Ira Cohen on the Kumbh Mela
On her back she sweeps
the central concourse of Kashi
covered in ashes and
pushing her plate in a rattle of zinc
she comes up from the Ganga.
Her legs are dead dogs
pulled by a string
crooked and tortuous
clothed in foam
she is a drunken wave
moaning mantras of rivers
as she rolls back the shadows of
weddings and pilgrims
and erases the names of
the founders of the city.
Absolving the rickshaws
with one hand she touches the sky.
O wingless stump,
freak fated to crawl
the earth upside down
like God's tongue you lick the offal
from the ground.
Hardwar: Pilgrimage City
Hardwar is a pilgrimage city that can support a population fluctuation of millions. One of the seven holy cities of India, it is also one of the four sacred places where the Kumbh Mela or twelve-year meetings of holy men are held. The Kumbh Mela takes its name from the Hindu legend, which tells how four drops of holy nectar fell to the earth from a kumbh or water pot during a struggle for possession between angels (gods) and demons. The next Kumbh Mela will be held in Hardwar in February of 1986. For the Vaishnavites it is Hari-dwara, the Gate of Hari or Vishnu. For the Shaivities it is Har-dwara, the Gate of Shiva. For most it is the Gate of Heaven or God's City. No static city, but a door through which multitudes can flow. There is no better place than Hardwar to experience the simple clarity of the Ganges and the religious purity it engenders. A vegetarian city of saffron swamis where everyone knows that life is a game of karma where no animal is killed and even the eating of eggs is forbidden. See the steamrollers prepare for a new invasion as millions arrive to take the sacred bath. Across the river is a thick jungle that extends all the way to the border of Nepal, and sometimes you can hear the elephants roaring in the night. You look at the Ganga flowing at great speed like cold coffee swirling with milk and hear the Baba say, "Money is like water. When it is flowing it is good. When it stays in one place it gets dirty." Dwarf lady with marigolds around her neck nods agreement as she passes by in a rickshaw. Endless movie music blares out of loudspeakers, while in the not too distant shadows sit the deformed and untouchable beggars like a wall before the river. Somewhere an unexpected telegram is put into your hand. It reads: "Sky invaders claim asylum - If you want to escape the cycle of death and rebirth - come to Hardwar right away. The door opens both ways."
Guru as gastarbeiter
Introduction to the screening of Ira Cohen's Kumbh Mela film, 'Kings With Straw Mats', written specially for its premiere at the Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, September 7th, 1977.
"I am Moses come to tell you that you are doomed beyond redemption. Victims of subsidy, your entire museum is not large enough to contain one grain of real rice from India. Fit only to work in the kitchens of Yogi Bhajan, you will never understand how to overcome the spineless limitations of your budgets.
Your incompetent mealy Dutch chauvinism rankles in the souls of all true believers; your phony Sufi camps and macrobiotic restaurants will not suffice to make of your godless cheese kroket fricandel souls anything more than kootje without broodje. I tell you this because even your openness is a thing only of fear and ignorance. Once Amsterdam was Ma-Kom, a good place. Now that the government has you all on welfare you only know how to fight amongst yourselves for scraps.
I who have walked the coasts of North Africa, searched for opium in the bazaars of Tehran, covered the coffins of dead saints with living mercury, passed the endless lines of lepers at Laxman Jhula, what should I tell you of the Kumbh Mela, you who pretend to yourselves that you know everything but live only an ersatz life. I would prefer to tell you, but your artificial smiles are worse than your sneers and your bunched fists. You say that you have only a small room for India and no room for Tibet. If I can give you one piece of advice I would say: BETTER MAKE ROOM FOR TIBET.
It may be too late for you who's God is a Guilder embossed with the face of Rembrandt van Rijn, but the Tibetans at least know how to keep Time. Make room before you have no more room to make. I tell you there is no time. There is only room and more room! I speak to you as a Naga who has been granted the right to choose. And please DO NOT FORGIVE ME. You will never know the price of true contempt and for that I seek to slay the flower of compassion before it grows like a weed to destroy us all."
AVDHUT IRAWADI GIRI, Ira Cohen.
Synopsis of Kings With Straw Mats:
This wonderful film is a pilgrimage into the heart of India's greatest sacred celebration, the Maha Kumbh Mela, which takes place every twelve years. Filmmaker and poet Ira Cohen brings us face to face with an unforgettable gathering of holy men and into the heart of the visionary experience by rendering it as it really is: a circus of high madness with its mixture of profundity, true devotion and showbiz savvy. The festival takes its name from a legend in which four drops of the god's holy elixir fell to earth from a kumbh, or pitcher, during a struggle with jealous demons fighting in the heavens. The Hindu holy men gather at the site where those drops fell to earth.
"The naked Nagas marching to the river, like sparks from some primordial fire, the people of dust with arms held high. There is a pleasure of being mad that only the madman knows." Ira Cohen.
"Reading your poems is like smoking raw nerves." (Henri Michaux)
"Ira Cohen is a richly woven, mystically embroidered tapestry: large, large, very large!" (Deborah Harry)
"The man who lives in the land of the Muezzin." (Jorge Luis Borges)
"Ira Cohen, the wizard of Tangier and the sage of Kathmandu." (William Burroughs)