Over the years I have wondered what is that one believe which inspires millions to trudge miles in the chilly weather to take one holy dip in our sacred rivers? What is the whole idea of mass pilgrimage? And most essentially what is Kumbh? To seek my answers, I have referred many books and have initiated conversations with people. I have discussed it with near and dear ones who have visited Kumbh Mela in the past and have even mentioned about it to the non-believers. Interestingly, everyone has a perspective about Kumbh and I kind of like that. The answers have not satiated my quest but I have definitely gained knowledge around spirituality and salvation which has fueled my curiosity, further.
What is KUMBH?
My grandfather calls it the greatest religious pilgrimage. My dad who has lived through Maha Kumbh for two months in Prayagraj (then Allahabad) as part of his official duty often reiterates it as mesmerizing and enthralling. My grandmother earnestly believes that bathing on the auspicious days cleanses one of all sins and leads to liberation from birth-death cycle. Last but not the least, my mother says its all about our faith and can have different meanings for each one of us. I think this was the year when I was meant to attend Kumbh, experience the ritual of sacred bathing and decode it for myself.
The Holy Dip at Prayagraj
I am just back from Prayagraj in the state of Uttar Pradesh, after soaking in the ambiance and grandeur of Ardh Kumbh. I stayed there for two days and also had a chance to take a holy dip in the triveni, the confluence of three rivers Ganga, Yamuna and invisible Sarasvati, on the auspicious day of Mauni Amavasya. It was one of the royal bath (Shahi Snan) day. What makes it important as well as auspicious is the Hindu calendar which is based on the astrological calculations and the movement of the planets and stars. Another popular aspect of Kumbh is the royal processions of the Hindu holy men (“sadhus” and “Nagas”) who believe in the renunciation of the worldly pleasures. It is only during Kumbh that they all come together from far and near and celebrate one of the greatest spiritual festival of India.
What did I see?
I am sure you are curious to know that what was this massive act of faith like and whether I found my answer or not? First things first, let us discuss what I saw. There were men, women and children (of all ages) as far as the eyes could see and it was actually mind-boggling to see so many people. Without doubt, it has to be the largest gathering of human beings that I have ever seen with my naked eyes. Some held on to their bedding on their head, some walked with their luggage intact, some had come to live in tents for months, some camped with family while some wandered around like me. While most of the people knew why they were there and had a purpose to take a dip in the river, there were people like me too who looked around with admiration and bewilderment. It was a spectacle of some sorts, for sure. The aura was unique and addictive. I actually walked from one extreme end to the core of the Akharas (orders of the ascetics), yet it dint seem enough. These akharas are the allocated areas meant only for the nagas and saadhus. Each of them are provided these areas by the administration. I wanted to walk more, see more and know more. I am not fond of crowd but here the ambiance was growing on me. I was enjoying my observations. People were busy with something or the other. Some were looking for place to stay. Some were sitting in their camps. Some were chit-chatting, some were wandering around while the remaining were heading towards the ghat. But if you look at the larger picture, everyone’s activity was centered around taking a holy dip. It was unbelievable to my mind and eyes even though everybody was real and everything was happening right in front of my eyes. And then there was a sense of the sublime.
In that enormous crowd and din, I did reach a step closer to my answer too.
After walking for few hours, I did not feel like questioning anything. I just accepted the reality and the faith of people as it was all so overwhelming. I am not sure I can put it in words even now but I can definitely say that Kumbh glorifies the relationship of humankind and spirituality. It is about people and their believe in good and bad karmas. It is about washing your sins and being a better person. It is about staunch faith in God and salvation. When you look at the number of bathers at the sangam, it feels like an enigma but if you look at a minuscule level, every person plays a part in your experience. It is the conglomeration of people that makes it what it is. The act of mass bathing shows that we believe in the celestial bodies, we believe in our culture and we believe in practicing it even if we are not completely sure of it.
Mention of Kumbh in Bhagvata Puranas
History tells us all good things about Kumbh and it also says that it has been going on from ages. One of our popular medieval puranas, Bhagvata Puranas talks about churning of the ocean of milk, amrita (the nectar of immortality). The Gods and demons fought in the sky for this pot of amrita and this led to the spilling of it at four places: Prayagraj, Ujjain, Nasik and Haridwar. Thus Kumbh mela takes place in these four places every three years in rotation. Maha Kumbh takes place after every 12 years and Ardh Kumbh takes place after 6 years. This year, Prayagraj is celebrating Ardh Kumbh. The dates and year depend on the alignment and positioning of the stars and majorly Sun, Moon and Jupiter.
Security and Sanitation at #KUMBH2019
When such religious and spiritual events take place in a city, a lot of pre-planning goes in place. It becomes mandatory to arrange for the best of logistics and convenience measures. It was heartening to see that the organizational committees and government bodies have acted proactively and looked into the arrangements minutely. I can say Kumbh 2019 is not just about spirituality and salvation but also security and sanitation. One dustbin every 50 meters did the magic of keeping everything neat and clean. The crowd, the camps, the pontoon bridges, the traffic movement, the medical facilities, the shahi snan days, everything was watched closely and acted upon as per plan. I must applaud the idea of putting up 1 lakh mobile toilets. One could see and feel the cleanliness at every step. No doubt, a lot still needs to be done to undo the pollution of our scared rivers but the ongoing little measures are definitely making a difference. The onus lies on us too.
Various stay arrangements have also been made to accommodate the throng of people. I stayed in one such camp setting, called Indraprastham tent city which provided for luxury, deluxe, semi-deluxe, budget tents for stay as well as food. Free e-rickshaw shuttles were also available. The trip to Prayagraj added three experiences in my travel book. On the first day, I attended the evening Aarti program, initiated by Parmarth Niketan. On the second day, I traveled from my tent to pontoon bridge number 19 and walked for four-five hours into the crowd to capture my moments from Kumbh. And on the third day, I took the holy dip along with millions of people. Every experience took me closer to the idea and magnanimity of Kumbh and I am glad I got a chance to experience it.
And of course, I will always be thankful to all the people who facilitated the journey and were part of my journey.
KUMBH began on 14th January and is on till 4th March. If you have been thinking about going there, just go for it!