea. Our legs dangled as we made our way across the narrow roads of the town, slowly waking up to the first rays of the winter sun and the untimely intrusion of the devoted. To be honest, none of us shared the faith that others carried on this trip to the island. Rather we made the trip out of curiosity to understand and experience the belief of the masses, to witness how the poorest of people give up all they have in order to take one holy dip. To us, that was and still is extraordinary and in a way, humbles us for being devoid of such strength in one single entity.
Harwood point was the first test of character and a gruelling test it was. The queue for the ferry stretched to an insane length. We had half a mind to give up and take the next train back to the city. Had we known the time that we were going to spend in line, we probably would have taken it. Yet, naive as we were, we took our spot in the line after a quick breakfast at a roadside stall. That was the last square meal we had till we went back to Kolkata! The queue inched forward, like a particularly lazy slug. People had brought mats and rugs and were sitting down in between the minuscule advances. Evidently, they had a much tested experience in this matter which we utterly lacked. We stood, sometimes impatient, sometimes busy with the camera, trying to capture as much as we could of this yet undefined fervour of divine. There was bamboo fencing set up to organise the queues. And on this fencing we suddenly found a young boy sitting and selling small eatables like salted pickles and spicy mixtures. Time had already crossed a substantial duration and we were hoping that it would end soon. But God was not with us non-believers as the boy stated with a smile that it was going to be another couple of hours to reach to the jetty.
We finally reached 6 hours after we had entered the queue. The clocks had crossed the mid-day mark and the sun, whom we had witnessed in its nascent hours, was now angry and vindictive. The river crossing was quick, and the overloaded ferry dropped us off at the edge of the island in about half an hour. It was another hour or so before we finally reached the Mela (Fair) grounds and the road was full of incidences, jostling, 15 minutes of sleep before a guy in the bus fell sick in the middle of the impossible crowd. We survived and around 3-3:30 pm, we walked into the frenetic hallowed grounds of Gangasagar.
To describe the scenes we beheld before us would be a folly for I am not equipped with words that can truly do justice to the emotions that we felt upon seeing the expanse before us. There were stalls upon stalls selling food, clothes, clay gods, offerings like flowers, sweets etc in the main fair ground. And to speak of the number of people present - there were hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands. We felt lost, small, miniatures in the sea of faces, in the barrage of emotions that washed over us like waves upon waves of rebuke. It seemed as if God was mocking us, "Did you not expect this?"
We made our way to the edge of the land where even more were bathing in the waters. Some were drying their clothes, some did not even bother. There were small children trying to scrape off all the coins that people dropped in the water as gift to the goddess. They had strange contraptions made of everyday things we threw off in the city, something they used to rake through the sand and find those pieces of metals. There were families performing rituals to appease their ancestors by the holy waters, policemen with potbellies, standing and munching on puffed rice hoarded from the small time vendors wandering around the place. And of course there were Sadhus, naked and stoned, on the path to salvation. We stumbled upon a group of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) members who revved up a religious impromptu rock festival with a mic and an amplifier right on the beach. The sun was setting as people, Indians and foreigners, started dancing to the chants of "Hare Krishna". It was a religiously hedonistic evening, a sunset high on life and optimism. It was pure belief. It was overwhelming.
We stayed at the beach and the fairgrounds till 6:30 pm between which we managed to take a little bit of food before we decided to head back given the experience of time it took for us to reach the place. And the journey back was similar. We were in the queue for the ferry for 5 hrs. We finally boarded the steamer at around midnight and in a half passed out state, I witnessed the most spiritual crossing across the Hooghly, when the lights of the Sagar Island slowly disappeared from the reflections on the black waters and we moved back to the world we know.
Landing and making our way back to the station was a different matter altogether, for we made the crossing in Namkhana of which we knew nothing. We left the steamer and for the next couple of hours we stumbled around across well lit bus stands and pitch dark roads, asked the few souls we could find as to the direction for the Namkhana station, passed through areas where there was no one except dark, sinister shapes to give us company. And we finally reached the station around 3 o' clock at night, to hot cups of tea and the first train to Kolkata for the day.
To travel is to witness and experience. And what we felt was extraordinary.