An Extra Report on Kumbha Mela, 2001

By Stephen Knapp

Being a participant in such a huge festival with millions of people from all walks of life certainly means that there are plenty of things and situations about which you may not hear.



Most people may not know the many preparations that are required to get ready for such a huge festival. We have to remember that the Kumbha Mela grounds has to accommodate 50 times more people than the city of Allahabad. Therefore, at the Mela site, over 145 kilometers of pipelines for the water supply have been laid, plus 120 kilometers of connecting pipes. These would be serviced by 26 tubewells specially bored at the ghats.

There are also 450 kilometers of overhead power lines, serviced by 35 sub-stations to light up 15,000 streetlights.

For the event of a fire, there are 1090 fire hydrants set up. This is a very important factor when one considers that there are about 5,000 ashrams or camps, most of which are using tents, in the Mela grounds, each with numerous participants.

Additionally, to get to and from the sangam area and around the main grounds, there are 15 specially built pontoon bridges, along with 75 kilometers of metal plated roads (the plates are long steel sheets big enough only to allow traction for the tires of a vehicle), and 74 km of sand and cloth roads.



For one thing, as you can imagine, there were serious traffic problems within the city of Allahabad. Some local workers could no longer drive cars to work because of the number of people on the streets of the city. They had to resort to using bicycles to get to work for several weeks. As groups of 10 to 50 pilgrims would come by train, bus or cars and make their way to the Kumbha Mela camps in unending processions, the city could do nothing but cope and make way. The train and bus stations were filled with arriving and waiting pilgrims milling around or sleeping in whatever space they could find. Trying to get out of Allahabad was sometimes more difficult than trying to get in.

As the time drew closer to the Amavasya Day (the new moon), more and more people were streaming into the Kumbha Mela grounds. There had been seen a four-fold increase in vehicular traffic since the 1989 Mela, and certain vehicles used in the past, like bullock carts, were no where to be seen. By the time Amavasya arrived, no cars or trucks were allowed into the grounds or to drive along the streets of the Mela grounds for a day. There was room only for the huge crowds.



For the first time in the history of Prayag, there was also a "Jyotish Mahakumb," or a global meeting on the science of Astrology from January 19 to 21. This was held at the Prashasan Pandal where more than 2,000 of the world's top astrologers, gem therapists, occultists, clairvoyants, etc., participated.

It was organized by the Prachya Vidhya Jyotish Adhyanevam Anusandhan Sansthan (PVJAAS) with the primary motive of promoting a scientific slant to an age old science that is often shaded in mystery or controversy. In light of the fact that the main bathing days and the time of the Kumbha Mela is calculated astrologically, such a gathering would seem most appropriate for the Mela. As it is quoted in the ancient texts:

Makare Cha Divanathe / Brikhage cha Brihaspa toh / Kumbh Yogo bhavettatra Prayage / Hyati Durlabha

"When the Sun is in Aries in the month of Magh (January-February) while the sun is in Capricorn, the Kumbha occurs at Prayag." And:

Magh Mesh Gatey Jive / Makhare Chandra Bhaskaro

"When Jupiter is in Aries in the month of Magh while the sun and moon are in Capricorn, the Kumbha occurs at Prayag."



Like no other year before, this Kumbha Mela was also given much coverage over the internet. There were many sites that had coverage, but there was a special site at: Unfortunately for us English speaking people it was in Hindi. Nonetheless, for those in India this site provided the means for the faithful to witness the sacred aspects of the festival, such as a "virtual bath," for those who couldn't attend personally in over 150 countries. The site was also updated every four hours with new stories, photographs, and information.

Furthermore, the Kumbha Mela also had two cyber cafes that provided online information about the city, the festival, accommodations, weather, and to help people, such as media personnel, to communicate outside.



Not only was there virtual coverage, there was more media coverage than ever before. Such big names as the BBC, CNN, Stern magazine from Germany, NHK Japan Broadcasting, and Mainaichi Broadcasting System from Tokyo were covering the Mela. The major news organizations started arriving on January 2, when registration started. Other journalists and photographers also arrived later. Over 30 tents were provided for the visiting journalists, with most of them reserved in advance. The spiritual channel, Aastha, was present with a 125 member crew with ten cameras, after having been granted the rights to telecast the daily events of the Mela.



