Maha Kumbh

The mother of all melas

Print edition : March 22, 2013

Late in the evening, a play of lights at the sangam.

A long trek with a heavy load.

Sadhus perfoming puja at the Kumbh city.

Putting a religious mark after the dip.

A relaxed afternoon at the akhara.

An akhara head with his entourage.

A group of Naga Sadhus with a newly initiated one full of religious fervour.

The ritual of donating a cow.

A Naga Sadhu giving his blessings.

Mendicants and their music.

A boatman at work.

Meals being prepared in makeshift kitchens.

Pilgrims in boats at the confluence.

A pre-dawn gathering near the sangam.

A Naga Sadhu ecstatic after a dip in the sangam

Visitors from other countries.

Kumkums of different colours on sale.

Pilgrims bathing at the sangam while others wait.

A lone security guard keeping a watchful eye on the crowd at the sangam.

Waiting for the dip before dawn.

Taking a dip at the Triveni sangam

A Naga Sadhu ecstatic after a dip in the sangam

Religious fervour at the sangam

Members of a sect keeping pace with the guru's chariot.

Rituals at the river.

The Kumbh Mela at Prayag, hosting the largest gathering of human beings on the planet, is as fabulous a spectacle as can be.

NO words can describe what the Kumbh is all about. A sea of humanity incessantly surging forward to take a dip in the river. It is a staggering sight, not to be seen anywhere else in the world. The water is muddy, even dirty, with flowers, ashes, and other puja materials floating in it. Still people do not mind immersing themselves in it, for nirvana (salvation), for they believe it is amrit, or nectar. And in a conservative country like India where people are most reluctant to expose their bodies, men and women strip in front of total strangers, thousands of them, to take the dip. It is not just the common people; one sees lathi-wielding policemen discarding their uniforms, lathis and caps and running into the water for a dip during short breaks. Even journalists, both Indian and foreign, are seen hurriedly shedding their clothes, handing over their equipment to colleagues and jumping into the water between clicking shots of the bathing naked sadhus. How does one describe this enthusiasm? A foreign photojournalist described it thus: “Where else would you see crores of people congregating at one place just to take a bath? This is the biggest gathering of human beings on the planet and that is what makes the Kumbh unique.”

As per Hindu mythology, a dip in the Triveni Sangam during the Kumbh at Prayag, or Allahabad, paves the way for nirvana. The Kumbh is held every three years at one of the four places where, according to legend, drops of the elixir of immortality obtained by churning the Ocean of Milk fell as the demons and the gods fought over it: in Haridwar, on the banks of the Ganga; in Prayag, at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati; in Nashik, on the banks of the Godavari; and in Ujjain, on the banks of the Shipra. The Maha Kumbh held in Allahabad every 12 years is the biggest and the holiest of them all. This year it began on the day of Makara Sankranti (January 14) and will go on until Maha Sivaratri (March 10). According to estimates, more than 100 million people would have attended the Kumbh by March 10.

On February 15, the last of the three shahi snans (royal bath), which falls on the auspicious Basant Panchami day, one expected the crowd to be not so huge and the seers to be not so euphoric, coming as it did after the tragic stampede in which 36 people died at the Allahabad railway station on February 10, another shahi snan day, on the auspicious occasion of Mauni Amavasya. But the event had apparently become just a footnote in people’s memory and they flocked to the sangam unmindful of the seven-kilometre walk they had to take in the biting cold, jostling with crowds. The bathing began in the night and continued the whole day despite an overcast sky and a sudden spell of heavy downpour in the afternoon. Over 80 lakh people took the dip on February 15, if official figures are correct.

In the hospital where those injured in the stampede were admitted, the belief in nirvana was as evident as at the sangam. Out of the 20-odd people this correspondent spoke to, not a single person said he/she regretted having come. For Shakuntala Vishwakarma, who had come from Kanpur for the holy bath along with her husband, Ramnaresh, a railway employee, a badly injured head and a fractured leg were not reason enough to prevent her from wishing to come back again. “It was because of the punya a dip in the sangam had earned for me that I survived, otherwise I would have been dead. Why should I not want to come back?” asked the feeble woman. Her head had swollen to four times its normal size, huge internal bleeding had made her eyes bloodshot, she had intermittent spells of dizziness, and she was not able to walk. Yet she did not regret having come.

