I was one of the many crores (millions) of people who headed to the Prayag Kumbh 2019 – which was the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, earlier known as Allahabad. Media reports say that the numbers are estimated to be 15 crores or 150 million or more this year. And while apparently the Guinness Book of World Records pronounced the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 as the “largest ever gathering of human beings for a single purpose” it is believed that the Ardh Kumbh in Prayagraj this year would have more people thronging the shores of the Sangam – the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.
Pic Courtesy – UP Tourism
Kumbh Mela – a melting pot of faith and devotion
Beckoned by “Mother Ganga” or “Ganga Maa”, the banks of the river are filled with crores of pilgrims who have nothing else to offer but their faith and devotion . An old man clutching his aging wife, a young boy carried by his doting father on his head, a mother with her teenage daughters staying close together – families bonded by love and duty are here to pray to the goddess river.
At the Sangam it’s their devotion and belief that bathes their minds as they dip into the river. The water is warm , like the affection of a mother welcoming them into an embrace . She welcomes the crores of people who believe that a mere dip in her lap will wash them off their sins .
Faith has many dimensions to it and this is probably the most profound aspect of it . And that is the single purpose that has drawn millions of people to the Prayag Kumbh 2019.
Kumbh Mela – A spiritual journey
However for me it was curiosity that had initially drawn me to the Kumbh Mela. And when I received a media invite from Uttar Pradesh Tourism and Lonely Planet Magazine, I decided to accept it to understand the underlying motivation that brings people in hordes to the Kumbh. And waves and waves of them arrived, carrying their bundles upon their heads, holding their near and dear ones close lest they get lost in the madding crowd.
I have a phobia for crowds and yet, I stood there, transfixed and watched.Wearing their finest clothes, they greeted me with beaming smiles and readily posed for photos as they told me their stories. And while they came from nooks and corners of the country – on foot, on bullock carts, on overcrowded buses and trains, chartered helicopters and flights, they all came for the one single dip in the lap of mother Ganga.
And as I watched them immersed in their faith, something stirred inside me as well. The curious onlooker in me was swept away by the force of spiritual fervour that filled the air. And I was simply overwhelmed.
Just then, the voice of my guide, Sandeep interrupted my reverie as I heard him say , ” All Bollywood films begin with a lost and found story in the Kumbh.” And as we smiled, we listened to the voices of people calling out to their lost loved ones over the loudspeaker. I suddenlyrealized that I had indeed embarked on a different journey this year.
But this post is not about me or my inner journey and my tryst with spirituality. It is about a guide to the Prayag Kumbh 2019 with some information on the importance of Kumbh mela. There are three other venues for the Kumbh Melas besides Prayagraj – Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik -Trimbakeshwar being the other three and it is celebrated four times over twelve years. While it is the Sangam of the three rivers in Prayagraj, the venues for the other spiritual festivals are the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar, the Godavari in Nasik and Shipra in Ujjain.
The story of Kumbh Mela
The Kumbh is referred to as the sacred pitcher which carried the nectar of immortality or Amrut. The ancient Puranas or the Vedic texts talk about the samudra manthan – the churning of the oceans when the Devas and the Asuras – deities and demons. fought over the Kumbh of Amruta or the immortal nectar. According to the legend, Lord Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman called Mohini tricked the demons and gave the nectar to the gods. And as he flew heavenward with the Kumbh, a few drops of the nectar were spilt on the four sites. The entire legend takes over twelve days which in human calendar translates into twelve years. And astrologically the dates of the mela are planned keeping in mind the planet positions and the auspicious time. Over the period, the rivers become symbolically filled with the nectar and a mere dip is enough to cleanse people of all sins.
The origin of Kumbh is not known historically but it was Shri Adi Shankaracharya, the Hindu saint and philosoopher who established the Kumbh Mela and the Ardh Kumbh and brought all the different sections of the Hindu faith together to the Kumbh. The word, “akharas” is believed to have derived from “akhand” which means indivisable. It is believed that Adi Shankaracharya established ten akharas.
The ritualistic dip in the rivers find mention in the travels of Hieun Tsang or Xuanzang who apparently witnessed several devotees celebrate the festival in a town. It is believed to have been identified as Prayagraj during the reign of King Harsha. However historians are still divided as to whether the Chinese traveller was recording the Kumbh Mela or if it was a Buddhist ritual.
There is the Maha Kumbh which happens every 144 years besides the Kumbh Mela and the Ardh Kumbh At Prayagraj it is the Ardh Kumbh this year and it is from January 15 to March 4. Although every day is believed to be a divine experience, there are specific auspicious days for bathing – referred to as Shahi Snaan. In Prayagraj Ardh Kumbh the dates are January 15, February 4, February 10, February 19 and March 4. For more Kumbh mela infomation, you can refer the official website and wikipedia as well .
