Trouble in spiritual paradise
By Sean McLachlan Posted Oct 1 2001
When Dennis White, producer and owner of the London-based production company Rex Mundi Ltd., signed on with Channel Four to make a documentary about the Indian pilgrimage Kumbh Mela, he thought he was prepared. The independent television network gave his team a satellite dish and enough funding to hire a small army of help. But this was no ordinary assignment.
Channel Fourís coverage, called “Kumbh Mela: The Greatest Show on Earth,” was ambitious. More than 50 journalists, translators, cameramen and researchers were hired to staff a satellite uplink center and half a dozen camera crews. They would produce a one-hour documentary to kick off the coverage, then daily 10-minute updates for three weeks, with additional one-hour documentaries on the weekends.
What White and his crew werenít prepared for was the maelstrom of religious and local politics in which they found themselves.
Kumbh Mela is the most sacred of Indiaís many religious festivals. It occurs at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers at a point of land called the Sangam, near the northern city of Allahabad. It is one of four spots where the god Garuda rested while protecting a pitcher containing the nectar of immortality from pursuing demons. A few drops of the nectar spilled out, and once every 12 years the waters flow with the nectar. Those who bathe in the rivers will be purified of their sins and escape the cycle of death and rebirth. It is also a chance to meet and listen to popular spiritual leaders. The last Kumbh Mela, in 1989, attracted 30 million people. The festival in 2001 was at the end of a 12-mela cycle, which made it the holiest gathering India had seen in 144 years. A specially formed mela administration was responsible for building a massive tent city to house the estimated 50 million pilgrims. Indians from all classes came from across India and as far away as Britain and the United States. Many of the pilgrims were sadhus, wandering holy men who have given up their ties to society to practice meditation and yoga while traversing the countryside preaching the tenets of Hinduism and giving spiritual advice.
The first sign of trouble came on January 10, just two days after they started broadcasting. The team was staying at a luxurious campsite run by British tour operator Cox and Kings that provided guests with comfortable tents, showers and Evian water. Rumors began to circulate around the festival that Cox and Kings was also serving their guests meat and alcohol, both taboo to the Hindu religion and expressly forbidden by the mela administration. Several groups, including the akhara Parishad, an organization that includes the 13 major akharas, or sects, of sadhus, submitted a writ to the Allahabad High Court that the camp was “causing damage to the Indian culture and tradition” and demanded it be shut down.
Both White and Bhaskar Bhattacharyya, senior consultant for the documentary, deny ever seeing any meat or alcohol at the camp.
“Some of the crew went out every day to Allahabad because they wanted their chicken and their drinks,” Bhattacharyya says.
The court ruled in favor of the Akharas. While declining to give his personal opinion on the issue, mela commissioner Sadhakant supported the ruling, saying that “the feelings of the saints must be respected.”
“It would have taken us three days to dekit and put back together,” White says. “We
couldnít afford that on a daily broadcast schedule. If they shut down Cox and Kings, they would shut down us.”
Cox and Kings immediately filed an appeal. It was granted a one-week extension to allow the court to study the issue.
Trouble was brewing back in England as well. Several individuals and groups from Englandís Indian community complained to Channel Four, saying the coverage showed Hinduism in an unfavorable light.
“These people had not done any proper research,” says Saraswatiben Dave, national vice president of the World Council of Hindus (UK). “They treated it like a show rather than looking at it from different perspectives, especially the religious perspective. They missed that completely. They just picked up all these nude scenes from anywhere and everywhere.”
Her complaint referred to the documentaryís focus on the Naga Babas, a subgroup of sadhus who go naked as a testament of their separation from worldly possessions. With their bodies smeared in ash, hair matted into dreadlocks, eyes bleary from frequent smoking of marijuana, they appeared in virtually all the episodes.
“They just focused on the nudity and the drugs. They make it look like anyone can become a sadhu. Most sadhus arenít like that; theyíre saints,” says Sonali Kantaria, a London-based public-relations worker and granddaughter of Ram Baba, a popular guru who was featured in one of the daily programs.
A number of local residents and pilgrims said they resented the Western press focusing on the naked holy men, pointing out that they are only a small minority of the sadhus.
“They are concentrating on the penises of the Naga Babas,” grumbles Raju Jaiswal, a local restaurant owner.
Another complaint was that there was too little coverage of the symbolism behind Kumbh Mela and the ancient religious tales that explain its origin.
“I think it would be nice if some religious authority explained it. To this day I think half of the people who watched it couldnít tell me what Kumbh Mela was for,” Kantaria says.
