This is heaven, Bathinda resident Balwant Chauhan tells himself. He is bathing at Sangam Ghat at the Kumbh Mela as helicopters hover above him, dropping rose petals and marigold flowers on those taking a dip in the holy water. “We feel as if we are in heaven, just how it would be in a film,” says the chartered accountant, who has travelled from his hometown in Punjab to join millions of devotees in Prayagraj, earlier known as Allahabad, for what has been described as the world’s largest gathering of people.
On Monday, on the occasion of Maha Shivratri, the Kumbh Mela will draw to a close. Since January 14, some 12 crore people — mostly Hindu pilgrims — have visited the mela, the costliest Ardh Kumbh festival till date. The Centre and the Uttar Pradesh government have spent ₹4,300 crore on it. But the devotees, clearly, have no complaints. Or hardly any — barring a missing husband or a pair of trousers here and there.
Into the chaos
It is crowded, loud and chaotic — but that is to be expected. The site of the mela — by the banks of the Ganga and the Yamuna, with the hub around the sangam, where the rivers meet — is being supervised by 20,000 police personnel, 40 police stations, 40 fire stations and 20 companies of the Provincial Armed Constabulary, the organisers say.
My Kumbh journey begins on the train itself. With thousands of eager pilgrims, I am on the Allahabad Humsafar Special, which has been decked up for the occasion. The compartments are clean and have new curtains and extra charging points. The passengers take selfies and discuss all that they have heard about the mela. Is it true that some of the luxury tent providers ferry their guests to the ghats in chariots drawn by white horses? Not true. And what about the toilets that have temperature controlled seats? Not true, again — but who is listening?
Instead, there is speculation about Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking a dip in the river — which he does on February 24.
All roads from the station lead to the Kumbh site. This is an Ardh Kumbh, which takes place once in six years, unlike the Maha Kumbh, which takes place every 12 years. Devotees believe that a pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela ensures that their sins get washed away.
Twenty-one pontoon bridges have been laid across the Ganga to enable pilgrims to walk up to the holy site. Hawkers sit on the road, selling everything that a devotee may need — from gamchas and flowers to sindoor, incense sticks and little plastic bottles to bring back Gangajal — the holy Ganga water.
I walk along, soaking in the colour and the noise. There are tents on the sides, housing government offices. At a distance is the tent city — hundreds of tents of different kinds serving as makeshift rooms for the pilgrims. The most expensive ones are for ₹20,000 a night.
An international fair
The Kumbh organisers state that people from 192 countries are attending the festival this year. “The entire world is participating in it. Already envoys of 71 countries have seen its preparations. They have hitched their respective national flags on the banks of the Triveni in the Kumbh Mela,” says a UP government booklet. I, however, see only three solo women travellers, who have included the mela as part of their overall India trip. But ahead of the festival, ambassadors from 71 countries had been flown into Prayagraj on a chartered flight from Delhi to witness the preparations afoot for the Ardh Kumbh.
But where are the sadhus? The place should be teeming with the ascetics — including those who always get into prime-time television because their cult demands they shed their clothes and cover their bodies with ash. “Many have left by now. They came in the beginning,” my local guide, Ram, says vaguely. I do spot some sadhus covered in ash and smoking ganja at the ghat in akhadas that have been constructed exclusively for them.
It is 7 in the morning, and the pilgrims are already at the ghat, waiting to take the dip that promises salvation. They follow rituals as prescribed by their families or by one of the 13 akhadas or sects whose philosophy they subscribe to. The government has had to fight a PIL in the Allahabad High Court over a change in the direction of the Ganga, by manually shifting sand in the middle of the river to make space for some of the sects and religious organisations that have set up camp on the banks.
The media is banned from taking photographs of women bathing at the Sangam Ghat, but there is no stopping the public. Devotees are busy taking videos of each other bobbing away merrily in the four-foot-deep barricaded area. Changing rooms made of bamboo have been set up all along the banks, but many of the pilgrims have decided to change out of their wet clothes right by the river. Women have devised their own methods to ensure privacy. Some put up a long piece of cloth over themselves; others hold up saris and change behind them. Men walk around freely in their wet underwear. Cut-outs of the prime minister have been placed at the ghat, so every time anybody emerges from the water, they can see him smiling at the horizon.
The ascetics are all scantily clad. Yet, curiously, there is nothing threatening about the semi-naked bodies thronging the site. A few people look at me — a single woman — curiously, but most go about their business unconcerned.
At 10am, people are done with the bathing. That is when another part of the venue becomes active — and that is the lost-and-found counter. It is almost like an open mic. A woman from Ghaziabad accuses her husband of leaving her there and running away in the middle of the mela. “Come back immediately,” she demands. Another woman complains that her husband’s trousers have been stolen from the ghat, and, in a lengthy tirade, accuses the perpetrator of harbouring ill-intentions at a holy place. She wants the pants to be returned. “At least return the keys and his PAN card,” she says into the mike.