Pic Courtesy – UP Tourism
Kumbh Mela and Naga Sadhus
Coming back to my experience of the Prayagraj Kumbh, I was there during the second Shahi Snaan on February 4. While it was an overwhelming experience to see waves and waves of devotees, the Naga Sadhus are the showstoppers. Out of the millions of people who throng the Kumbh it is amazing how everyone’s attention is veered towards the naked Naga Sadhus .
Pic Courtesy – UP Tourism
Of course they are dramatic in their appearance , sometimes stark naked but at many times covered in rudraksham beads and many have a fancy head gear as well . Smeared in ash from burnt wood of dead trees, they have an aura around them. They are friendly enough but most of them will pose for you and chat you up if you offer them money . And they know the US dollar from the Singapore Dollar .
I would have personally liked to spend more time with them, understand what made them give up their normal life. Shedding clothes is just a metaphor for shedding their inhibitions. While most of them are colourful personalities, I read somewhere that some of them were indeed professionals who had given to their regular life to become Naga Sadhus .
But my guide says that they live in cities like Varanasi in their communes and sometimes they may even merge with the locals , bereft of their identity as a Naga Sadhu. Indeed some of them apparently carry even fancy smart phones and drive cars – but then I have only heard of it from people. Perhaps one day I will get to speak to a couple of Naga Sadhus and understand the mysticism around them .
My Kumbh Mela Experience
However it was the entire atmosphere of positive energy that overwhelmed me. And I am not just referring to the pilgrims. Even though we are a media group, we walked around for miles and merged with the milieu. From the smiling cops to the selfless cleaners, everyone was so selflessly dedicated to the Kumbh Mela. I am completely impressed by the immaculate arrangements. I walked around for miles and everywhere it was clean and spotless. From toilets to tents, there were facilities for every kind of traveller and pilgrim. There were even helicopters that will fly you to the Sangam .
Everything functioned as clockwork. There was security everywhere , even police on horseback. CCTVs awere installed everywhere. Helpful and friendly voices reached out to you , if you were lost. I have a phobia of crowds and yet I could barely feel the chaos of the five crore people as crowds were regulated. There were several bathing ghats and boats took you around.
Where to stay in Kumbh ?
Tent cities surrounded the Kumbh and you could stay in luxury or in simple tents with basic accommodation near the sacred site. We stayed in Indraprastha Tent City which was on the other banks of the Kumbh and there were e-rickshaws that would take us to the pontoon bridges which would take you across to the mela grounds.It is better to take the contact of the e-rickshaw driver and ask him to meet you at the pontoon bridge when you head back.
There are many bridges and hence make a note of the sector and number . The administration regulates these bridges based on the crowd and the cops are always helpful. However a bit of patience is requested from our side. Although it is advisable to stay near the mela grounds, there are shuttle buses from the city to the sacred venue in case you want to stay there.
When to visit the Kumbh Mela ?
While most pilgrims like to visit during the Shahi Snaan days, I would have personally preferred to be here on a regular day to soak in the atmosphere in a relaxed manner. However there are several restrictions on the days of the Shahi Snaan to ensure that there is no stampede and the people are safe.
Pic Courtesy – UP Tourism
It is important to understand the traffic arrangements as well as there are several check points and most of the routes are closed. It is advisable to spend at least a couple of days before and after the Shahi Snaan so that you get to understand these regulations and you can experience the Kumbh Mela without any hassle.
My Kumbh Momemt
My Kumbh moment came actually in Ayodhya and not at Prayagraj. I was overwhelmed by the faith of the millions who had travelled all the way from small villages and towns just to have a dip in the Sangam and then they visited Ayodhya where their pilgrimage is considered to be “complete” . I met a family of 30 members who had come from a small village near Uttar Pradesh – Bihar and Nepal border to Kanakbhavan in Ayodhya after the Shahi Snaan.
The serene temple nestled inside the sprawling palace was believed to be gifted to Sita by Kaikeyi after the wedding to Rama. And this family took a break after their long journey while the children played . “Hamara ek photo le lo” they requested . While I complied , they told me with beaming smiles that they will now begin their long journey back home. It would take them another week to get home as they have to travel by trains, buses and bullock carts to reach their village. I was humbled by the singular devotion, the unshakable faith and the immense positive energy . As I showed them the photograph, they thanked me and said , ” Sab Ganga Maa ki Krupa hai. ” (Its the mercy of Ganga ) I am grateful to have been part of this soulful journey.