The Kumbh Mela, India's largest religious festival, is on right now. This year is supposed to be the Purnakumbh, which occurs only every 12 years. The festival is held at the Sangam (the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Jamuna) at Allahabad, as it happens, right next to the Harishchandra Research Institute, Jhusi, Allahabad where I work. So here is a ringside view.
This is the time when the world converges on the moderately sized city of Allahabad, to have its dip in the Ganga on the designated snanam (bathing) days (of which yesterday was one). A complete tented city comes up on the banks of the river, all ready to accommodate pilgrims, sadhus, halwais, tourists, hawkers, gawkers and what have you-s (that's us!). The pre-Kumbh preparations of the city had started over a year ago with the construction of new over-bridges, laying of new sewer lines, repairing of roads, etc. Given the pace of work, it was hard to believe in October, that things would actually get completed by the time the Kumbh began. However, the great Indian `jugaad' worked out finally and by January, everything was in place. We, Jhusi residents, saw the new Kumbh city develop in just a matter of weeks, in an amazing and efficient fashion, complete with lights, water, the sewage, public toilets, sectors and roads, and a large number of pontoon bridges (around twenty) across the Ganga, over areas which had been submerged just a few months ago. We had seen this happen in 2001, however it was still awe-inspiring, especially given the functioning of the city in the remaining eleven years!
The tent city has tents of all kinds, from simple staying arrangements for the ordinary folk, to quite comfortable accommodation for the well off, with attached bathrooms, hot water, western style toilets, and plants growing all around, transplanted from elsewhere! Besides these residential tents, there are the `pravachan' or discourse tents, which compete with one another in having fancy `architecture', lighting arrangements, like pooja pandals, elsewhere.
The first of the shahi snans was on Makar Sankaranti, January 14. This year's bitter winter kept many people away from the icy dip in January, but February saw an increase in numbers. Until then, the crowds were moving towards the sangam area and taking their dips in an orderly and well-behaved fashion. There were big tour groups from different Indian states, and a sprinkling of foreigners. Some of the groups had designated gurus and would go to listen to their particular gurus, others would try out different tents. There were `superstar' gurus with a huge number of followers whose tents were overflowing. There were those who were preaching to just a few faithful followers. There were young gurus out to make their names. Academic types thought it was like a `March meeting' on the subject of religion, with many parallel sessions!
The big day was February 10th or Mauni Amavasya day, the most auspicious day, of the Kumbh, when more than 30 million people were expected in a small area of a city which has a normal population of less than 10 lakhs! The day did not disappoint us. In the earlier days of the Kumbh, the `HRI akhada' as we called ourselves often went for walks in the mela as a group, to see the sights, and eat hot jalebis!
This became impossible after February 9th. The actual sangam area was closed to the general public from about midnight to about ten or eleven in the morning, because Mauni Amavasya is also the day of the second shahi snan of the ascetics, and the main bathing area was reserved for them. This did not deter the continuous procession of people going towards and away from the sangam with the one-point agenda of having a dip in the sangam and cleansing their sins!
Although most people managed to walk for miles, have a successful dip and find their way back, there were inevitable replays of the `lost in the Kumbh Mela' scenarios, beloved of Hindi movies. Compounding the problem was the fact that many people spoke no language, other than their native tongue, and not a word of the local Hindi. A young man from Andhra who spoke only Telugu had lost his wife and child. One of our Telugu speaking friends helped him and took him to the `lost and found' centre (which has been functioning for decades with the help of volunteers) in the Mela where they were allowing people to speak over the loudspeaker themselves in their own language. His story fortunately had a happy ending when he got re-united with his wife and child after two frantic days, in Varanasi, where his wife had also managed to independently reach the Andhra Samaj.
The stampede at the railway station on the Mauni Amawasya day was a real tragedy and an unforgivable lapse on the part of the administration, as was the fire on the Basant Panchami day. Despite these serious problems, before criticizing anyone, I would like to say that the mela administration, the police and the security people, the safai karmacharis who have kept the area clean and the local Allahabad administration have done an extra-ordinary job, extra-ordinarily well. The scale of the operation which has been carried out has to be kept in mind, before indulging in blame games, and what has gone wrong cannot take away all that has gone right. Here's wishing for a perfect Kumbh, the next time round (in 2025)!
This blog post is by Sumathi Rao.