Please read a wonderful blog on Khumb Mela from my friend Ravi. You will certainly enjoy this.

Me, myself and my camera walking aimlessly during short breaks and noticing life that I would have otherwise missed


Kumbh Mela Photography to Spirituality

This was my first trip to Kumbh and to Prayag/Sangam area.  I really didn't know what to expect at the Khumb Mela.  I like street photography and I knew that the Kumbh would provide me plenty of opportunity to get some good shots.  But as it turned out, it was less about photography and more about self-discovery. I learned a lot and experienced a lot more than what I could ever imagine. It is next to impossible to describe Khumb Mela in words or in photographs. One has to experience it. It is like describing banana split ice cream with honey and nuts on the top and showing you a picture of the same. Nothing can ever beat the experience of eating it yourself.

 I got plenty of help from my neighbour and good friend Ruchi who is from Allahabad and who experienced Kumbh Mela many times. She asked me to book a camp with ISKON, travel light and just experience what comes on my way. I took her brother’s number just in case I needed local help. I flew to Delhi from Bangalore and took Rajdhani from Delhi to Allahabad. Rajdhani leaves from platform 16 and I was searching for a quick bite before I board the train. I saw IRCTC billboard for an executive lounge. For Rs.300 they were offering air conditioned lounge, food and beverage, newspapers and WiFi. My expectations were low as I paid the 300 rupees. But to my pleasant surprise, it was an awesome lounge that competes with any business class lounge in Indian Airports and I was served hot, fresh Indian meal. To top that I could check my emails and relaxed a bit before I saw announcement on brand new LED screen that my train is ready on the platform. What an experience for 300 rupees! Hats off to IRCTC. This reminds of my friend who told me that Indian Railways offer the best cost effective travel in the world. Only thing we need to know is what train to catch and how to get hold of the tickets well in advance. If you happen to go to Delhi Railway station, make it to platform 16 and experience the IRCTC lounge. I am off to a great start and took rest in my second A/C sleeper that stopped only at Kanpur and reached Allahabad on-time at 8:30 PM. I forgot to tell you that IRCTC lounge has a good book store and I picked Mark Tully’s “NO FULL STOPS in INDIA”  to read about his experiences of Kumbh Mela.

Allahabad Railway station is packed and I could already sense the crowds at Kumbh Mela. 

I reached the Mela site in an auto going through the narrow busy streets of Allahabad. We took the help of a policeman and I landed in sector 5 where ISKON camp is located.  It was a cold foggy night at the Mela and I could hardly see few feet. I decided not to venture out and hit the sack in the comfortable three room camp. 

I told myself that I will not take bath in Ganga and reminded myself that this is purely a photographic trip and I have to stay healthy and not get sick during the trip. At the back of my mind, I was thinking of what excuse to give to my mother if she asks me if I had taken a dip in Ganga. Had I known that I will be taking bath in Ganga every day during my stay, I would not have wasted my thoughts. 

Kumbh Mela comes every 12 years and I was told that the 2013 Kumbh Mela is Maha Kumbh due to planetary arrangements and it comes once in 144 years. The word ‘ Kumbh’ means Urn and ‘Mela’ means fair. Ruchi told me that Kumbh Mela is celebrated in four places in India and Allahabad is the biggest and most important one. During the churning of the ocean by devatas and rakshashas, an urn containing divine nectar (Amrut) emerged and during the fight between devatas and rakshashas to get hold of the urn, the divine nectar fell in four places (Prayag, Ujjain, Haridwar and Nashik) and these are the four places where Kumbh Mela is celebrated every 12 years.

I got up with ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ chanting in the loud speaker and I went out to see the action after sipping the refreshing ginger tea provided by ISKON. As it was still 5:00 AM in the morning and still foggy, I could not see clearly but I could see large groups of people walking towards Sangam for early Ganga Snan (Bath). I gathered my camera gear and joined the crowd walking towards Sangam. I did not realize at this time that this is going to be my daily routine for the next 6 days.

 I walked for 2.5KM and reached Sangam. What I saw and experienced at Sangam changed me forever. I could not believe that there will be so many people, that early in the morning on a normal,  cold day to take a dip in the Ganga. I could sense mass faith and religious fervour. As sun came up and beat the fog, the sunshine also opened my eyes to lot of things. I started looking around and was surprised about the vast area of Sangam. First thing that I noticed was that the place was clean and wondering how is it possible with so many people around. I took my camera out and a plain clothed policeman asked me if I have permit to take pictures near Sangam. I was politely told not to take pictures near Sangam unless I have permit was escorted out of the area. Another shocker not because I cannot take pictures but to see that there are rules in Sangam area and they are being implemented in a very professional way. I cursed myself for not reading about Kumbh Mela earlier and for not being prepared. 

The learning never stopped for the next 5 days… project manager inside me sprang up and I started looking at Kumbh Mela from a project management point of view. How did they plan? How many departments were involved in making this happen? I started seeking out information from various sources including my smartphone. I learned that Kumbh Nagari which is almost 17KM in length and 4 KM in width is built just for this Mela on the banks of river Ganga. The 14 sectors at Kumbh have been divided into 22 circles, with a doctor assigned for each circle. 

