Kumbh Mela 2019: Separating fact from fiction – Dhananjay Joshi

Prayag Kumbh 2019

Dhananjay JoshiThis Kumbh was about making a difference. Making the humblest pilgrim connect with their self. Making the humblest pilgrim proud of their shared heritage. It was about giving the pilgrim a clean and safe environment. – Dhananjay Joshi

A combing operation is conducted to weed out unwanted elements from an area. In our digital age, when narratives are built from keystrokes causing a dissonance between what we hear and what we see, let us comb the Kumbh and separate the unwanted elements from the much-tangled hair of humanity.

The Kumbh I had heard of was very different from the Kumbh I saw.

The Kumbh I had heard of was supposed to be stiflingly crowded, stinkingly filthy, starkly down-market and swarming with fake unwashed sadhus. So unspeakable it was, that only Indian government TV channels reported it. ‘Civil society’ was dismissive about it and regaled each other ridiculing the name change from Allahabad to Prayagraj.

The tribute UNESCO paid to the Kumbh as the living heritage of humanity is what I saw at Prayagraj. It took us 78 man-hours to criss-cross and soak-in the divinity spread over 7,907 acres.

There are no invites, no social media campaigns and no posts that attract the 5,00,00,000 pilgrims on just that one day of mauni amavasya alone (incidentally the Kumbh is from 15 January to 4 March, 48 days in total).

The Kumbh is a sensory overload. Rising above the cacophony of sounds and sights, I saw a throbbing vibrant mass of consciousness living the timeless ritual just as their ancestors had for eons before them. But this time, there was a difference.

This Kumbh was about making a difference. Making a difference to the humblest pilgrim. Making the humblest pilgrim connect with their self. Making the humblest pilgrim proud of their shared heritage. It was about giving the forgiving pilgrim a clean and safe environment.

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 Kumbh I had read about, endlessly debated the quality of Ganga water and the money spent on it.

The dubki I did at the Triveni Sangam, was an experience that connected me to every individual in the world. The oneness with the thousands around me was calming.

Everyone did their bit to be eco-friendly. The phoolwalay at the ghats had radically innovated their flower baskets from plastic to hand-made paper boats. These take-away boats were laden with organically grown, locally sourced rose petals, soluble mud diyas with bee wax and a cotton wick completing the boat contents. At the Triveni Sangam, this age-old, yet perfectly biodegradable, offering was bestowed on the Ganga. Clear water from the Ganga was carried home by the faithful in transparent plastic containers.

From the anchored pontoons in the middle of the Sangam, the aged, the young, the differently abled and the enthusiastic descended onto the dubki platform under the watchful eyes of lifeguards on their bobbing life rafts. Every single pilgrim was wearing a life jacket, the local boatmen ensured it!

Lips sent out silent prayers, tears streamed down faces, some shivered in the cold waters as they energised themselves with loud prayers. Hundreds of folded hands reached out to the heavens and one of them was mine.

The Kumbh I had read about narrated sordid tales of swirling unwashed masses jostling against each other. It warned me that women were not safe and to beware of inappropriate touches.

The Kumbh that I saw was full of families. Men, women, children, grandparents with headloads of their belongings, caring for each other, walking purposefully with devotion in their eyes. I roamed around at night, under the swathes of 40,000 LED structures that dotted the riverbanks, and felt safer here than in any city of the world. The voices of police personnel had gone hoarse, as they patiently gave directions and repeated instructions innumerably to even those that did not understand them the first time. These handpicked teetotallers, non-smokers and trained policemen, were an example of a trained and a sensitised police force.

The Kumbh I saw, had 22 pontoon bridges that crisscrossed the mighty rivers. Each of these was unidirectional and crowd controlled to prevent any chances of a stampede.

The Kumbh I had read about, told me it was a religious gathering of Hindus. Inside the Kumbh, there would be Hindu zealots, fake babas giving fanatic talks, persistent priests pestering for puja.