Other modern attractions at the mela include a virtual reality kiosk and an app dedicated to live-streaming snans — or ritual bathing. There is also a laser show on the importance of the Kumbh. The mela, some say, gets its name from the fact that the festival is held according to the astrological sign ‘Kumbha’ or Aquarius. Others hold that the name comes from the legend of the samudra manthan — or the churning of the ocean, when gods and demons fought over a pot — or kumbh — of amrit for immortality.
Snan out of the way, I head to the tent city. The government’s information booklet has promised a list of attractions such as the Akshayvat, a historic banyan tree, a Hanuman temple as well as the akhadas . The mela itself is spread across 3,200 hectares, according to the state government’s Information department. Apart from the Sangam Ghat, the actual site of the Kumbh Mela, other points of interest include a selfie corner, the Someshwar Nath Shivalay, a Shiva temple, a Sanskrit school, a representative village, a cultural centre called Kala Kendra, the nauka vihar or boat colony, a VIP ghat and the Falahari and Sachha Baba Ashram.
The tent city looks clean. The tents are all occupied, and there are hoardings for products that promise to make a pilgrim’s stay comfortable. Hoardings urge the visitors to get a Sleepwell foldable Kumbh special mattress, and Jio phones that have special information on the festival. The walls are covered with religious graffiti and icons. But don’t go looking for Raja Ravi Varma’s benign paintings of the Hindu gods. Instead you will find modern illustrations and digital art that show the gods in a different light. Hanuman looks angry, and Shiva, overly muscular.
But there is festivity in the air. The devotees are clearly joyous at the Arail Ghat by the Sangam, the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganga. A chopper ambulance has been parked by the National Disaster Response Force on the banks of the ghat. “I am satisfied that while we are done with three of the major snans during this Kumbh, no untoward incidents have happened so far,” says Vinod Kumar Pandey, officer-in-charge at the media centre.
The atmosphere is surprisingly free of fear, even though some locals still recall the 2013 stampede during Mauni Amaavasya at the Allahabad Railway Station in which 42 people died. The station, certainly, looks like it has been taken out of the pages of a glossy booklet. Railway Board chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav has inspected the station and ushered in changes. A skywalk has been constructed to link platforms 1-11 at the Allahabad Junction, a prudent move considering the 2013 stampede was caused by a footbridge that had collapsed.
Arrangements in place
The station boasts six elevators and a multi-storey retiring room. It has introduced more rail lines to reduce the wait time at platforms. Shuttle buses are supposed to run to and from major entry points, including the junction, but the Kumbh website is silent on the bus schedule. I take an e-rickshaw (an electric four-seater), and am told that the e-rickshaw wallahs have been doing brisk business. During the last major snan late last month, my rickshawallah earned ₹11,000 just ferrying passengers from Prayagraj to the ghat.
I spend some hours looking for a hotel after I hear that my train to Delhi is late. I move around the city and find that while parts have been spruced up, with greenery on the dividers, road lights in place and regular cleaning at major points, the air quality index is unhealthy and the interiors of the city are dark and dirty. I turn away from two hotels when I find that I have to cross open drains to enter the foyer. Piles of uncollected rubbish clutter the roads. I remember the city had ranked 247th among 434 cities on the list of the Swachh Survekshan clean cities’ list of 2017.
The Kumbh Mela was meant to have brought in change. The National Clean Ganga Mission (NCGM) sanctioned ₹113 crore for the construction of 27,500 toilets, 20,000 urinals and 1.6 lakh dustbins for the Kumbh. An official told a newspaper that the flow of 46 big drains that go directly in the river has been checked and treated so that clean water can be provided for the Kumbh. Prayagraj will also get four sewage treatment plants and sewer lines are being laid. Prime Minister Modi performed a special pooja for sanitation workers during his visit on February 24, thanking them for keeping the city clean. He declared the Kumbh a “Swachh Kumbh” — or clean Kumbh.
An army of porta-potties is available at the Sangam Ghat, right next to the tent city. While the Sangam Ghat is open defecation free, as far as I can tell, the trash skimmer that is used to skim the rubbish from the river’s surface is not at work while I am there. Ample amounts of flowers and other residue are waiting to be picked up. The ghat is also not plastic-free, with hawkers selling plastic covers to devotees to sit on the banks as well as the plastic bottles for the Gangajal. Dustbins at the ghat are hard to spot. The drones being used by the police — which got considerable media attention — are nowhere to be seen, either, towards the end of the 50-day festival.
By the evening, people are moving out of the site, to the city or the station. Kishore Chaubey, from Lucknow, has plans for the day. He is going to watch Gully Boy . “I’m telling my daughter I’m going for a cultural programme, because she might get offended if I tell her I am going to watch the film,” he says.
I duck the touts, who stop me every now and then to ask me my caste and donations for sadhus, and make my way to the station. The train, late by several hours, seems to have lost its shine. The curtains, certainly, are missing. It draws into the New Delhi Railway Station 12 hours after its scheduled time of arrival. Everything, clearly, is back to normal.
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