‘Whosoevee bathes in the water of the Brahmaputra on the eighth day of the moon in the month of Chait finds shelter and forgiveness beneath the omnipotent feet of Brahma the Divine.’
In one long continuous stream, ceaseless, unending, like the river that flows beside the sacred ghats, the pilgrims come, wending their way towards the holy place, as the appointed hour draws nigh. All day long on the seventh day of the moon they have hurried onward, winding along the narrow paths between the fields like busy ants that turn aside neither to the right hand nor to the left, but press straight onward to their goal. This is to them the greatest of all the yearly round of many festivals. ‘Know this, thou that seekest after truth. The virtues of all the holy places in the world meet in the Brahmaputra on the eighth day of the moon in Chait.’ The day is full of hope and expectation for the morrow. ‘At the very touch of the water of the river all are absolved from sin, and by him who bathes in its sacred waters everlasting salvation is attained.’ The stream of pilgrims, moved by one common impulse, presses onward, eager to obtain the beneficent promises of the gods.
It is a wonderful crowd. Many a weary mile has been tramped ere the sacred river is reached, and often the pilgrims bear upon them plainly marked the burden and heat of the way. From Dacca and Naraingunj near at hand, from Mymensingh, Comilla and Barisal further afield, from every corner of Eastern Bengal, they have come in their tens of thousands, by train, by boat, and on foot, to this great festival of the washing away of sins. Strangely intent, strangely earnest, this is to them no mere occasion of merrymaking, tinged only with the scant performance of some perfunctory rite, almost forgotten amidst the cries of them that buy and sell even in the very precincts of the most holy place. Buying and selling and all the accompaniments of a mela there must necessarily be where half a million people of the East gather, but the one main object of the festival, the washing away of sins, is marked clearly in the eager faces of the pilgrims as they hurry onward with bent heads. Unmindful, oblivious of the way and all its incidents, they pass on, silent for the most part as if in meditation on the greatness of the gods and the wonder of the promise that on the morrow shall meet with its fulfilment. Only occasionally, as they near the holy place and the tide of enthusiasm surges high, they give vent to one long continuous cry, weird and plaintive, rising higher and higher like the appeal of some mysterious denizen of the jungle throwing its note of mystery and wonder out upon the silent awesome world.
They have banded themselves together in groups of a dozen or twenty for safety by the way. Quaintly a line of women marches, single file, one man only with them, tramping steadily ahead in charge. Each group represents some far-off village, all the women of which have started on this journey of such promise, leaving their menfolk behind, and taking with them but one of the village elders to protect them by the way. The women outnumber the men by five to one. It is a striking fact among this people in whose midst the women play so small a part. As the endless stream of pilgrims passes by, one’s wonder grows. The element of youth seems almost wanting. Old, feeble, wrinkled beyond belief, bent with age and weary with the way, they pass on, each with the roll of bedding, and bundle containing the few necessities of life, which are all the comforts they will know throughout the great Snan Festival.
Timorous and weak, scarce ever moving from the tiny plot of ground that they call home, this journey is to them a thing of great adventure. None knows just where and how the vast crowd of pilgrims will spend the coming night. Booths there are to be had, rough roofs of matting lightly held on bamboo posts, but these are only for the more fortunate among the pilgrims, for those endowed with the wherewithal to pay, and these are few. For, next to the fact that they are old, one sees that they are poor. This is no festival of the rich. The zemindar, the opulent moneylender, the well-to-do babu, these are all there, but lost to sight among the hundreds of thousands of the poor and needy. Ill clad in a single garment of white, the pilgrims look almost as if they had adopted some sombre uniform for this great festival. Only here and there, a woman, younger than the rest, has given her love of colour rein in a light red-bordered sari that adds a welcome touch of brilliance to the white-robed throng. But for most of them the joys and vanities of life are past. With youth gone, fled with all the rapidity of youth in the East, perchance widowed, ousted from place and power in the home by the springing up of younger generations, their thoughts linger on the promises of the gods and the blessedness of that nirvana which for them may be so soon attained. So each with her joys and sorrows, her hopes and fears, each with her own life-story hidden in her great reserve in the innermost recesses of the heart, the seekers after the great washing away of sins pass on to await the hour when the waters shall be stirred to such sublime and wonderful effect.