In the Kumbh that I saw, small crowds gathered in the innumerable akhadas to listen to soothing voices that told them how to lead a simple life. They passed on the age-old Indic wisdom of conquering greed, relinquishing ego and looking inward for the answers. These were distributed knowledge centres exchanging best practices for leading a fulfilled life.

I saw Sikh akhadas performing seva. Young turbaned men working enthusiastically at the langars, hauling heavy cauldrons to feed the pilgrims. Guru Nanak Dev ji gave his aashirwad to all from the entrance to every such akhada.

In the Kumbh I saw, there were hundreds of foreigners, many of whom were interested in the living unbroken history of mankind. Others were there to see a show, a spectacle so intense that nothing in the world matched it.

Many young Indians were there too on a selfie spree. But there were also thousands upon thousands who were there simply because they believed in the wisdom of their ancestors. To them, continuity of civilisation was far more important than trivialities.

I implore you to see for yourself ‘the living heritage of humanity’. If you stand in judgement, you miss the exquisite layers of an ancient civilisation’s wisdom that wants to shyly reveal itself. If you immerse yourself, maybe you would understand a fraction of it. – Firstpost, 28 February 2019

» The author is a former commander of the Indian Navy

Triveni Sangam Prayag 2019


4 Responses

  1. Thank you for making an excellent point.

    We have been trying for years to get journalists to stop using the term “christened” for a naming ceremony. Christened means “to make Christian”. A christening is a baptismal ceremony where a Christian name is given to the newly baptised person. No newspaper in the US would use the term “christened” as it would offend their Jewish readers.

    But we have had no success. The Indian media continues to use the term and other Victorian terms that have been obsolete for 100 years. For all its declared progressiveness, the English-language media is the most backward in the world when it comes to English usage!


  2. Very evocative and true-to-reality article by Dhananjay Joshi. Small suggestion if I may make one – let us not use the word phrase ” missionary zeal.” God forbid we do not want to have any connection with these evangelizing missionaries in any work we do. Also we will be causing harm to Truth and humanity if we help to perpetuate the fable that only “missionaries” (the monotheistic, christian, evangelizing types) have zeal.

    Following the same thinking we must not use such phrases floated by the colonial-christian-english speaking west that appropriate to themselves the finer aspects of humanity, and relegate the words that mean negative traits to the description of non-christians.

    For example: Good Samaritan vs Unlettered Heathen. Or using Vespers instead of Sandhya Vandana or Praarthana.


  3. Remarkable !


  4. Pravind Jugnauth

    Seeing cleanliness at Kumbh, Mauritius PM Pravind Jugnauth ‘couldn’t stop himself’ from taking dip in Ganga: Yogi Adityanath – ANI – Firstpost – Prayagraj – 6 March 2019

    Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said that the Prime Minister of Mauritius who came to India in 2013 went without taking a holy dip at Sangam due to the pollution, filth and foul smell that prevailed in the river.

    Seeing cleanliness at Kumbh, Mauritius PM Pravind Jugnauth couldn’t stop himself from taking dip in Ganga: “In 2013 Mauritius Prime Minister came in India to take a holy dip but saw pollution, filth, foul smell and the mismanagement went back without taking a dip in Ganga and paid obeisance from a distance,” he said.

    While addressing press-conference on the conclusion of the Kumbh Mela 2019 on Tuesday, Yogi Adityanath said Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth who visited Kumbh this time “could not stop himself and took a dip in the river”.

    He said that the state of the river has improved significantly due to the efforts of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government and the state government. He also said that more than 3,200 Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) witnessed the Kumbh Mela and for the first time Ambassadors from 70 countries came for Kumbh.

    “More than 3,200 NRIs took part in Kumbh, and for the first time Ambassadors of 70 countries came to attend the Kumbh Mela 2 019, which is an achievement in itself,” said Adityanath.

    Kumbh Mela is the largest human congregation in the world, pilgrims participate in the festival with the belief that taking a dip in the holy water of Ganges River will pave the way for their salvation and would rid them of their sins. The 55-day long Kumbh Mela ended on 4 March.

    Prayag Kumbh 2019


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