Holy dip and a few million people

Scene from the Maha Kumbh Mela, 2013

Maha Kumbh Mela

Scene from the Maha Kumbh Mela, 2013

By Prasanna

That would be what one thinks of the Kumbh Mela from the news reports that one gets before visiting it. But on visiting it, I found a whole new dimension to things: primarily driven by the perspectives on offer, but also because one only gets to experience a slice of the crowd at best and not the full throng.

The Triveni Sangam area, where the Mela is hosted, covers river banks on both sides while including the riverbed on one – the riverbed fills up when the rivers are in spate during the monsoon and given all that, the Mela area is huge at approximately 50 sq km.

Reaching Allahabad outskirts, one faces traffic restrictions because of the Kumbh. It is best to reach the town via alternate routes (usually by asking local people – or with their help, as we did). Part of that is also the Sangam (confluence). There are many ways to visit Allahabad but the road – either from Lucknow or Varanasi – is most convenient, as both have excellent train and air connectivity and are not too far from Allahabad (210 and 120 km, respectively).

I first entered the Mela early evening on a regular Kumbh day (not one of the six important bathing days), and what struck me was the general lack of pushing and jostling given the numbers. I have seen crowds in cricket matches and movie halls with probably a fraction of the number but with far more pushing and jostling. All through the Kumbh Mela, I was pleasantly surprised by the well-mannered crowd – no matter what the number (for example, on Magh Poornima there were 10 million devotees thronging the Sangam, on Mauni Amaavasya about 30 million). Not once was there pushing, jostling or need of police intervention in crowd control. I saw people carrying loads on their shoulders and heads and still walking peacefully, giving way if required. Having experienced crowds in cities and elsewhere, this was a very pleasant surprise. One got to see interesting ideas like people keeping their “flock” together with everyone holding onto one rope!

Not staying in the Mela area, but in Civil Lines of Allahabad (the city has five cantonments and is divided into various lines – police, civil, etc.) and travelling through to the Mela area daily, I got to see the kind of near-upheaval that Allahabad experiences during the months of the Kumbh. There was a steady stream of people walking out of and into railway stations – most of them visitors were who had come to bathe in the Triveni Sangam and were heading back. I also saw the huge police presence in Allahabad and also the lack of facilities for the police – almost every major ground was taken over by tents to provide for police accommodation – in addition to the tents that were put up in the Mela area. It was like a regular city dotted with tents. There were also tents under flyovers. Our guardians surely need better facilities!

The station exits and the main entrance from the city-side (civil lines, etc.) is generally choc-a-bloc and on slower days Allahabad city station has little or no transport for people to reach the Triveni Sangam area.

I spent the next four days visiting the Sangam area, chatting up people and photographing – both in the morning and evening. In the mornings, there was generally a rush, with people getting of trains and rushing to the Kumbh area, to a few hawkers and a lot of beggars (unlike the evenings). Also, the rush of people to the Sangam area makes it look as if a million ants were heading there together! On special bathing days the administration only allows foot traffic on roads heading to the Sangam (barring military, police and VIP vehicles) and one has to walk about at least 4 km to enter the Mela area and some more to get to the Sangam. While trains were diverted to different stations within Allahabad, it didn’t reduce the number of people thronging the roads and heading to the Mela area at five in the morning. Travellers – old, young and middle aged – were all travelling with their luggage to the area. There are hardly any refreshments or rest areas on that stretch until one enters the Mela area, something maybe for the administration can improve.

I found that evening was the best time to visit. Evening sees the Sangam and the bathing area offering brilliant vistas – not just with the aartis for the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati but also because the crowd bathing and rushing into the rivers is less. Evening also seems to be when the people at the Kumbh pick up on the “Mela” part of it. Even as the million lights that seem to light up the Kumbh come on, people are busy lighting up “chulhas”(traditional wood/coal-burning stoves) for cooking, chatting up. Vendors try to make hay while the million-watt bulbs shine. I met up with chaiwallahs (tea vendors) from Kolkata and sweetmeat-vendors from Bihar – not just devotees but even hawkers and vendors were from far-flung places. The evening, while well-lit, is also quite choked by smoke from the stoves; the smoke casts a thick veil over the place, even with the million-watt lighting that the administration rustles up, making the view hazy. Some of the other touristy attractions like the Naga babas, Akharas (and the chillums) were not easily found, due to the rains.

The Mela area is like a semi-organised town. Roads exist (and are more or less straight) and they are linked to bridges across the Ganga but the road signs aren’t really too prevalent or prominent (nor is the map). However, at every intersection, there are cops on duty and most would be able to point you to whatever section you want to head to, or if there are Akharas settled. One of the problems with this year’s Kumbh Mela was that there were heavy rains just after Vasant Panchami (February 15) which, per news reports, inundated vast sections of the area. And given that the Akharas and babas were mostly housed on what were sections of riverbed, the tents were flooded and most of them left the Mela area soon after, heading to Varanasi for Maha Shivaratri instead. By Magh Poornima (February 25) there weren’t too many Akharas left. I ran into a Belgian photographer who had apparently been to India for the past 20-25 years, almost once a year, and had visited the Kumbh in 2001 as well. I got to know from him that the previous Kumbh had the Akharas situated farther away, which made for better photography as the Sadhus would reach the Sangam after a long walk. And a possible consequence of the lack of Naga Babas and the Akharas was that one got to see far fewer foreign tourists than were reported to be there. Incidentally, more than western tourists there were a lot of Chinese and Taiwanese tourists (apparently that time coincided with the Chinese New Year holidays).

Even given all that, it was a phenomenal experience for someone who is skeptical of areas of pilgrimage and by the millions that throng it, having had some experience in other parts of India. The Kumbh was an eye-opener for the great organization, lack of crazed pushing and shoving to get into the main areas and the generally well-behaved and laidback crowd – they took it in their stride and happily chatted with some cops when being asked to clear certain areas, and the barricades and balustrades were well used for drying dhotis and saris! It is hard to imagine finding peace by the river in that throng but that was what used to happen every evening. Even with the aartis in the Sangam, the area exuded a sense of peace and further into the night, there was hardly any cacophony – just a million lights, three holy rivers and the cool breeze. It is worth visiting just to experience that, even if one is not religious-minded.

Based in Bangalore, Prasanna is a photographer. He trained as an engineer but his love for the medium of expression, of capturing the little moments in people's lives, and the interesting world around him, drove him to dive deep into photography. Having recently discovered the joys of photography in the film medium, he prefers it to digital photography. Connect with him on Flickr

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