It was the same with Gamaria Devi from Datia, Madhya Pradesh, who became unconscious, having been crushed under thousands of feet. She was brought to the hospital by some strangers. Ayushi, a B.Com student from Bhind in Madhya Pradesh, was dumped among the dead with a white sheet covering her face. When she was being taken to the morgue a policeman noticed signs of life in her and admitted her to the emergency ward of Swarup Rani Hospital. Her mother, Vidya Devi, too was injured and was admitted to the same hospital by some policemen. Ayushi could not speak yet and could barely keep her eyes open. But she nodded vigorously when asked if she would come again. It was the same story with Rajiya Devi from Supaul in Saharsa, Bihar, or Shanti Devi from Patna. They both had injuries on the neck, the back and the legs. “But we are still alive and that is because of God’s blessing, which we earned at the Kumbh,” one of them said.

According to official estimates, 36 people lost their lives in the stampede on February 10 and two more died in a minor stampede on the river front the same day. A few more lost their lives in fires that broke out sporadically in the tents because of either short circuits or kitchen accidents. But the casualty seems too small, considering the mammoth scale of the event. However foolproof, systems are bound to give way when such a staggering sea of humanity is involved. Over eight crore people had visited the sangam by February 15 . The biggest gathering was reported on Mauni Amavasya, when 1.75 crore people came for the holy bath.

The arrangements are good and every need is taken care of—ATMs, rail and bus reservation counters, bathing and toilet arrangements, well-equipped and well-manned (by Army doctors) hospitals, watchful and helpful policemen on duty directing pilgrims, and water police on alert in boats. Yet there were occasions when things went wrong. Given the chaotic railway announcements even on normal days, the stampede at the station was waiting to happen. The penchant of railway station staff to change platforms at the last moment, the lack of enough special trains, lakhs of outbound passengers who had gathered at the station which can handle not more than 15,000-18,000 people a day, all these contributed to the disaster.

But, overall, at least in the Kumbh tent city on the river front, the arrangements have been impressive. The entire mela area is divided into 14 sectors, and all the facilities that a city should have, have been provided. They include one central hospital with 100 beds, two regional hospitals with 20 beds each, two 20-bed hospitals for infectious diseases, 20 primary health centres, one fully equipped disaster management centre, 37 ambulances at strategic points and four river ambulances mounted on boats. The area is fumigated at least twice every day and cleaned continuously; garbage is collected continuously. The scale and extent of the facilities provided is staggering, and the fact that all this is done for 55 days makes it even more impressive.

The Kumbh city houses not only pilgrims, but also sadhus and sants belonging to various akharas. The sadhus are a special attraction for people flocking to the river, especially on special bathing days when they are given the first preference for bathing at ghats reserved for them. N aga sadhus, the naked seers, whose bodies are smeared with ash, attract the maximum attention, especially of the international media. What, however, appears incongruous is the fact that some of these sadhus, who are supposed to be ascetics, perform like circus jokers for the cameras. Some seers conduct themselves with dignity while taking the dip; there are hundreds of others who would do weird tricks, some of them bordering on the indecent. It made one wonder whether there was any religiosity involved in it. One sadhu this correspondent spoke to admitted that the increased media attention had made some akharas go in for cheap gimmicks. Another disclosed that there was a new trend of hiring sadhus from States like Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal and that they were paid to perform in the nude. The Kumbh media chief confirmed this, but he added that since no akhara had complained, the government could not interfere.

But there are people who expressed disgust at the tamasha being put up by some sadhus. “Hindu religion is not about exhibitionism. I wish these sadhus were told by someone to behave; it makes me feel stupid. Why do they have to perform like monkeys the moment they spot the international media with their cameras?” asked Anand Shukla, a visibly disturbed visitor from Delhi.

The lost-and-found announcements at the Kumbh Mela, however, were a welcome break. Listen to some of these announcements and one would double up in laughter. One woman kept wailing over the public address system for over an hour as someone had walked off with her clothes while she was taking the holy dip. Another lambasted her husband for having kept her waiting at the tower for a long time. One now understands the meaning of the Hindi film cliché of having lost someone at the Kumbh! But now, with technological advance, the lost can also be found with the same speed. Over 50,000 people get lost and found on special days.

At nightfall, the entire Kumbh city acquires a surreal look. The entire area is bathed in white light, the shimmering river looks ethereal, the bustling tents reverberate with songs and sermons. And there are the usual mela sounds: announcements of rail and bus reservation and change of shift for policemen, fire brigade sirens, and so on. “This is an amazing experience, as close to nirvana as possible,” said a dreamy-eyed Narayan between puffs of his chillum. He is actually Nicholas from Italy, but is part of the Joona akhara now and has been coming for all the Kumbhs since 1992. One walks away wondering whether this is indeed nirvana.

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