The Indian press covered the controversy. Local Hindi-language papers criticized Channel Fourís coverage, and the online magazine
rediff.com says it and other Western media “transform what is beautiful and noble into a show of freaks and fanatics.”
The following week, India Today and Outlook, two leading Indian news magazines, published a photo of a woman, identified only as “Mexican,” walking naked on the Sangam, where the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Saraswati converge. The mela administration slapped a ban on photography near the water, but that didnít stop an outcry from both the public and the sadhus against the press.
After that the feeling towards journalists began to sour. Sadhus and regular pilgrims showed an increasing impatience at being photographed, and there were scattered incidents of photographers being struck or having their equipment destroyed. The author saw police harassing and pushing photographers who tried to take pictures near the Sangam.
On January 20 the author witnessed about 40 Indian journalists, mostly from local Hindi-language papers, staging a protest on the street outside the Press Center. They were calling on the mela administration to stop police from harassing photographers. The journalists were milling around the road when about 50 police officers charged and beat several of them with batons. When they fled into the Press Center, the police bombarded the compound with bricks and stones, damaging the building and several vehicles. A few journalists threw the missiles back at the police. The situation lasted about 10 minutes before mela officials intervened. Six journalists were sent to the hospital with serious injuries.
The following day several local papers announced a news blackout of the Kumbh and several journalists began a hunger strike, demanding the resignation of the mela administration. After several days of negotiation, the victims were compensated and several policemen were put on desk duty.
Indian journalists werenít the only ones in danger. Whiteís team experienced problems three days later when one of the akhara was conducting initiations.
“Seven members of the crew got hitókicks, blows with sticks, roughing up,” White says. “But on day-to-day work I donít think our cameramen felt too much pressure.”
Back home, the protests over the show continued. Most of them were directed toward Channel Four, but news of it reached the Indian High Commission in London.
“There were a few letters to our office, saying elements of the coverage didnít take religious sentiments fully into account. Images of naked women and stuff like that, but even Indian publications carried those. There wasnít enough to take up the issue with the British government,” says Navdeep Suri, press counselor for the embassy.
Bhattacharyya dismisses these complaints as coming from out-of-touch immigrants with a “sterile idea of Hinduism.
“They live in a nostalgia of received wisdom about Indian conditions and are totally unaware of the Hinduism which inhabits the Kumbh, which is a very dynamic form of Hinduism in terms of its faith and in terms of the kind of ritual that goes on,” he says.
The journalists also found themselves enmeshed in religious politics. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu nationalist organization with ties to the ruling party, gathered at the festival to call for the construction of a temple at Ayodhya. The town, a few hoursí drive from Allahabad, was the site of Hindu-Muslim riots in 1992 after a Hindu mob burned down a mosque that they said stood on the birthplace of the god-king Ram. The ruins, closely guarded by the army, have been the subject of a court case ever since, with both sides claiming the right to build there. Their camp attracted little attention from the pilgrims, who instead flocked to speeches by famous gurus or bathed at the Sangam. Soon the VHP added their voice to the criticism of the media.
“Obviously they were going to get no sympathy or interested coverage from the Western press, who were just going to see them as Hindu fundamentalists. So it was in their interests to have an agenda against the Western press,” White says.
Whiteís team wrapped up on January 29. The mela would last another four weeks, but the main bathing days were over. The crowds were getting smaller. Most of the sadhus were leaving. Cox and Kings was still fighting in court and would continue to do so until the Kumbh was finished, after which the entire affair was quietly dropped.
When White returned to London, he faced off against Kantaria on the Channel Four program Right to Reply, which allows viewers to voice their concerns directly to producers. The program opened with a series of quotes from British Indians complaining that the coverage was “superficial” and a “freak show.” This was followed by a statement from Kantaria asserting that “they made a circus of my religion.” During the subsequent debate, Kantaria reiterated her statements that the coverage was superficial, misleading and disrespectful. White replied that the protests were mainly from British Hindus and reflected middle-class mores that didnít apply to India.
Despite the controversy, White and his team won the Best Program on Asia prize at BBC Asia Awards 2001.
“I think there is a case to be made that the Kumbh Mela was the first of a different genre of television coverage, both in its scale and its editorial scope. There wasnít any particular editorializing the way you get in the news. Anything you present has an angle whether you intend it or not, but it was supposed to be presented without opinion, without the usual kind of spin that newspeople bring to stories,” White says.
But Sonali Kantaria was not impressed.
“If you are going to cover someoneís religion, you have to have sensitivity. Say you are doing a show on the weird and wonderful of India; donít say you are doing a show on Kumbh Mela. There was a lot of focus on the extreme things that took place,” she says.