Suddenly, with all the variableness of the East, a storm sweeps over the pilgrims’ way. The whiterobed figures disappear as if by magic, like ferrets seeking cover underground. The paths so lately thronged lie silent and deserted. The rain pours down as if the floodgates of heaven had been unloosed. Huge puddles fill the paddy-fields. The roads that the pilgrims so lately trod dryshod are damp and slippery, soon, under the passing of many feet, to become a veritable sea of mud. It is an extraordinary sight, this sudden cessation of all life. Only the heavy, pitiless rain beats down upon a world that waits its passing. Then, no less wonderful, there comes the reawakening. The storm of wind and rain dies down. As swiftly as it came it passes. And even as it ceases the whole world within one’s ken awakens. The white-robed figures creep out like rabbits from a warren. From mysterious and unsuspected hiding-places, where they had sheltered from the storm, they rise and shake their rain-soaked garments, flying them wide to dry in the breeze beneath the returning sun. Then the endless stream of pilgrims sets in again, until at last the sun wanes, and the brief Indian twilight hovers in a wondrous haze of purple and gold, ere it sinks, reluctant, into the grey-clad arms of night. And even then, in the light of the moon and the stars, the ceaseless tide of pilgrims still moves on.
All night in the vast encampment on the riverbank there is a stir of expectation. The hoarse babel of tens of thousands of voices goes out into the night, dull, monotonous, ebbing and flowing, yet continuous, like the roar of some distant sea upon the beach. A myriad lights twinkle out in the blackness of the night, tiny chiraghs, nothing but rough-cut wicks in earthen saucers of oil. The boats along the bank lie close packed, wedged in, each filled with its full tale of humanity. The outlines of the country-boats, of every shape and size, rise black and weird in the ruddy glow. Faces, old and young, peer out of the darkness, distorted into phantom elfiike shapes by the flickering light. The noise of the tomtoms throbs out, but the stirring cries of the day have ceased. The faintest breath of air stirs the dead stillness of the night. It is the herald of the dawn, and one by one the lamps flicker and die out as if they feared to meet the coming day. The Brahmaputra, the Great, the Divine, flows by unceasingly, waiting for the dawn that shall bring to it its few brief hours of healing and omnipotence.
The origin of the Nangalbandh festival is as shrouded in mystery as most other things in this land of fleeting memories. One asks in vain of the worshippers who throng with eager feet the way to this most holy place. They only know that it is holy. This they cling to as the unquestioned belief of centuries. Into the why and wherefore they make no search, blissfully content, as is the nature of the Oriental, to accept what is and let things be. Only here and there from some venerable patriarch, in whose memory the stories of his childhood’s days still vaguely linger, can be gleaned strange rambling tales of gods and men. Once in the distant past, no man knows where, there lived a great and holy sage, one Jamadagni. His wife was Eenuka, a princess of royal blood, famed for her rank and beauty. To them were born five sons, but of them all there was none to be compared with Earn, the youngest. In all manly sports he excelled, and, his favourite weapon being the axe, they gave to him the name of Parasuram. But in spite of the devotion of her five sons and of the holy sage her husband, Kenuka sighed for the gaiety of the days she had once known. The sage lived the life of an ascetic in the forest, and his wife’s thoughts flew back with regret continually to her life as a princess in her father’s court.
