Every 12 years the huge Maha Kumbh congregation occurs in Allahabad. It is special this year as this one comes once in 144 years. Allahabad is one of the four holy cities in India, where the Kumbh happens. The other three cities are Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. Allahabad is the town where Sangam (confluence) of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna is located.
The significance of these locations is because drops of nectar fell from the pot at these locations, due to the tussle between the Devas and Asurs (Demons) to take possession of the nectar pot.
Kumbh Mela is the largest gathering on the planet Earth. Each year the number of devotees participating in it continues to increase. For this year the estimate is that nearly 200 million people shall visit the Allahabad Kumbh Mela over a two-month period. This is equal to nearly half of Europe's population! Another another estimate is of 100 million people. About 1 million foreign tourists are expected to visit Kumbh Mela.
Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang), the Chinese monk is supposed to have witnessed a Kumbh at Allahabad in the 7th century.
The Mela (fair) starts on 14th January, the auspicious day of Makar Sakranti. This date is considered to be the most favourable day for taking a dip in the waters at Allahabad, especially at the location of the Sangam. Sangam means joining or intermixing. The bubbly Ganges comes and meets the sedate Yamuna. At the point of the contact between these two rivers, a distinctive small crest is formed, which is locally called as the line. Nearly 10 million people took the plunge in the river on 14th January.
The fervour of the devotees is immense. The dirty and the sullied waters cannot prevent them from taking a full body plunge, many times over. For the year 2013, the Central government had released huge quantities of water from the upstream dams about two weeks ago. As the released waters had not reached Allahabad, not even a day before the start of the Kumbh Mela, the local newspapers carried the story that perhaps the waters have been stolen en route!
The cities located upstream discharge their untreated sewage into the rivers and the various industries discharge their poisonous efffulents, especially from the tanneries in Kanpur, are the major contributors to the rivers pollution. The regulars to Sangam say that the river has become acidic. Yet such is the call of the Kumbh, that the pollution of the river is not enough to deter the devotees from taking the holy bath.
The waters are shallow where the confluence happens. The confluence point is easily visible as a meeting line. Small wooden platforms have been erected here for the devotees to take a plunge in the confluence zone. One can reach these platforms by a boat. Also here, this is the time of migratory birds from Siberia to halt for a few days. Ride a boat to the centre of the confluence and if you are lucky, a large group of migratory birds may honour you by flapping their wings all over you from the top, so as that you can feel the wind from their wings, and then settling onto the water around your boat. It is magical.
For the holy dip, the men generally strip down to their underwear, while the women take the plunge fully attired and then slip into dry clothes there and then in the open or sometimes behind a hastily erected cloth screen.
The first honour of the holy dip goes to the Naga Sadhus. They are trishul wielding naked sadhus and their whole body is smeared with ash. Too many, they can look ferocious and menacing but you can easily converse with them.
There are many groups of Naga Sadhus and these groups are called as Akharas. There is a strict hierarchy amongst the Akharas and a strict protocol is observed to establish the order of bathing by the Akharas. Till a few years ago, the first right to bathe used to be a contentious issue. It is only in the recent years that a resolution acceptable to everyone has been worked out. Nearly 2500 religious and social organisations from all over the world shall participate.
It is a sight to behold when you see a large number of these ash smeared naked sadhus walking majestically towards the river, and then taking a deep plunge in it.
A special city to house the devotees is setup on a grid pattern on the sandy banks of the rivers by the local Administration. It is a big task. Many (18) makeshift pontoon bridges are fitted. The size of the city is probably around 51 km². The Kumbh city is a crazy city. The roads (156 Km) are nearly 4 lanes wide, and are paved by thick military quality chequered steel plates. An army tank can easily roll over them. Frequently water is sprinkled on these roads to keep the dust settled. five and 71 km of water pipelines have been laid.
The UP government shall spend $ 250 million to set up this makeshift city. However, it shall earn nearly $ 3 billion as revenues. It is estimated that nearly 600,000 people shall get employment.
Every here and there, 35,000 makeshift toilets for men and women have been erected. 125 ration shops and four godowns have been opened to supply groceries and vegetables. Many tents are setup to give shelter to the devotees. But these efforts are not enough. When the Mela commences, you shall see devotees lying on the ground, under the open sky every where. No place to even walk!
To get an idea of the immenseness of this city, you should traverse the length of the Shastri Bridge after sunset. Either side of this bridge, till the extent that the eye can see, has endless rows of tents all gloriously lit up with powerful halogen lamps.
The atmosphere in the Kumbh city is eclectic, energetic, noisy, busy and full of unusual sights. As you will wander around, you can come across the vigourously dancing group from Iskcon (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) or sadhus moving about on animals or jeeps or some unusual vehicle.
Simple village folk walking efficiently in groups, with their luggage precariously perched on their heads shall make you think about the passion that brings them here. These are underprivileged rural Indians, with extremely modest means of incomes.
The view of the Sangam has in it an imposing fort built by Akbar. Within the precincts of this fort is an ordinance factory producing military ammunition, the Asoka Lion pillar and Akshay vat, the holy tree. Asoka Lion pillar is one of the India's national symbols. It is a sculpture of four Indian lions standing back-to-back.
It is a beefed up security in Kumbh Mela. 120 CCTV cameras are installed here. 30,000 policemen, 30 police stations and 72 companies of additional police forces have been deployed. A 100 bed central hospital has been set up with 120 ambulances and 22 doctors available round the clock.
The Hollywood stars that are expected to visit are Richard Gere, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones. The Dalai Lama shall also visit. The Administration has uploaded the digitised maps of the Mela area.
Curiously, there is a lack of references to a 12 year fair in the administrative reports of the East India company, which controlled this region from 1801, after it took the control from the Nawab of Awadh.
The British had imposed a one rupee tax on the devotees to participate in the Kumbh Mela. This was hugely resented as one rupee could support a man for a month. In 1858, it is here in Allahabad and not in Kolkata that the proclamation that Queen Victoria has taken over the possession of India from the East India company was delivered.