Mankind has advanced at a searing pace in terms of scientific advancements since the medieval times. Age old practices have been renounced and have become obsolete. Yet a festival, believed to have originated during the reign of King Harshavardhana, continues to be celebrated with full fervour: the Kumbh Mela. Earliest historical records of the festival differ slightly from the actual festival; for example, taking the case of the festival mentioned by Hiuen Tsang, devotees assembled every five years at the junction of two rivers in the Kingdom of Polekeya to wash away their sins. Historians have argued that this might have been an entirely different Buddhist ritual, but the resemblance is too uncanny to be dismissed.
The Kumbh Mela, as we know it today, is celebrated in four places, namely, Prayagraj (Allahabad), Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain, in rotation over a period of twelve years. A Purna Kumbh is celebrated every twelve years and an Ardh Kumbh every six years (in Prayagraj or Haridwar). The most auspicious of them all is the Maha Kumbh, which in accordance with the Vikram Samvat calendar, occurs every 144 years. The pious and the destitute, from all over the world assemble in the sites of the Kumbh, seeking revival, making it the world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims. The Kumbh at Haridwar is held along the Ganges, along the Shipra in Ujjain, the Godavari in Nashik and the Triveni Sangam in Prayagraj. The holy dip is believed to purge our souls of sins. The sheer number of devotees that throng the sites of the Kumbh over a period of two months is a testimony to the unwavering faith that they afford to the ancient ritual.
Although the legend behind the festival is not alluded to in the holy scriptures, countless folklores have been spun through the generations, providing divine sanction to the Kumbh Mela. The most widely accepted of these has to do with the churning of the Kshir Sagara (ocean of milk), to obtain elixir (amruth). According to this tale, as Lord Vishnu in the form of enchantress Mohini gets away with the pot of elixir, she spills it at four locations. In different variants of this story, a variety of gods from the Hindu pantheon takes the role of Mohini. Invariably in all the versions, the elixir is spilled in the same four locations, which later become the four locations of the Kumbh Mela. The term ‘Kumbh’ means pot, hence Kumbh Mela has been christened so, after the ‘pot’ of elixir that is believed to have given birth to the fest. Yet another belief that has been running for decades is that Kumbh Mela gets its name from the month of Kumbha (Aquarius) during which it is celebrated.
The festival is in every aspect grandiose and overwhelmingly Hindu, to the extent that the rituals are essentially Brahmanical. The congregation of pilgrims are guided in their quest for salvation predominantly by Brahmin Sadhus and Sadhvis. From time immemorial, ascetics belonging to various sects of Brahmanical Hinduism have been a constant presence at the Kumbh. The most noteworthy of these organisations, apart from the VHP are the various akharas and sects of the sage Shankaracharya. Akharas, as described by renowned journalist Mr. Mark Tully, in his book, ‘No Full Stops in India’, are monastic orders of militant sadhus. Ever since religious tensions have started brewing in the country, it is said the akharas have been essential in combating Muslim militants in the venues. The naked sadhus, the Nagas are said to be the guardians of their gates against supposed attacks from Muslim militants. Mr. Tully also refers to the periodic tussles between the various akharas, on the grounds of the Kumbh Mela, between Shaivites and Vaishnavites (followers of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu, respectively). The presence of the pursuers of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in the Kumbh has been pivotal in persuading the credulous masses (to turn) in their favour. Sadly, the age-old ritual has in this way been a facilitator for communal hatred.
The Brahmin priests who attend to the various needs of the devotees are classified into different kinds. The sages that set up stalls near the ghats are called ‘Ghatias’. The ‘Pandas’ are the family priests who maintain the genealogies of the pilgrims, each Panda is assigned a district in India. Mendicants clad in only a loin cloth and with ash smeared bodies, wander the streets of the Kumbh Nagar. These wandering sages are called ‘Virakthas’. Even among the pilgrims, there is segregation based on the length of their stay and depth of their piety. For example, ‘Kalpvasis’ are pilgrims that stay for longer periods of time and have vowed to survive on a single meal a day.
The Kumbh Mela was recently accorded international validation and recognition by the UNESCO. It now figures in the UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The last Kumbh Mela was the Ardh Kumbh commemorated in Prayagraj between the ‘Makar Sankranti’ (January 5th) and ‘Mahashivratri’ (March 4th), 2019. A humongous sum of Rs. 4,200 crore was allocated for organising the festival. Official estimates suggest an equivalently enormous turnout of around 25 crore pilgrims. According to the statistics provided by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the festival was expected to generate an amount of upto 1.2 lakh crore for the UP government, roughly thirty times the expenditure. The Kumbh Mela is hence, a multimillion business in addition to being an ancient Hindu ritual. It generates employment for over 6 lakh workers in various sectors, including hospitality, travel, tourism, in addition to various segments of the unorganised sector. An affair of this huge multitude requires efficient administration to assure its smooth execution. The successful conduct of the Ardh Kumbh that culminated recently is laudable.
A variety of latest technology was put into judicious use for the perfect execution of the festival. Two Integrated Command and Control centres were put in place for the overall management of the influx of the pilgrims; Larsen and Toubro (L&T) was tasked with this. These command centres were equipped with 1100 cameras that could track movement. A video management system complete with number plate recognition and red light violation detection systems was also installed. AI was used to manage crowd density; the system triggered an alert when the crowd density exceeded three persons per square cm.
Another Herculean task that usually awaits the authorities, is the waste management and sewage disposal. In 2019 Kumbh, the newly installed smart waste disposal system channellised daily solid wastes through 500 dustbins and 48 dumping locations that was monitored using a GPS tracking system. This was of prime importance given the failed execution of the Namami Gange Project that had further deteriorated the mighty Ganges. Kumbh Nagar, the mini city erected had 250 kms of roads and 22 pontoon bridges. The UP government also organised a glimpse of the ‘Akshay Vat’ and the ‘Saraswati Koop’ (believed to be the origin of mythical river Saraswati) after 450 years, for the devout from far and wide. The UPSTDC had unveiled a helicopter service for a tour of Kumbh 2019. This was mainly to assist the foreign tourists from Australia, UK, Canada, Singapore, New Zealand, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, and South Africa who frequented the Kumbh Mela. The Indian Railways had also announced 800 special trains and a Rail Kumbh Seva app to serve the devotees.
The Ardh Kumbh 2019 also saw the shunning of old discriminatory traditions and practices with the appointment of Kankaiya Prabhu Nandgiri as ‘Mahamandeleswar’. The highest title usually conferred on Brahmin priests, was accorded to a dalit, breaking centuries of social stigma.
Starting with the Makar Sankranti, followed by Poush Purnima, Mauni Amavasya, Basant Panchami, Maghi Purnima and culminating with the Mahashivratri, the Kumbh has a lot to offer to the multitudes seeking salvation. The different rituals of the festival capture the flavour of India and make the Kumbh truly the pride of India.