It has been described as the ‘largest peaceful gathering in the world’, and the ‘world's largest congregation of religious pilgrims’. An estimated 120 million people had visited the mela in the Kumbh in 2013 in Allahabad over the nearly two-month period. That included over 30 million people bathing on a single day, February 10, on the occasion of the Mauni Amavasya, considered the most auspicious. The mela has also been inscribed on the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The rush on that day was because according to calculations, the next propitious moment would come only in the 2049 Kumbh, and most of those who participated believed they would not be alive by then or not be in a position to undertake the pilgrimage.
Mahatma Gandhi who visited the Kumbh mela in 1915 in Haridwar, reflects that the 17 lakhs of people who were reported there could not all be hypocrites or mere sightseers. ‘I had no doubt that countless people amongst them had gone there to earn merit and for self-purification. It is difficult, if not impossible, to say to what extent this kind of faith uplifts the soul.’
Gandhiji had made the trip to Haridwar not because he was eager to attend the fair or for purification, but on a mundane mission, to meet Mahatma Munshiram at his gurukul. He had been assigned the task of sending a Phoenix party to the fair and to help them. They had dug trenches and pitched tents and pits for latrines and he had volunteered to take charge of the disposal of the waste. It was here that he realised how his services had come in handy and how his reputation had travelled to this place and, indeed, to the whole of the country.
This was also the time he could indulge in some introspection. ‘Where no one recognised me, I had to put up with the hardships that fall to the lot of the millions in this land... Where I was surrounded by people who had heard of me I was a victim of their craze for darshan.’ He felt strongly that ‘the darshan-valas’ blind love has often made me angry and more often sore at heart. Whereas travelling, though often trying, has been uplifting and has hardly ever roused me to anger.’
In those days of travel across the country, Gandhiji realised that he could do this without arousing any curiosity or creating much of a fuss. He was also able to notice the behaviour of the pilgrims. ‘I came to observe more of the pilgrims’ absent-mindedness, hypocrisy and slovenliness than their piety. The swarm of sadhus, who had descended there, seemed to have been born to enjoy the good things of life.’
He describes one instance, a common enough incident at such fairs. ‘Here I saw a cow with five feet! I was astonished, but knowing men soon disillusioned me. The poor five-footed cow was a sacrifice to the greed of the wicked. I learnt that the fifth foot was nothing else but a foot cut off from a live calf and grafted upon the shoulder of the cow! The result of this double cruelty was exploited to fleece the ignorant. There was no Hindu but would be attracted by a five-footed cow, and no Hindu but would lavish his charity on such a miraculous cow...
‘I had no doubt that countless people amongst them had gone there to earn merit and for self-purification. It is difficult, if not impossible to say to what extent this kind of faith uplifts the soul.’
Here faith and profit seem to be present cheek by jowl. According to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CCI), the mela, between January 15 and March 4, this year is expected to generate Rs 1.2 lakh crore by way of revenue for Uttar Pradesh. Although spiritual and religious, the economic activities associated with the mela are expected to provide employment for over six lakh workers. Accordingly, the state government has allocated Rs 4,200 crore for the 50-day mela this time, thrice the budget of the previous Kumbh in 2013. This makes it the costliest, with the hospitality sector alone aiming to employ 2,50,000 people, and the airlines and airports around providing 1,50,000 jobs and tour operators around 45,000. This is apart from the eco-tourism and medical tourism that are estimated to generate 85,000 jobs. There will also be around 55,000 new jobs in the unorganized sector, like tour guides, taxi drivers, interpreters and volunteers. With the envoys of some 70 countries being shown the preparations for the mela, there were expectations of a massive number of visitors from countries like Australia, UK, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, New Zealand, Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. And these were not expats alone.
Apart from the home state, neighbouring states like Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh areas also are to benefit with a large number of tourists expected to explore other destinations. With the UP government allocating Rs 4,200 crore for the Allahabad mela, this has also become the costliest pilgrimage centre till date, compared to the Rs 1,300 crore for the Maha Kumbh, in 2013. The mela area has also been doubled to 3,200 hectares, from the 1,600 hectares in the previous one. A mini-city with 4,000 tents has come up, lit by 40,000 LED lights. There has been complete overhaul of key infrastructure, including upgrading nine railways stations and a new airport terminal. The new city in the Mela area involves 250 km roads and 22 pontoon bridges, making it the largest temporary city in the world.
The origin of the Kumbh at Sangam is not known but it certainly dates from a hoary past and the first mention was some 2,000 years ago by the intrepid Chinese traveller Huien Tsang who visited the country during King Harshvardhan’s reign. It is also based on a complex astrological calculation, the alignment of the stars determining the time and place of the ‘Kumbh’ in one of the four river banks, Haridwar, Prayagraj, Nasik and Ujjain.
This celebration at the confluence of rivers and a dip in the holy waters at the auspicious moment where the mythical Saraswati, Ganga and Yamuna join has also been an integral part of the country’s tradition. Wizened holy men believe a dip in the waters at auspicious moments would confer religious merit, as well as enlightenment, a belief that has driven these masses to gather on the riverbank. Some believe that doing so will lead them to worldly success while others just simply to purify their souls.
