The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad started on 14 January and will go on till 10 March, resulting in the largest gathering of humans in the planet at the Sangam (the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers). For travellers, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness a tide of millions of devotees who travel from across the country for the cathartic dip! What makes the event even holier, is the holy camps (akhadas) from all over the country. Sadhus of different sects pitch elaborate tented colonies on the sand banks by the Sangam. Makar Sakranti (14Jan), Mauni Amavasya (10 Feb) and Basant Panchami (15 Feb) were the key bathing dates or Shahi Snans, when the hysteria was at its peak.
The Maha Kumbh Mela, though primarily a religious assembly, had distinct religious and travel-specific aspects to explore. Expectedly, the Naga Sadhus were the attraction for curious travellers. But look slightly deeper and the spirit of benevolence was abundant as many took it upon themselves to clean the Ghats, ferry the poor on boats and also facilitate lost people to re-unite with their loved ones in case they got separated.
At the Sangam
Boats from both the Fort and Arail Ghats of Allahabad can access the holy confluence of the rivers, which is the most auspicious spot to take a dip. The murky expanse of water that is the Sangam is peppered with thousands of colourful boats. The negotiations for the cost and time of the boat-ride to the holy dip between devotees and the boatmen usually starts as early as 3 am and continues through the day. Others, who do not want to go right up to the Sangam perform the rituals at any spot on the curvaceous banks. Needless to say, the entire riverbank is carpeted with a sea of people.
Naga Sadhus and the holy dip
The naked Naga sadhus consider themselves to be the army of Shiva. They have a separate tented enclosure where a centrally placed bonfire produces fresh ash that the sadhus like to smear their bodies with. Many of them arm themselves with swords and spears and just to play down the look, also wear marigold necklaces. At the appointed hour, the Naga Sadhus who are the first to take the holy dip, rush to the water amidst loud chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev’. Contrary to their fierce look, the babas strike poses for your camera with eagerness and more often than not, will pass on to you his e-mail id for you to mail the photographs.
Back in the yard of an upscale bungalow in a residential colony of Allahabad, the Turner family pounded away at something that emerged as a sturdy European styled boat. Andrew, his wife Ginny and their brood of four have been in the city since 4th of October. Andrew, now with a halo of greying frizzy hair and beard, made his way to the Maha Kumbh in 1989. Moved by the sheer size of devotional ardour, he set his mind to come back sometime later. The mission? To build a boat to ferry devotees to the Sangam! After 24 years, throwing caution to the wind, the Turner family and three other friends completed their boat, ‘Karuna’! It was launched into the on January 24th and has been ferrying devotees since then.
When over 30 million people poured into the Kumbh area, it wasn’t a wonder that the Bollywood cliché of people losing loved ones here was in fact proven true. An organization called the Bharat Seva Dal was given a central space to run an office which had 24 hours announcements to help re-unite people. Though the success rate of the set up could not be fathomed, the effort was tremendous.
At the end of the day, Maha Kumbh is a human spectacle. The numbers tell you only one side of the story. The millions of other stories can be found with the devotees flocking to the sangam. Take time out and talk to a few and you will be amazed at the lengths people go to, to be there at the sangam.
With a penchant for travelling ‘ungoogled’, Supriya has willingly got lost a number of times in the most obscure places of India for the last 8 years. She lives on a healthy diet of anecdotes and tea with auto drivers, co-passengers and locals! Supriya currently runs a Bangalore based travel-photography outfit called Photography Onthemove and writes regular features for India and International travel publications. More on www.supriyasehgal.com