Kumbh 2019 – Moving beyond the spectacle of Naga Sadhus

What does the mention of Kumbh Mela bring to your mind? Crowds bathing at the ghats of the Ganga and Naga Sadhus, right? Particularly Naga Sadhus. Their  pictures and stories are mandatory in every feature about the Kumbh – page after page!

It is true that they are a colourful and integral part of the Kumbh melas, but to give so much of exposure (pun unintended) to them, to the exclusion of everything else, smacks of a sort of  voyeurism. Of course, there are also stories about other out-of-the-ordinary or weird sights and sounds – like a sadhu lying on a bed of nails, or another one sitting on a burning pyre. As if Kumbh mela has nothing else to offer in terms of stories!

Why, during the Haridwar Kumbh in 2010, I remember that even the official site of Uttaranchal had highlighted the Naga Sadhus as the main attraction, asking visitors to come armed with cameras! This is so much like the British and our early governments after Independence showcasing elephants and snake charmers as the sole symbols of India. 

I am reminded of  a news clip of a ‘premier’ news channel during the Haridwar Kumbh in 2010. It was Makar Sankranti – one of the six auspicious days for ritual snan during the Kumbh. Lakhs of people had taken a holy dip at the Sangam on the occasion and there was an air of pious joyousness in the air.

A rookie reporter, who evidently had no clue about the  sacredness or significance of the mega festival had been sent  for the mandatory Kumbh ‘coverage’. She was having a whale of a time, making flippant remarks, with a complete lack of empathy or reverence.

Looking around, she finally alighted on her victims – an elderly couple who had come from some far off village in MP. She began with the stock and patently insensitive question of every Indian TV reporter, rookie or otherwise.

Aapkpo yahaan aakar kaise lag raha hai?” (How do you feel after coming here?)

The old woman replied that she was feeling blessed since a dip on Makar Sankranti is believed by Hindus to wash off all of one’s paap.

Now the next gem: “Yahaan pe itne saare Hinduon ko dekh kar lagta hai ki Hindu hi sab se zyaada paap karte hain!” (Looking at the number of Hindus here, it appears that Hindus are the biggest paapis!). Didn’t the moron know it was a sacred festival for Hindus? (Link)

The woman, oblivious to the dig, said that Shiva and Parvati themselves  come to bathe in the Ganga on Makar Sankranti.

Oh, iska matlab Bhagwan bhi paapi hain?” she shot at them. (Oh, that means even the gods are sinners?) This was accompanied by raucous laughter.

The old couple stared aghast at her, clearly upset and pained. I could have strangled the girl. Who did she think she was, trivializing the faith of the elderly couple and millions of others? Would she have dared to ask, say, a Haj pilgrim such a question and more importantly, got away with it?

After humiliating the elderly couple, she took her mike and strode towards the water, gingerly testing it with her foot. She made a face and pulled it out. And with that, ended the channel’s mandatory Kumbh round-up!

I am sure that any protest  would have been thrown aside by the channel as the hysterical rants of ‘communal’ forces, which wanted to throttle freedom of expression! It probably did a full-length feature later on the Naga sadhus!

Swarali, Nagpur performing at Sanskriti Kumbh

It is nothing new for the Indian and global media to trivialise Hindu culture and customs. It has only increased in recent years.  Narratives, bolstered with images have great power, especially when it comes to denigrating a culture or a people. And so too the Kumbh has been saddled with the images of the Sadhus, lack of sanitation, dirty waters of the Ganga and stampedes, never mind that most of the concerns have been addressed in successive Kumbhs over the years.

Accolade and recognition have come though – from a world body. In 2017, UNESCO gave Kumbh the tag of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. Significantly, a year earlier, in 2016, Yoga had got the same tag from the UN body. One wishes those that pull Hinduism down would read the note by the UNESCO Committee:

Kumbh is the most peaceful and abundant religious gathering on the planet, where people of different classes, faiths and walks of life join to participate in a spiritual experience without any discrimination.

The event encapsulates the science of astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, and social and cultural customs and practices, making it extremely rich in knowledge… that are transmitted through ancient religious manuscripts, oral traditions, historical travelogues and texts produced by eminent historians.

Tent City at Prayagraj

Which is why, this Kumbh, being celebrated on an unprecedented scale, with many firsts to its credit, deserves accolades, especially since this is the first one, after it got the  ‘living heritage’ tag. The Kumbh song by Shankar Mahadevan sets the tone to the joyous proceedings at the greatest show on earth – which is even visible from space!

In a fine blend of 21st century tech and an aeons old culture, this mega event is turning out to be a marvel of organisation. From the use of apps and digital monitoring to unite the near and dear ones who are lost or separated, and keeping a hawk’s eye on the security arrangements in the huge area encompassing the Kumbh (32 sq kms), to employing maintaining cleanliness in the temporary city, it is all hi-tech. The government has vowed to make this the cleanest Kumbh in history.

The UP government has pulled out all the stops to make this a true ‘mela’. Perhaps for the first time in the history of Kumbh in the modern era, the focus has moved beyond mere logistics of arranging a fair of this magnitude and the security and sanitation concerns – to include the cultural cornucopia of this vast land.