A friend of mine who attended the last major Kumbha Mela in 1989 told me that for the whole month he was there, he never saw but maybe a dozen Westerners, aside from the Hare Krishnas. This year there were hundreds if not thousands of Western tourists and pilgrims who attended, seeking an amazing experience of Indian culture, or maybe salvation. Even the hippies of the Rainbow Festival had their camp near the woods. However, even the stars of Hollywood were said to have visited or had wanted to. Such guests who were said to have had interest or actually attended were Madonna, Sharon Stone, Pierce Brosnan, Demi Moore and Richard Gere. I don't know if any of these were spotted. The Dalai Lama also attended and mentioned that he did not take a bath in the Ganga because he felt the water was too cold.

It was the British tour operator Cox & Kings who had made the arrangements for most of these people and confirmed the visit, but would not give names for security reasons. They said they brought in as many as 600 premium guests, as they called them, from around the world, but mostly from the U.S., the UK and France.

The Indian tour company Travel Corporation of India are also selling the Kumbha Mela as a great value for their itinerary to experience the quintessential exotic East. Tour operators have included special discourses by spiritual leaders, along with consultations with astrologers, for premium clients.

If a person has not previously booked a tent at a camp or akhara, the hotels are usually completely booked up on the main bathing days. Even many of the camps were full. Sometimes a person could find a room in one of the hotels in the city, but often they were very basic, and with the demand so high, a room that normally would have cost Rs. 200 could now fetch Rs. 1200. Besides, getting from a hotel to the Kumbha Mela grounds can be difficult, especially on the main bathing days, and adds extra cost if you take transportation. Sometimes you can't even find a cycle ricksha. It is better to simply stay at the Kumbha Mela itself.

Among the Indian VIPs who were seen at the sangam, these included Murli Manohar Joshi (human resources minister), Sushma Swaraj (information and broadcasting minister), Uma Bharati (minister for youth and sports), and Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh, along with other Supreme court and high court judges and top bureaucrats.



In view of the fact that there would be as many as 70 million people visiting the Kumbha Mela and taking bath in the waters at the sangam (confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati) over the course of the 41 day festival, there were plenty of police and military keeping guard. Thousands of police, military personnel, and volunteers stood guard against any militant attacks or other dangerous incidents. They also used 10 minesweeper vehicles to comb the grounds, six teams of naval divers to monitor any suspicious activities under the water, as well as sniffer dogs to help watch for any danger to the pilgrims.

The fact of the matter is that the Pakistan-based militant outfit called "Lashkar-e-Taiba" who were responsible for the recent attack on an Army camp in the Red Fort in Delhi, had planned to make similar attacks at the Kumbha Mela. The inside information was that the Lashkar-e-Taiba had deputed top ultras to strike at the Kumbha Mela. For such an organization, the festival is considered a soft or easy target because of the sheer size of it. Naturally, it may have been fairly easy to get in and cause a major disaster against the numerous pilgrims in any part of the festival. It also would have been one of the most cowardly and deceitful ways of attacking Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist pilgrims who had congregated for the festival. Such an attack would have naturally produced serious adverse impacts on not only India's ongoing peace process in the Kashmir Valley, but also on the opinion of the world toward Pakistan and the militant Muslim groups.

In the attempt to watch for snipers, 20 highly sensitive closed circuit television cameras were also used. These could photograph a person from 1.5 kilometers away, even under street lights. The use of underwater nets were also used to sieve out any underwater mines which may have been placed in the river by the militants to reach the sangam, where most of the people would be.



Naturally, there could not be the avoidance of politics being played out at the Mela, although few pilgrims took notice. In any case, probably the most apparent use of politics was the arrival of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, to have a visit at the sangam and a "darshan" of a section of the sadhus. Especially apparent was that the sadhus were outside the Sangh Parivar fold. Why would she want to visit the Kumbha Mela and the sadhus anyway? She is not a Hindu, but a born and raised Catholic Christian. So this has triggered a debate with political overtones.

The Sangh Parivar fold, of which the BJP is an associate, had organized a discussion on the Ayodhya issue to decide when the date will be for starting the construction of the temple they want to build there on the site of Lord Rama's birth, where the mosque used to be that was torn down. They also had a display of the proposed temple they want to build at Ayodhya. Therefore, they attempted to use the religious sentiment of the festival for their campaign. And Sonia Gandhi obviously steered clear of this.