Now it chanced one day that there passed before the door of her humble abode a neighbouring king with all his following, and Kenuka, seeing them, wept for the pomps and vanities of life that were no longer hers. In this mood there came to her Jamadagni, her husband. Discovering why she wept, he grew enraged that this worldliness should have survived in the woman he had so long since taken to wife, and who had become the mother of his children. Turning to his sons in his anger, he ordered them to take their mother’s life. But each in turn refused in horror, until he came to his favourite son, Parasuram, the youngest. Unhesitatingly, at his father’s command, Parasuram raised his axe and struck off his mother’s head. His punishment was swift and terrible. The axe with which he had committed the awful crime of matricide remained fixed in his hand, and no effort that he could make succeeded in detaching it. Finally he gave up hope, and, overburdened with remorse and grief, spent his days in meditation. To him at last there came a rumour of the sanctity of the waters of the Brahmaputra, a lake that lay far off concealed in the mighty ranges of the Himalayas. Hope reviving, Parasuram set out to search for the sacred waters that might wash away his sin and free him from the curse that had fallen so heavily upon him. For many years he trod the desolate mountain region unrewarded, his penance long protracted by the gods. But at length, one morning, as the mist rose up from the valley below, there lay disclosed a lake of purest crystal in the hollows, on which the rising sun shone till it glittered like a lake of purple and gold. Parasuram, trembling at the glad sight, rose up and falteringly spread his hands in supplication. ‘Thou whose limpid waters the foot of mortal man hath not denied, let all thy sacred attributes combine to wash away my punishment and my sin.’ So saying he cast himself into the sparkling waters, and straightway the axe fell from his hand, and he knew that in that selfsame moment his sin had been washed away. To give this healing water to the world and as a work of penance, Parasuram fashioned the axe that he had so long held into a plough, and ploughed a way through the mountains that the Brahmaputra might flow down to the plains. After many years of toil and labour he brought the river down to the place where Nangalbandh now stands. Here the plough stuck, and Parasuram, considering that his work was done, went on a pilgrimage to proclaim the healing powers of the great river, vowing that he would make it first among all the sacred rivers of the world. But close by, where the Brahmaputra had stopped, flowed Sitalakhiya, most beautiful of rivers, fair and luxuriant in the pride of her youth. The fame of her beauty reached even to the ears of Brahmaputra, mighty in sanctity and strength, and the god greatly desired to see her. Breaking all bounds by the force of its current, the mighty river advanced with a roar of triumph. Sitalakhiya, afraid at the sight of this impetuous and majestic river, swifter and mightier than her own placid stream, hid her beauty, and presented herself to Brahmaputra in the guise of an old woman, the Buriganga. When the great river saw her he was disappointed, and cried out to her ‘Where, old woman, is Lakhiya in the bloom of her youth and beauty ? ‘And Lakhiya, veiling her face, replied, ‘I am that Lakhiya.’ Then Brahmaputra, rushing onwards, tore aside the veil, and found that Lakhiya was indeed beautiful, and mingling his waters with hers they flowed on together. Now upon that very day Parasuram returned from his pilgrimage, and beheld that the river he had blessed and brought to earth had left him and joined the beautiful Sitalakhiya. Thereupon his anger blazed forth, and he cursed them both. But Brahmaputra prayed for forgiveness, reminding Parasuram of the benefits he had once conferred upon him. So Parasuram, remembering, relented, and said ‘thou whom it was my intention to make the most sacred of the rivers of the world, that daily thou mightest confer blessings on those that came to bathe in thee, now only on one day in all the year shalt thou be holy. Only on the eighth day of the moon, in the month of Chait, shall especial virtue be found in thee.’
So, as on the appointed day the first faint stir of dawn appears in the eastern sky, a wonderful thrill of awe and mystery vibrates through the great encampment on the river’s bank. In the last watches of the night, the pilgrims, tired out with the long day’s march, have slept. Only the few, tense and eager with the excitement of the day to come, have lain wakeful or told one to the other strange tales of the greatness of the gods and the healing waters of the river on this the great day of all the year. But with the approach of dawn there comes a great awakening. Nature and man rise up jubilant to await its coming, which today is fraught with so much promise.
Slowly across the sacred river the sun rises. Eadiant and triumphant, it would seem to have reserved for this day of days its most glorious and wonderful apparel. Rose-pink and exquisite shades of green merge imperceptibly into flashes of saffron and silver and a broad expanse of blue, bathing the sacred stream in a dazzling glow of colour and light. And as the great sun-god lifts his golden orb above the eastern horizon, the whole vast assemblage of pilgrims stirs responsive to his coining.