Around 12 crore people are expected to visit the Kumbh between January 14 and March 4, when it comes to a close on Maha Shivratri day. The first Shahi Snan (royal bath) on January 15 drew 2.25 crore people, according to the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has been supervising the details personally.
According to tradition four fairs are widely recognized as the Kumbh Melas: the Prayagraj, Haridwar, the Nashik-Trimbakeshwar Simhastha, and Ujjain Simhastha and these are held by rotation. The main festival site is located on the banks of the Ganges at Haridwar; the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna and the invisible Sarasvati at Prayagraj; the Godavari at Nashik; and the Shipra at Ujjain.
The exact dates are determined following the Vikram Samvat calendar, according to a combination of the positions of the Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon. At Nashik and Ujjain, for instance, it may be held while a planet is in Leo, also known as Simhastha. At Haridwar and Allahabad, these are held every 12 years, with an Ardha (‘Half’) Kumbh Mela six years in between.
There are also legends to go about their origin. According to one, Vishnu spilled drops of Amrita (the nectar of immortality) at the four places, while transporting it in a pot (kumbha) and these have been identified as the present-day sites.
What is it that makes these millions of people assemble at the mela, is it sheer faith, or some transcendental urge that make them undertake this trip that defies rationale and even scientific basis? The start of the mela on Makar Sankranti day, also interestingly coincides with the movement of the sun in the northern hemisphere, Uttarayan that has been calculated thousands of years ago. The Kumbh has also been accurately calculated to fall on the dates marking the sun’s transit to Capricorn, thus signifying the end of the winter solstice. The metaphorical churning of the sea where the demi-Gods emerged with nectar that is supposed to be poured over the confluence of the three rivers.
The mystery of the invisible Saraswati has been much debated and contested, but recent advances in satellite imagery have indeed traced the underground bed of the river in the northern plains, which is further believed to re-emerge at the ‘sangam’. It must have been the brainchild of some genius to have wrought this myth and celestial confluence and fashioned a festival to coincide with the change of the seasonal transitions. And to have made this part of the subconscious of a whole race so that they are drawn to this place like a magnet once every 12 years.
Mathematical calculations confirm that the Kumbh has indeed been traditionally celebrated to match the entry of Jupiter in Aries or Leo and the entry of the sun and moon in the Capricorn orbit. This alignment is believed to enhance the electro-magnetic field of the earth which in turn affects biological systems. Studies have also shown how humans not only emit electromagnetic forces but also respond to charged fields in the environment. Just as diathermy is employed in pain reduction and low amounts of pulsed electromagnetic field therapy in improving emotional wellbeing and treatment of psychiatric disorders, these confluences also alter human behaviour in dramatic ways.
A practising clinical psychologist who attended the previous mela explained the transformation it had brought about in her. For the 12 days she was there, watching the ‘sahi snan’ and moving around the various sites, she said, was like being transported to another world. There was none of the modern trappings, no automobiles, no television blaring, and no mobiles even, and all one could see were people moving as in a dream world. They were very relaxed, courteous, were willing to share everything, from to food to space, and there was no hurry or any of the stress that modern living has gifted us with. These were no illnesses even and the water, she said, was lukewarm and one never wanted to get out its bracing effects. Warm water in the Ganga in mid-January? She found that in the many medical clinics that had been set up there were few patients. She said she discovered that her BP was absolutely normal as was the sugar level. At night the skies were clear and you could see the stars and the moon. She said she was transported to another world that she never believed existed. Coming from an otherwise sceptical scientist this was some testimony.
Among the people who come are diverse groups, including foreigners, Europeans, and Japanese, and those who belong to diverse faiths.
This brings us to the second realm of faith, meditation and energies. The Kumbh attracts a diverse set of audiences. These include sadhus and sadhvis who use this opportunity to practise meditation, the kalp vasis, a large proportion of the so-called illiterate people who travel by foot, carts or trains to experience this “mela” with an attitude of bhakti towards the gods or city-bred people, who, for the most part, visit the Kumbh to just behold this magnificent spectacle of the largest gathering of mankind.
Modern psychologists have also realised the benefits of traditional practices like breathing, postures and collective meditation, all those age-old rituals that had somehow held society together and ironed out the tensions and conflicts. The 40-day stay on the banks of the river that the kalp vasis conduct during these melas must have their spill-overs.
During the 2001 Kutch earthquake that also happened during the Kumbh, the kalp vasis pitched tents in the ravaged areas and did remarkable work consoling the affected people and providing them succour. They did not have the knowhow or expertise to engage in rescue work, that the Turkish and Iranian relief teams did with much efficiency and in a wonderful way. But the psychological relief that the kalp vasis provided has been equally remarkable.
By the sheer scale of its operations, by the vastness of time it encompasses, by the drawing of vast populations as if by a magnet, by the way it has been conducted over the centuries without any apparent planning the Kumbh is something that is out of the world. And that is why people are still drawn to it, and their number only seems to be increasing even in these materialistic and pragmatic times. There are the marketing techniques, and calculations by commercial bodies or even street charlatans like the owner of the cow with five feet, but the fact remains that this still baffles the imagination and make one believe in something that is beyond the rational and the materialistic realm. That would seem to be the spell that the mela weaves.