In the limelight

Print edition : August 29, 2003

Nashik, situated on the banks of the Godavari in Maharashtra, is the focus of national attention with the Simhastha Kumbh Mela, which is on, attracting lakhs of people - pilgrims, sadhus and tourists.

IN spite of a boycott by senior mahants, threats of terrorists attack, monsoon rains and a swollen Godavari river, several thousands of sadhus, priests, devotees, dignitaries, tourists and local people congregated at Nashik on July 30 to herald the beginning of the 2003 Simhastha Kumbh Mela. As the saffron Simhastha flag was hoisted at the auspicious time of 11.51 a.m. on the ghats of the Godavari, fervent chanting began and several thousands conch shells blew. Once the flag was up, thousands of devotees descended the ghats and took the first holy dip. The festival that people had waited 12 years for had officially begun. It was an extraordinary moment, say witnesses. "Something that has to be seen to be believed."

During the Kumbh Mela, devotees at the Trimbakeshwar temple.-ANUPAMA KATAKAM

The mela begins when the sun and Jupiter enter the constellation of Leo (Simha in Sanskrit). This is the reason why it is called the Simhastha Kumbh Mela. Devotees believe it is very auspicious to take the first dip on that day. Nashik, situated on the banks of the Godavari in northern Maharashtra, has the distinction of being one of the four holy places in India to host the mela once in every 12 years. The other three are Allahabad, Ujjain and Hardwar. This year, from July 30 to September 7, for devotees all roads will lead to Nashik.

The Kumbh Mela derives its name from the Puranic legends associated with the "pot of nectar". Kumbha in Sanskrit means pitcher or pot and mela means festival. Legend has it that the Kumbh Mela evolved from that time when the nectar of immortality was produced by demigods and the demons. The demigods feared that the demons would drink their share of the nectar. In an effort to keep the precious stuff from falling into the wrong hands, they hid it in four places - Ujjain, Prayag (Allahabad), Hardwar and Nasik. A drop of the nectar spilled at each of these places, giving the place mystical powers. The pot of nectar was eventually stolen by the demons. But the demigods got it back with Vishnu's help. The Kumbh Melas commemorate this event.

According to Mahesh Patil, Deputy Collector of Nashik and the official in charge of the mela, between 50 lakh and 75 lakh people, almost twice the figure of 1991, are expected to attend the mela. "Of course, we can't prevent any natural calamities, but we are hoping the Godavari's waters will remain at the present level," he said. A week before the mela began, officials had a tense time when the rainfall in 24 hours reached 242 mm and raised the water level in the bathing ghats to the danger mark.

This is the first time the State has organised the mela in such an elaborate manner. A special committee was set up by the district administration to plan the mela and two officials were deputed full-time to handle the show. In the past, says Patil, it was mainly an event for devotees. But after the Maha Kumbh Mela at Allahabad in 2001, the mela has become an attraction for tourists, filmmakers and the media, particularly the television news channels (Frontline, February 16, 2001). In fact, while this correspondent was walking around the Sadhugram, various sadhus posed happily for the camera - some even demanding a tip to be photographed.

Nashik, unlike the other mela venues, is unique in that it has two spots for bathing. Trimbakeshwar, located 27 km from Nashik city, is where the Saivites offer prayers and take their holy dip. Ramkhund at Panchavati in the city is where Vaishnavites pray. This arrangement was made after the two sects fought in 1770 over who should take the first dip. Prior to this, the mela used to be held only at Trimbakeshwar, close to the source of the Godavari. The temple of Trimbakeshwar is where one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in the country is housed.

For the visiting sadhus, some of whom will spend the entire year at the sites, the Nashik administration has constructed an 80-plot sadhugram at Trimbakeshwar and a 15-acre (six-hectare), 260-plot Kubhagram at Tapovan. Each akhada (school) has been given a tent. Patil says that all necessary arrangements, including water and electricity supply and sufficient number of toilets, have been made at the sites.

While the State administration is pulling out all stops to make sure that the mela is a success, some sadhus are not pleased with the arrangements. "There seem to be more police personnel than sadhus," said Kalyani Baba from Benares. "They keep pushing the sadhus into tents and telling them not to wander around. Some were even hit with lathis. We have come here only to pray, not to make mischief. Food is also very difficult to get."

However, State government officials are not prepared to take any chances. "They smoke ganja all the time and get high," said a police officer. "We cannot have them wandering about. There are lakhs of them. We can never say what people will do in an inebriated state. We need to be strict because of this."

At the Tapovan Sadhugram, where Kalyani Baba and his ilk are staying, the scene is currently quite mellow but not disappointing. A sea of saffron-, yellow- and red-clad sadhus greet visitors. Many are searching for accommodation; others are aimlessly wandering about or getting photographed. Kalyani Baba says each day brings in hundreds of sadhus. This correspondent saw several sadhus arriving by train and on foot.

For all their planning, the officials did not seem perturbed by the risk of an epidemic. Neither did they seem concerned about the river getting polluted. With over 50 lakh people going to make flower and coconut offerings and thousands of ash-smeared sadhus bathing in the river, the level of pollutants entering the waters would seem staggering.

Nashik in recent times has become well-known for its vineyards. In addition, the region is one of the largest producers of onion. The area's proximity to Mumbai (about 200 km) has made it a sought-after place for setting up industry. Yet, the Kumbh Mela is what makes Nashik famous.

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