With Indi­an Scouts at the Anand Bhavan

Final morn­ing in Varanasi. With sor­row, I bid farewell to my new friends in the guest­house, and to that view from the leg­endary Room Twelve. Soon I take a final walk along the ghats, and dis­ap­pear into the smoke-wreathed city.

Bus-bound for Alla­habad, I am seat­ed next to a young man prepar­ing for his civ­il ser­vice exam­i­na­tions. Insist­ing I share his ear­phones, we lis­ten to Hin­di love songs as the bus winds through dusty vil­lages. Soon, I am start­ing to relax, and decide that Indi­an bus­es are not so bad after all.

Then we roar into a rickshaw.

Pas­sen­gers scream.

Glass shat­ters. Met­al bends. Yet we accel­er­ate, and the dri­ver does not stop until some twen­ty min­utes lat­er, when it becomes obvi­ous we have sus­tained engine damage. 

I am shak­en, but my com­pan­ion explains there was no choice. The dri­ver left the scene for our safe­ty. An acci­dent on a rur­al road may end in vig­i­lante jus­tice. The dri­ver will report the acci­dent, he insists, but lat­er. The fam­i­ly in the rick­shaw is okay.

I am too shocked to argue.

We wait for a replace­ment bus, but my friend has oth­er plans. He sum­mons me to a rick­shaw – which, after recent events I am not so thrilled about – and soon we are off to Alla­habad once more.

As we cross a bridge into the ancient city, I catch my first glimpse of the Sangam. It is the rea­son I have come to Alla­habad. One of the most sacred places in Hin­du cos­mol­o­gy, the Triveni Sangam is the con­flu­ence of three holy rivers: the Ganges, the Yamu­na and the Saraswati. In one of those glo­ri­ous­ly Indi­an twists, only two are phys­i­cal rivers. 

The Saraswati is invis­i­ble. Meta­phys­i­cal.

The Triveni Sangam is the loca­tion – once every twelve years – of the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest reli­gious fes­ti­val, as mil­lions of pil­grims gath­er to bathe in the con­flu­ence. 2016 is not a year for Alla­habad to host Kumbh Mela, yet I have arrived in time to wit­ness the annu­al Magh Mela.

After bid­ding farewell to my young friend, I ride on. But the jour­ney is not quite over, as my dri­ver finds him­self lost in his own city. And, I sus­pect, not unin­ten­tion­al­ly. He takes an absurd amount of time to reach my guest­house, for the plea­sure of which he tries to triple-charge me. When I refuse, still pay­ing well over the offi­cial rate, he fol­lows me inside, and attempts to turn the stony-faced hote­lier against me. For­tu­nate­ly, the stony-faced hote­lier remains so, and when I return from leav­ing my bags in my room, the dri­ver is gone.

At this point, I am yearn­ing for indul­gence, which I find in the form of mut­ton kebabs from a famous Alla­habad street ven­dor. For dessert, a box of Indi­an sweets, pur­chased from a man whose shelves brim with coloured treats.

As the sun sets, I leap aboard a cycle-rick­shaw, and ask to be tak­en to the Sangam. My dri­ver seems ancient yet age­less, with twin­kling eyes and a Bly­ton-esque turn of phrase. Even as he grinds the rick­shaw over hills and along traf­fic-clogged boule­vards of yawn­ing pot­holes he nev­er ceas­es talk­ing. The jour­ney longer than I antic­i­pat­ed I pay the wiry old man a lit­tle extra, then offer him a sweet, which he prac­ti­cal­ly inhales. I offer him anoth­er, at which the old man takes the box entire and grins: “Thank you, my friend. I will share these with my son and his son.” Laugh­ing, I bid him goodnight.

I descend into the tem­po­rary metrop­o­lis, sprawled out across the mela ground. It is almost impos­si­ble for my Angli­can mind to com­pre­hend how this, the annu­al Magh Mela, might ever be con­sid­ered “small”. As far as the eye can see are tents, camp­fires, preach­ers and pil­grims, new­born babies and wiz­ened sad­hus with dust-lined faces. I encounter only one oth­er tourist, and feel adrift in a sea of night.

Although the sun has set by the time I reach the Sangam, the water has a love­ly twilit glow, lamps strung along the river­bank. At rivers’ edge I sit to pon­der all the prayers sung, spo­ken or whis­pered at the con­flu­ence for mil­len­nia. Even Jawa­har­lal Nehru, an avowed athe­ist, had some of his remains brought here. As the future dawned, it was vital, he believed, to lis­ten to the rhythms of the past.

A young Brah­min from Bom­bay sits beside me, invit­ing me down into the riv­er. The water here seems more tempt­ing than in Varanasi. Yet I decline. This is not my holy place. Instead, I accept a bless­ing from the young man, and he anoints my head with water from the confluence.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing I con­clude my vis­it to Alla­habad with a pil­grim­age of my own, to the Nehru Fam­i­ly home, the Anand Bha­van. Here it was that Gand­hi and Nehru plot­ted the down­fall of the Raj, seek­ing to cre­ate a new India from the old. It is a tes­ti­mo­ny to their genius that one of the world’s great sec­u­lar republics was con­ceived in one of its most sacred cities. Nehru’s athe­ism was a gift to Indi­an reli­gion, for a faith that endures with state enforce­ment is no faith at all.