The 2019 Kumbh Mela – A Travelogue

Sunset on Yamuna at Kumbha Mela

When I told people I was going for Kumbh Mela, the most common questions besides, “Why”, were, “Isn’t it so dirty?”, “Aren’t you afraid of stampedes?”, “What happens at Kumbh Mela?”, “Why is it called Kumbh?”. What made all these questions interesting was that, they were not asked by secular people, but by Hindus.

But the best question I was asked was, “What is the Kumbh Mela?”

On an impulse, I attended the 2019 Ardh Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj and found answers to the above questions. This was not my first trip to Uttar Pradesh, but my first Kumbh Mela. Since I had been to UP before, I was not surprised by the questions of cleanliness. But, the Uttar Pradesh of 2019 is not the same as Uttar Pradesh of the 1990s. What shocked me was the cleanliness at the Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of people in the planet.

We will get to the cleanliness at the Kumbh Mela. Before that, it is important to answer the question: What is the Kumbh Mela?

The Origins

The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering of people in the world. No other religion or country has anything of this magnitude. Do a search and you can read the statistics yourself. It is larger than the population of many countries. Once in twelve years, the Kumbh Mela is held at four places — Prayagraj, Haridwar, Nashik-Trayambakeshwar, and Ujjain. In the middle of the twelve year period, the Ardh Kumbh Mela occurs at Haridwar and Prayagraj. This year, the Ardh Kumbh Mela ran from Makar Sankranti to Maha Shivarathri day.

There is a reason why the Kumbh Mela occurs every twelve years. The Mela occurs when the Sun, Moon and Jupiter are in certain zodiac signs. The moon takes one month to go through all the signs, the sun takes a year and Jupiter, 12 years. The Kumbha Mela occurs when Jupiter enters the same sign again and that is once is twelve years.

Nityananda Misra’s book on Kumbha

A good book to read about Kumbh Mela is Nityananda Misra’s Kumbha. In the book, he cites the many origin stories. According to one, the origin of Kumbh Mela is connected to the Samudra Manthan. When the Kumbh containing amrit came out, the drops of nectar fell into the locations where the Mela is held currently. Two other traditional accounts are also popular about the origin of the Kumbha Mela. As per the first, Garuda was assigned the task of carrying the amrita-kumbha to the abode of Vishnu. While flying to Vishnu’s abode, Garuda stopped at four places—Haridwar, Prayaga, Ujjain, and Nashik—putting down the kumbha on the earth for some time. As a result, these places became sacred and the tradition of the Kumbha Mela started. As per the second account, once Kadru enslaved Vinata, the mother of Garuda. To release Vinata from bondage, Garuda brought the amrita-kumbha from the Nagaloka. As he was flying to the ashram of his father Kashyapa, Indra attacked Garuda four times. The amrita from the kumbha spilled at the four places and the tradition of the Kumbha Mela started.

Another version I heard goes like this: our rishis observed that the confluence of rivers at certain latitudes during certain times had forces which affected people. This secret, known only to a few, soon became part of Hindu social consciousness. Now crores of people comes to partake in that royal bath and attain mukti. No one is inviting them to come. None of the people coming there are asking for any scientific proof for any of these origins. It does not matter what any text book says or if anyone rewrites them.

The Experience

Now with crores of people visiting the Kumbh Mela, the question on cleanliness was legit. What I saw though, surprised me.

Kumbh Mela 2019 The view from Triveni Sangam bus stop
The view from Triveni Sangam bus stop

This is what I saw when I got off at the Triveni Sangam, bus stop, along the banks of Yamuna at Prayagraj. What you see is the vast area of the Kumbh with the Yamuna, deep far inside. As you walk towards the Yamuna, there are numerous temporary shelters all around.

Kumbh Mela Changing rooms for women all around
Changing rooms for women all around

These are changing rooms for women after they take bath in the holy rivers. This is the view of the banks of Yamuna at the Sangam. For the amount of the people who were at that place, it is clean.

Kumbh Mela The shores of Yamuna.
The shores of Yamuna.

What about toilets and human waste for an event that handles so much people. Dhananjay Joshi, who attended the 2019 Kumbh Mela writes

I saw the bogey of hygiene busted. Uniquely designed penta-urinals for men dotted every walkway. At a discreet distance were arrangements for women. I saw safai-karmacharis equipped with pressurised water hoses involved with their work. Thoughtfully named as ‘swachchagrahi’, they had a place they could call their own. For all 2,000 of them, massive, clean, brightly lit and well-insulated dormitories ensured that these health workers took responsibility for their tasks with missionary zeal. Their decentralised teams toiled under a distributed leadership model working round the clock in geographically dispersed teams to keep the 2,00,000 toilets squeaky clean.

