Naga Sadhus getting ready to take a holy dip on the occasion of first ‘Shahi Snan’. (Image: BTVI)
The smell of wet cement greets you the moment you walk into the terminal after arriving at the Bamrauli military airbase and public airport in the recently rechristened eastern Uttar Pradesh city of Prayagraj.
The pilot had issued a warning asking passengers to not click photographs as the plane started its final descent into the airbase. Everyone paid heed, but only till they entered the terminal – for standing there to greet them was a group of musicians dressed in orange hues who struck up a familiar bhangra beat that echoed across the large hall.
Many tourists started to record the show and even as the cell phones captured the scene –another group of musicians, this one attired in black with cowry shells adorning their waistcoats, struck up an infectious beat on their nagharas (kettle drums).
Baggage in hand, we set off on our quest of reaching the mega-city of the Kumbh that has sprung up once again on the banks of the Ganges, a river that is older than even Bharat. Two years of planning and over Rs 4,000 crore of money have yielded a vast expanse of tents, 22 pontoon bridges, over 1,25,000 toilets, a hospital and a computerised ‘lost and found’ service among many, many other necessities for an estimated 120 million devotees from all over India and dozens of countries across the world.
Spread over 3200 hectares of open sand and divided into nearly two dozen “sectors”, this mega-city represents the money and muscle of a government determined to leave no stone unturned in ensuring a grand 55-day festival. The official machinery is also losing no opportunity in making it clear as to who is behind this unprecedented mobilisation of men and resources to greet Hindus from all over the country.
From the media centre to the newly carpeted, very well-lit roads - large pictures of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath (himself a Mahant of the Gorakhpur math) adorn dozens of boards. Even larger pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had once himself contemplated going down the path of becoming a sadhu, are dotted all around.
Visitors from overseas (our correspondent met a group headed by a woman sadhvi from Lithuania whose answers were translated in excellent Hindi by her follower from Norway, while devotees from Russia giving him company) are also arriving in the thousands, staying at camps on the far side of the river bank.
But the heart of the Kumbh is not the infrastructure. It is not the tent cities. It is not the pathways awash in ‘LED’ white lights. It is not the police, nor is it in the khoya-paya (lost and found) announcements made by a dedicated crew every few minutes to reconnect those lost in the milling crowds.
The heart of the Kumbh is the ‘akharas’ – sects of Hindu ascetics including the famous ash-smeared Naga sadhus – who rose as defenders of the faith during times of invasion and cultural, religious oppression. Today, these 13 akharas follow their own rituals, practices and traditions and this time around was even more significant as Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, a minister in the BJP led NDA government at the centre, was anointed a mahamandleshwar (one of the highest levels in traditional Hindu spiritual leadership).
This is the first time that any member of the union council of ministers has been so elevated in the order of Hindu saints. At a time when the order of the Supreme Court permitting the entry of all women into the shrine of Sabarimala has led to social tumult in Kerala, the elevation and adulation of Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti is an important development.
Another very significant development also took place at the Kumbh this time around. The Juna akhara, among the largest akharas in India, formally accepted order of transgenders -the Kinnar akhara – into its fold. This is seen as a seminal development in the quest for gender equality in religious practices. Enthusiastic reports of the news dominated the local media with observers praising this step of inclusion.
The first shahi snan (royal bath) of the Kumbh Mela took place today on Makar-Sankranti, with the sadhus of the Juna akharas taking the first plunge. Millions followed and this will go on till March 4 – the day when Hindus will celebrate Mahashivratri.
Those who congregate the Kumbh do not do so knowingly to be part of the largest human gathering in the world. They are the faithful and they come braving hardship and hoping for just the bare necessities that would allow them to take a dip at the Sangam – the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the invisible Sarasvati.
A dip in the chilly waters is all they seek to refresh their soul and wash away the sins of the past.
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