The bank above the sacred ghats is alive, black with its dense moving throng of humanity. It is a never to be forgotten sight. For miles the countless multitude of worshippers, some half a million souls, extends along the river’s edge, moving continually, ebbing and flowing, restless, like an ever-surging tide. The deep broad steps of the ghats, packed beyond belief, stand hidden from sight by the press of many eager feet. In one great wave of expectation the pilgrims push their way towards the stream whose waters are already stirred to such miraculous effect. Far out into its midst they wade, eager that the cleansingtide should not pass them by unlaved. Many of them bear in their hands their simple offerings to the great river. They are small, unpretentious gifts, a few flowers, a circlet of the strong-smelling genda blossoms, a bunch of plantains or merely a pepul leaf, for the pilgrims are poor and the expenses of the way have swallowed up their hardearned savings. With many a prayer and oftrepeated formula they cast their gifts upon the great river, that with their sins it may carry away some outward tokens of their gratitude and faith. Again and again they plunge beneath the stream that no part of them may go uncleansed. Men of every age and caste, from the venerable Brahmin patriarch to the low-caste Manjhi youth, women old and worn, bareheaded, with grey hair streaming in the breeze, uncared for and unkempt, stand waistdeep with folded hands and moving lips, absorbed in prayer. Kegardless of the jostling crowd around them, each intent with her own petitions and her own needs, with eager faces and straining eyes that see only into the future or back into the past, with no thought of external, fleeting, momentary things, they fervently repeat the time-honoured formulas of their religion. ‘Om Brahmaputra!’ is the salutation on every lip to the great river as each worshipper salaams before the mystic cleansing power that on this great day has stirred its waters.
The murmur of the vast multitudes that swarm the bank is like the roar of a distant sea. Long strings of worshippers, one behind the other, hand in hand, pass through the crowds, making their way with wild, unearthly cries, from ghat to ghat. For each of the ghats must be visited for the full benefits to be attained. It is a marvellous crowd of pilgrims of every age and many castes, fired by an enthusiasm that carries it beyond the thought of trivial passing things. That is one of its chief characteristics, its absolute unselfconsciousness. It has gathered, inspired by one great purpose, which leaves no thought for aught besides. Here in a circle, breast-deep in the stream, is a group that arrests the eye. Four generations strong, a family has come for prayer and the cleansing away of sins. Forgetful of all else, they perform the elaborate rites of their worship, turning aside neither to the right nor to the left to watch the ceaseless panorama that unfolds itself on either hand. Intensely earnest, with clasped hands and moving lips, each claims a special blessing from the gods.
So throughout the morning hours the wonderful bathing festival continues. The great river that at dawn had flowed by, clear and limpid, is churned to a deep mud-brown by the stirring of many feet on its shallow bed. The genda blossoms float down, trampled and stained. Yet still the worshippers push their way far out into the stream, eager to immerse themselves beneath the muddy waters which have been so divinely stirred to cleanse away their sins. Not until the sun is high overhead at noonday does the crowd along the bank begin to thin.
Then, the end and object of their pilgrimage attained, there is time for rest and relaxation ere they take again the homeward way, to begin once more the common round of daily things. Many shrines raised here and there about the vast encampment attract the more devout, gorgeous presentments of the gods in all the glory of tinsel and paint, where offerings of pice and fruit and flowers must needs be made. Beyond, strongly reminiscent of an English village fair, but cruder and less finished, are roundabouts and shootinggalleries and peep-shows which never fail to attract the youthful native mind. Yet, considering the vast crowd of pilgrims that has assembled, these are comparatively but little patronised. The Snan Festival is one of such intense earnestness, so eminently religious, that the ordinary amusements of a festival, the gaieties, the feastings, the buying and selling that the heart of a native loves, play but a secondary part. All the pice that still remain are reserved for the shrines of the gods and goddesses whose special blessings the pilgrims most desire.
Slowly the great day passes. Streams of pilgrims throng the homeward way. Far off in the crimson west the sun sets in a blaze of splendour, leaving the river and eastern sky alight with its reflected glow. Clear again, and flowing swiftly, the great river hurries onwards with its ceaseless murmur, the mighty Brahmaputra, carrying away on its broad bosom, out of sight, out to the great engulfing sea beyond, the sins of the countless throng of pilgrims who have bathed in its waters on this one day in all the year, on the eighth day of the moon in the month of Chait.
 Photography: 1 One Of The Sacred Ghats On The Brahmaputra During The Nangalbandh Mela, 2 Pilgrims Bathing In The Sacred River During The Nangalbandh Mela