And no, human waste does not flow into the holy waters. The Kumbh I had read about scared me into being wary of wading the filthy e-coli infested water. The Kumbh I saw was equipped with massive sump pits that collected human waste. Automated trucks sucked this sludge into tankers that would ferry it to the nearest sewage treatment plant. At the Kumbh, I missed seeing the rodents and the roaches entirely.

The main attendees of Kumbh Mela are the Sadhus. These sadhus, who live in various places around the country, come to the Kumbh to meet each other, share their experiences, and meet common people. Nag Sadhus, who are completely naked, even in the coldest of winters are an important part of the Kumbh Mela. Besides the sadhus, there are lakhs of kalpavasis — people who spend time at the Kumbh living an austere life — and much more amounts of ordinary people like me who visit for having the religious experience.

The main event of the Kumbh is taking a bath in the river. This year, the royal baths were on Makar Sankranti, Mauni Amavasya and Vasant Panchami. Among all these days, the bath on Mauni Amavasya is considered the most sacred. The baths in these sacred rivers connects a Hindu with the divine. Many millennia back, my ancestors would taken this holy bath, at the same location. By taking that bath, the connection between nature, humans, their ancestors, and the divine becomes real. The effect that it has on you cannot be described.

Kumbh Mela The boat from the shores of Yamuna to Triveni Sangam
The boat from the shores of Yamuna to Triveni Sangam

To get to the Triveni Sangam, you have to take a boat from the shores of Yamuna. There are many boatmen offering that trip for a price. This short boat ride, where you are escorted by gulls, take you to a set of parked boats around the Sangam area. This is where Yamuna meets Ganga and the invisible Saraswati. This is the point where you take a bath,

Kumbh Mela - Triveni Sangam
Triveni Sangam

Behind the Scenes

Kumbh Mela - the tent city
Tents at the Kumbh Nagari

The scale of Kumbh Mela is of Indian magnitude. Also, the problem of building facilities to handle vast amounts of people is not simple. There are other problems too. Most of the land where the Kumbh city is built is under water due to the monsoons. Once the monsoon drops off, there are two months to arrange the facilities for the crores of visitors. With our usual chalta-hai attitude, you expect a sloppy job. It is no ordinary task; but what amazed me was the perfection with which it was done. A 32 sq km area was organized as a city with 20 sectors with all the facilities you expect from a city.— police, hospitals, fire stations, clean water supply. Once the Kumbh Mela is done, the city is dismantled.

Crowd control is an important part of the event. To avoid stampedes and other disasters, the entire Kumbh Nagari and the bridges are monitored using CCTVs and drones. Misra writes, “If they concluded it was indeed overcrowded, they instantly relayed this information to the police personnel on the ground who would then divert the crowd to other bridges to balance the load. Sharma told Diego Buñuel of the National Geographic that it was crucial to keep the crowds moving, even if they were being sent the wrong way, as stopping the crowds would amount to hara-kiri.”

Kumbh Mela Kirtan at the Kumbha Nagari
Kirtan at the Kumbha Nagari

One of the common tropes about Kumbh Mela was about people getting separated, never to be found again. Or they discover each other after one child becomes a dacoit and the other a police officer. The arrangements that are done to prevent this at the Kumbh Mela is just phenomenal. As Misra writes, “At the 2013 Prayaga Kumbha, there were 17 lost and found centers (Bhule Bhatke Kendras) where people separated from their families could report themselves. The kendra would then make repeated announcements on loudspeakers and also put up the picture of the lost person on display screens and a website. On average, around 1,000 children were lost every day at the Mela and most of them were reunited with their families”. Also, “besides using CCTV cameras and public announcement systems, the administration also engaged as many as 160 volunteers who between them could speak sixteen languages and communicate with each other using a mobile application. It helped Bharat Bharati share photos of missing persons with the volunteers.”

Final Thoughts

Kumbha Mela The Divine Kumbh Mela
The Divine Kumbh Mela

What is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors? The Kumbh Mela is an experience that affects you both on the inside and outside. While walking in the Mela grounds, I knew I was part of a tradition that has continued for millennia. People of all age groups and gender belonging to various economic strata have walked these sacred grounds connected with a single purpose. The people on our boat were from Rajasthan. All of us reached the sangam and took the dip together. We spoke different languages, dressed differently, but there was a unity in our intent.

While I was leaving back to Kerala, the meta thought I had was about how Hindus preserve their memories. First, there is the story of the samudra manthan and how the nectar fell in various spots. The second one is about the triveni sangam. This is the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati. An invisible Saraswati, you say. The river, during it’s peak, did not even flow through that region. It flowed via Rajasthan, till natural events caused it to disappear. In 2019, we are still preserving these memories.

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