More than 15,000 security personnel drawn from Central paramilitary forces like Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Border Security Force (BSF) and Rapid Action Force (RAF) besides the Uttar Police and its Provincial Armed Constabulary and Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) keep a close vigil. 
Since the Kumbh Nagari is spread on both sides of Ganges, around 19 pontoon bridges were built by PWD. 648,000 person-hours were spent to build the bridge network.

Make-shift roads have been laid down with the help of metallic chequered plates with barricading on both sides to ensure that the Shahi Snaan processions go on without any inconvenience. Twenty-two ghats, spread across 14 sectors, including 12 on the north of the Ganga and with a total length of 18,000 feet, were in place for the snan. To cope with the flow of people, authorities in Uttar Pradesh installed 35,000 toilets, laid 550 km of water pipes and 155 km of temporary roads at the riverbank site. 

 I learned that the Harvard business school sent its students to study the Khumb Mela  in areas such as Religion and the Humanities.  In spite of this being a temporary city that is built just for mela and with lakhs of visitors each day, this place is clean. What impressed me was there are dustbins placed at regular intervals on the road and the crowds are actually using them and putting trash into them and not just dropping them at will as many do in Indian cities.

 Public toilets are clean and I could actually use one. These toilets are 100 times better than the blue coloured ‘Johns’ that are put up during summer weekends in Chicago downtown to handle the weekend events crowd. Mela authorities, UP Govt and Central Govt and various other departments that made arrangements at Kumbh should get a pat on their back. If someone says India cannot host Olympics, they should come and see what they have done at Kumbh. It is matter of will and not that of capability. Here I could see the will of the UP Government to put a great show.

Best way to describe the Kumbh Mela is to equate it to the world congress of Hindu Religion. IT folks can relate this as ‘Comdex’ of Hindu Religion. Every Hindu organization worth its salt is represented here. Akharas, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, ISKON, Vivekananda asharam, Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam (TTD) are the ones I could see.  

 One can attend all kinds of Yoga camps here.. tantric yoga, siddhi yoga, karma yoga etc. If you are interested in Ayurveda, there are several camps out here. If you want to learn meditation, this is the best place to get the training. I could see myself going crazy attending each camp or a stall like how I did when I first attended Comdex or Oracle World in the late nineties in US. Like a honeybee going from flower to flower to extract the nectar, one needs to go from camp to camp to extract the spiritual nectar at Kumbh Mela. I quickly realized that the mela area was really big and there are so many camps, that I need 20 plus days to truly experience the Kumbh  On my evening photo tour on Shastri bridge, I realized how big the mela area is. Exactly how a new company attracts visitors to their stall by offering freebies or lectures or product demonstrations, these camps in Kumbh offer free lectures, Raas Leelas, Gnan sessions and variety of entertainment programs to attract the crowds.

Main representation is of course by the Akhadas.  It is an organization of the different sects of saints, Vairaghis, and yogis who have renounced the world. Akhadas came into existence during the 8th century AD when Adi Shankaracharya established seven Akhadas namely Mahanirvani, Niranjani, Juna, Atal, Avahan, Agni and Anand Akhara with an aim to strengthen the Hindu religion and unite those practicing different rituals, customs and beliefs. (Reference: Wikipedia). 

Akhadas are divided into different camps according to the concept of God they worship. Shaiva Akhadas are for followers of Lord Shiva, Vaishnava or Vairagi Akhada are for followers of Lord Vishnu and Kalpwasis are for followers of Lord Brahma. The head of an Akhada is regarded as Acharya Mahamandaleshwar, followed by other Mahamandaleshwaras, Mandaleshwaras and Shree Mahants. I was under the impression that these saints bathe in Ganga every day during the Khumb Mela but I realized that they come out as procession only on main bathing days. Since I was not there at the Khumb on main bathing days, I could not witness the main processions but could see minor ones on Ekadasi Snan day.

As I mentioned earlier, my main interest to visit Kumbh Mela was to take some good pictures and nothing more than that. But it turned out to be more, much more than that. It was a once-in-a-Lifetime experience. Watching lakhs of people from all walks of life from a simple villager who took trains/buses/tractor from faraway places to VIP’s family coming in sophisticated SUVs with sirens and tight security made me think a lot. What is it that is driving all of them, is it pure belief, spirituality, blind faith or something more than that?  For the first time in my life I could see the spiritual side of things.

This made me take a dip in Sangam. I thought a lot before I took the first dip but afterwards I could not stop myself. After taking bath at Sangam, I can see why people yearn to take bath in Ganges. I could feel the vibrations and I could sense the liberation. Is it mass faith around me making me feel this way? I am not sure. Even during my solitary late night visit to Sangam where there are no crowds but few policemen keeping a vigil, I could feel the same. 

