Chants from the Vedas, sadhus giving out the ultimate truth, devotees reaching out to the divine through their prayers against the backdrop of ringing temple bells, mesmerising spiritual tunes filling the air, ‘Shahi Snaan’ of the Akharas, and the holy dip by an ordinary mortal in the Sangam – the ongoing Ardh Kumbh has the devout in a spell.
Cutting themselves off from the worldly pulls and pressures, around 150 million devotees are expected to ‘connect with the divine’ by the time the religious congregation, which began on January 15 ends on March 4. The Uttar Pradesh government has made elaborate arrangements with its highest-ever spend for this Kumbh to get it all right — arrangements for entry and exit, stay, guidance, security, amid the grand backdrop of Hindutva.
“The UP government has allocated Rs 4,200 crore for the 2019 Kumbh Mela. The previous State government had spent around Rs 1,300 crore for the Maha Kumbh, which was held in 2013,” UP Finance Minister Rajesh Agarwal had said, stressing on the efforts to facilitate the grand Ardh Kumbh. It has even dropped the word ‘Ardh’ and is calling it just Kumbh to emphasise the scale and grandness of celebrations. The city of Allahabad too was renamed Prayagraj last October, when arrangements for the Ardh Kumbh were on in full swing.
The Kumbh is the largest congregation of pilgrims on earth. Recognising it in 2017, the Unesco added it to its list of ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’.
The Kumbh Mela (festival of sacred pitcher) is celebrated four times over a course of 12 years and rotates among the four locations of Haridwar on the Ganges in Uttarakhand, Ujjain on the Shipra in Madhya Pradesh, Nashik on the Godavari in Maharashtra and Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh. The mela at Prayagraj is most prominent since it is held at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati.
The pot (kumbh) of nectar of immortality (amrit) was produced during the ‘samundra manthan’ between the gods and demons. In their struggle for the pot, the amrit fell at these four places. The fight and the pursuit lasted 12 divine days, equivalent to 12 human years. So, the Maha Kumbh is celebrated every 12 years at each of the four sites – thus goes the legend. The last Maha Kumbh was in 2013. The Ardh Kumbh rotates among these four pilgrimage sites.
As in all Kumbhs, it is the naga sadhus who are the cynosure this time too. They are the first to take the ‘Shahi Snana’ (Royal Bath) on the main days — January 15, February 4, February 10, and March 4. Around 13 ‘Akharas’ – the word comes from ‘akhand’, meaning indivisible — are participating this year. Adi Shankracharya attempted to unite organisations of ascetics to protect the ‘Sanatan’ way of life. Therefore, various Akharas were established for uniting followers of similar religious customs, views and ideologies. The saints and ascetics associated with an Akhara specialise in the scriptures as well as armaments, explains the UP government website.
Biggest Temporary City
Not just big in terms of financial spend, the area of Ardh Kumbh Mela has also been doubled to 3,200 hectares (7,907.32 acres), against 1,600 hectares (3,953.68 acres) in the previous mela. In fact, the government has erected a mini-city, which has over 20,000 beds and 4,000 premium tents for tourists.
The new city area is networked through 250 km of roads and 22 pontoon bridges, making it the largest temporary city in the world. Some 40,000 LED lights ensure that night doesn’t fall in this holy Sangam. The 1,22,000 toilets at the site is expected to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Modern technologies have been deployed and there are theme-based gates highlighting Hindu cultural symbols such as the Maharabarat, Ramayana, and Vedic era. There are also stalls where pilgrims can get a 360 degree virtual reality digital experience of the Ardh Kumbh.
According to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the Ardh Kumbh 2019 is expected to generate a revenue of Rs 1.2 lakh crore for the Uttar Pradesh government. The government’s focus on blending this spiritual and
religion festival with economic activities is expected to generate employment for over six lakh workers across various sectors, the CII said in a report.
The hospitality sector would employ 2,50,000 people, airlines and airports around 1,50,000 and tour operators around 45,000. The employment numbers in eco-tourism and medical tourism are being estimated at 85,000, the CII study stated. There will be around 55,000 new jobs in the unorganised sector comprising tour guides, taxi drivers, interpreters, volunteers, etc.
The government organising the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, next door in Varanasi from January 21-23, during the initial days of Ardh Kumbh, also helped draw global attention to the congregation. About 3,000 Pravasi Bharatiya delegates, drawn from across the globe, got a glimpse of the ongoing Ardh Kumbh festival.
The festival is also attracting a large number of foreign tourists from various countries like Australia, UK, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, New Zealand, Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.
Neighbouring States like Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh will also benefit from the large number of national and foreign tourists expected to explore their destinations, the CII stated.
Splash of Politics
Be it the entrance to the Ardh Kumbh or across the 7,907-acre festival site, the faces of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath are ubiquitous. They are on all posters showcasing various government projects.
This advertisement binge, however, may not draw favourable reactions. “This is a religious festival. Kumbh was there even before them. Such events don’t need publicity. The facilities are making it helpful for the pilgrims but shouldn’t there be a little discomfort for those coming to “wash their sins,” questions a former mahant while stating emphatically that such devout religious congregations should not be used for political gains.
But for a three-time visitor and resident of Allahabad, who has now migrated to Chennai, this is the best Kumbh he has seen. “There is big focus on security and safety, which is a huge positive,” he says. While not ruling out the political overtones, he says people know how to handle it prudently. If this Ardh Kumbh is bringing people together and uniting them, we should see the larger purpose. We are not complaining.