Street art in Prayagraj as part of Paint-my-City campaign

Months before the Kumbh, the ground preparations had started. One of them was the unique ‘Paint the City’ campaign, which was launched in Prayagraj. Artists were invited from all over the country and the local people joined in to paint hundreds of public buildings and spaces, including trees and walls with stunning murals depicting the history and mythology of our country.

This Kumbh is also replete with symbolism, as much as it is a practical reality. For instance, the ‘invitations’ sent out by Ma Ganga to all the rivers of India to participate in the Kumbh is a novel and endearing concept. What is even more endearing is the acceptance of the invitation by the representatives of the respective rivers – 151 of them, who bore a kalash of the waters from those rivers to the Kumbh to be mingled with the waters of Ganga.

Special care has been given to showcase the rich culture of the North Eastern states, dubbed as Ashta Lakshmi! All these are situated in the Sanskriti Gram, a sprawling complex dedicated to the history and culture of India. It is the venue for cultural programmes ranging from classical music concerts to folk arts and theatre, performances of Ram Leela and Krishna Leela and a three-day-event of Sanskriti Vidwat Kumbh, where nearly 500 scholars, performing artistes and professionals from varied fields like films, arts, media and literature had a ‘manthan’ of ideas, in the true spirit of Kumbh, which, after all had emerged from the churning of the milky ocean in our ancient past.

My friend Neelima Kumaran, a well-known classical violinist from Nagpur had visited the Kumbh this year with her musical ensemble Swarali, to perform on the opening day at Sanskriti Gram. She was all praise for the arrangements, which are all temporary, including the steel ‘roads’ laid on the sand bed of the river to facilitate the movement of vehicles, the grand lavishly appointed tents where cultural programmes were held, the huge number of clean toilets, the clean waters of the Ganga and the wonderful ambience.

Crystal clear Ganga! (Pic courtesy Neelima Kumaran)

I have never visited the Kumbh, mainly because of my  Enochlophobia! (a phobia of large crowds). But listening to her, this was one Kumbh I would have loved to attend, for I believe that this Kumbh has moved beyond the spectacle of Naga Sadhus and the sadhus from the 13 akharas. No, make that 14 Akharas, as the Kinnar Akhara has made its debut this year, reiterating the inclusive nature of Hinduism.

Like the reporter I had quoted at the outset, there are many who are intent on pulling everything with a Hindu tag. It had started with the renaming of the city of Allahabad to Prayagraj. I think that Kumbh in Prayagraj somehow connects millions like me to our ancient past – before the invasions, before colonization.

The Paint-my-City has also come for flak, for being predominantly Hindu in content. The government, both at the Centre and State are being accused of peddling ‘cultural nationalism’ in an election year. The footfalls during this Kumbh is expected to cross 12 crores (120 million) and one news item attributes it to the rising numbers of unemployed youth! It makes one feel apprehensive about the future of even an ancient festival as the Kumbh, for given a chance, it would happily be ‘secularised’ too, much as other festivals  like Diwali have been!

8 comments

  1. Neeru Tiwari · · Reply

    Very good write up about Kumbh Mela. I also with my husband visited this Mela and took holy dip at the Sangam of Ma Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. It was spriritually very very satisfying.

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    1. Ohm you had also gone? Lovely! I am sure it must have been spiritually very elevating. I guess I will need to pick up a load of courage to face the crowds. Yes, this Kumbh has got a lot of rave reviews, especially about cleanliness and security.

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  2. Very good post on our Kumbh mela. My friend Swathi Ram is a sewak here and had been posting pictures and write ups on Kumbh mela. Unbelievable, amazing stories. First of all everybody is raving about the clean ganga. Hope it continues to be clean forever.

    Yes, I seem to read about the Naga sadhus mostly at these festivals. The aarthi is so beautiful. The huge crowd is well disciplined. Hope we get a good picture about our culture around the world. Thank you, Zephyr!

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    1. Thank you Sandhya! Was your friend a sewak in Kumbh? Sewak as in? One certainly hopes the Ganga stays clean post the Kumbh too! One good thing I heard was that corpses are not allowed to be floated in the river anymore.We need to showcase all aspects of our culture at such a mammoth mela, not just the novelty of Naga Sadhus, for sure!

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  3. There is nothing else to say after reading your post. You have said it all. Feeling good to hear how well the arrangements have been made. And that reporter lady must have definitely lost her senses. yes, these days they commercialise everything…Like they did Diwali. I also don’t visit holy places that too during this huge melas….whatever phobia you have, I also suffer from the same 😦

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    1. We are not the only ones to suffer from the phobia, Latha! There are so many, who stay away from them due to the crowds. I remember just switching off the crowds on the platforms when I used to commute in the local trains of Mumbai. I would look at the few closest to me, to assess my chances of beating them into the compartment. Perhaps the same trick will work in such crowded places too 🙂 Would you like to come with me, if I decided to go? 😀 ?

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  4. A wholesome post on Kumbh which goes beyond Naga sadhus:) One of the best documentaries have been made by Natgeo and Discovery channels are well worth a watch for the depth of content of this event

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    1. Thank you Rahul! I read a report by our cousin, who had visited the Kumbh to prepare a commercial study. What I liked best about the report was that it took into consideration the spiritual and religious aspects too, and most respectfully at that! We need such wholesome coverage of such a great event. I haven’t seen the documentaries you have mentioned. Will do.

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