After spending many days walking along with crowds to Sangam, I realized that crowds in Kumbh are more orderly than what I see on Brigade road in Bangalore. There is no pushing, no commotion, everyone smiling and faces filled with bliss and satisfaction. It is such a great experience to see joy and satisfaction on the face of simple villager once he/she reaches Sangam area and ready to take the dip. Nothing beats that experience. I would like to reproduce what Mark Tully wrote in his book on his experiences of Kumbh of 1989:

“A river of humanity was flowing towards the Sangam. All traffic had been banned. Village women anxiously held each other’s saris so that they didn’t get separated. Men carried sacks, suitcases and even tin trunks on their head – they contained pots and pans and everything else needed by the self-sufficient camper. The pilgrims walked in silence, looking straight ahead. There was no panic, no pushing – just a slow, steady progress. A Women bent double with age was being led by her daughter. They both wear saris tied between their legs, in the fashion of west coast. There was a group of hawk-nosed men with bright turbans of the desert state of Rajasthan tied loosely round their heads. There were barefoot girls from the tribes of central India with thick silver anklets. There were pilgrims from Himalayas too—Nepalis with checked caps, and women from the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, their hair tied in scraves. There were Bengalis from the east, the men wearing flowing dhotis and embroidered shawls. Only the south of India seemed to be thinly represented. Most of the pilgrims had come in groups from their villages. The occasional girl dressed in jeans or man in terry cotton trouser stood out, even in that crowd. I had never been in such a peaceful crowd. There was no frenzy, just the calm certainty of faith: the knowledge that what had to be done had been done.That bathing in the Ganges is like a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. A bathe fulfills an inner need without the need of a psychoanalyst”

I could experience the same in 2013 except that there was good participation from south especially from Andhra Pradesh may be due to influence of TTD setting up replica of Tirupathi for the first time in Kumbh Mela or due to Bhakthi Channel broadcasting on Kumbh every day.

I cannot really put in words what I experienced at Kumbh  I am sure my pictures also cannot do justice to the same. However I want to summarize what I experienced and the random thoughts that crossed my mind during Khumb so that I can read them on daily or weekly basis, bring the memories back, relive it for rest of my life and put these things to practice.
·         Be Thankful: Thank God or your parents or your boss or your professor or whoever made a difference in your life for what you are and for who you are every day and every minute. Living in a small camp, eating simple dal and roti along with pilgrims, enjoying simple pleasures, I realized what I had back home.  It dawned upon me that God has been kind to me and given me a lot. A wonderful family, a great place to live and host of other things.  It made me realize where I came from and what I have today.  I also realized that I am not doing enough to help other people. I am not talking about writing a check or giving donation to charity or to a temple, but truly helping fellow citizen, truly making a difference to another person’s life.

Bring back the lost innocence:  Staying in competitive place like Bangalore, pure madness to outdo each other and chasing the dream, I think that we all have lost the innocence. Not only me but when I recollect faces in Bangalore, especially when I compare and contrast with the folks I see at Kumbh  I think we lost appreciation of simple things. We are constantly moving, busy (busy with what?), beating traffic, beating deadlines and beating ourselves. We lost the innocence. I rediscovered the innocence by interacting with villagers and simple people who came to Kumbh Mela. They gave me greatest joy and happiness during the trip. I chatted with them, ate with them, and understood where they came from and what ordeals they overcome to make this journey. It took a family from Nepal six days to reach Allahabad but they are more energetic and fresh that a memsahib who took a flight from Delhi. I could hear the roar and laughter of a Rajasthani family who came with pots and pans and camped as kalp-vasis, pilgrims who came for a longer stay and who took vow to bathe every day in the Ganges.

·         Need for Akaras, religious leaders and Kumbh Melas: I realized the need for Akaras and Ashrams and the great saints and Babas who are dedicating their life to the cause of the religion. They are doing a great service to preserve the Hindu rituals, dharmas the culture. As Mark Tully rightly said in his book “The best way to destroy a people’s culture and identity is to undermine its religion and its language”. I could see that these religious leaders and Akharas are helping to protect our culture and gatherings like Khumb mela are needed to revive those, recruit new volunteers and convert some people like me to see the spiritual side of things and not just material things.  

·    Pilgrimage: Forget going to Singapore for next vacation to build family bonds. Visit Prayag, Haridwar or Varanasi for that perfect family bonding. I could see many people especially from North India with extended families and children and having a gala time at Kumbh Mela having bath in Ganga or sharing simple food on the river banks. There is so much our children would learn from these trips. Not just religion, but much more. They see the real world, they experience simple living and they understand what they got and get grounded. They get a different perspective on life and experience a different world.

By the time I came back and pinned my thoughts into a blog, I heard the tragic accident at Allahabad Railway station and how media got excited to report the negative news. My heart reaches out to those people who lost their loved ones. This is an unfortunate incident and I request all my readers to see the big picture and not get biased by media reports.  I felt very sorry for the Kumbh Mela project team as media is putting them in a bad light. Let us not focus only on negative news but look at the whole event, the grandeur of the same, number of people visited, the complex nature of the event, number of Govt agencies involved, the communication and coordination challenges etc and give credit to what they have done and hope that learnings from this event would prevent such unfortunate events in the future.

If you are interested in further reading/photos on Kumbh 2013 please see excellent article by India Today.