Of course, Sonia Gandhi, like anyone else, has a right to attend the Kumbha Mela and take a dip in the waters at the sangam, but she is no ordinary citizen given her political position. Just being in the vicinity puts the security personnel under even more stress than they are already, especially when she wanted to tour some of the Mela grounds and meet a number of the religious heads. History has shown when visits by VIPs have caused stampedes when people tried to see them. That is why Jawaharlal Nehru, when a Prime Minister, suggested the VIPs keep out of such Melas. So it can be considered another ploy in Sonia Gandhi's political strategy to gain favor by visiting the Mela, although visiting Swaroopananda Saraswati, the Sankaracharya of the Jyotishpeeth, because he is one of the religious heads who refused to join the VHP's cause. None of her predecessors in her office ever thought it necessary to display their Indianness in such a manner. They gained favor simply by its sensitivity to the needs of the people. Therefore, aside from her "pilgrimage" to the sangam, all the controversy that accompanied it and the meetings she had while there would make it an unnecessary diversion.



Millions of people attend the Kumbha Mela, and many of these are family groups that come together. Often the sons and daughters bring their parents to share in such a traditional and time honored custom as the Kumbha. However, it was found at this Mela some sons and daughters or daughters-in-law, had brought their parents only to leave them to die there. Five women and seven men over 70 years were reported to have been dumped here by their sons and daughters-in-law. Unreported cases were expected to run into the hundreds, mostly because such old people are embarrassed that their relatives have done this. While others accept the fact that they have been abandoned by their off-springs because they are not wanted. Some don't want to go back to their relatives because they know they will be beaten, and probably abandoned again at some time. Some are forcibly taken to the Mela and then ill-treated and later deserted. Still others are not even taken to the Mela grounds, but simply dropped off at the Allahabad train station while their son or daughter disappears, abandoning them. Not knowing what to do, some simply want to go to any akhara or camp for consolation and spend the rest of their short lives in kirtan and bhajan, singing and chanting the Lord's holy names. It was reported that up to February 5, the total number of lost and found were 118,000, according to Raja Ram Tiwari, founder of Bharat Seva Dal.



A mammoth gathering of spiritualists from the various akharas (sects or training camps) flock to the Mela site. Understanding who is who can be difficult, especially for the foreigner. The word akhara refers to an arena or venue for a wrestling match. In the context of the Kumbh Mela, it designates the great congregations of sadhus, members of religious communities - mostly celibate, who are sometimes called 'monks' in English. There are different dwelling places for different sects. They have been established at different times and worship their own deity.

Akhara is a special form of 'Math'. Saints belonging to these akharas normally stay together in one camp. The origin of akharas can be traced to Hindu Monasteries called Maths. The objective of Maths was to impart intellectual, physical, and spiritual training to those who were willing to lead the austere life of an ascetic. Later, Adi Shankaracharya, in his effort of national integration and cultural enhancement, formed four such Maths, one at Dwaraka in the West, another at Jagannatha Puri in the East, Badrinath in the North, and Mysore in the South.

The Ten Sects

The saints were further divided into ten sects: namely Giri, Puri, Bharati, Tirth, Vaan, Aranya, Parvat, Ashram, Sagar, and Saraswati. Besides Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya also established eight Maths, and Madhavacharya established eight Maths. The spiritual and religious head of the Maths are called Shankaracharyas.

Some of the many categories of spiritualists you will find at the Kumbh Mela are: Missionaries and preachers from other religions (Buddhist, Jains, and Christian Missionaries also visit the Kumbh Mela and some of them camp there), along with spiritual saints, spiritual healers, and astrologers. Other Hindu sects include the Aryasamajis (followers of Dayanand Saraswati), Kabir Panthis (followers of Saint Kabir), Rama Krishna Missionaries, and ISKCON followers, among others.

These are also divided into the Kalpwasis: Pilgrims who spend the whole of Kumbh Mela on the sandy bed of the sangam (holy confluence).

Promotional Personnel: Since the Kumbh Mela is the largest gathering of mankind on earth, many spiritual institutions and companies set up camps for promoting their products.

Vendors of occult items: Kumbh Mela is a shopping paradise for those who are interested in general and occult shopping. Many items, artifacts and myriad products from various nooks and corners of India are on display and sale.

Types of Akharas

The akharas are divided into different types according to the concept of God they worship:

Shaiva Akharas: These are the followers of Lord Shiva, although some also show respect for Lord Vishnu. Some of these are also known as 'Nagas'; they are known for their celibacy and renunciation of material possessions, and are good in the use of arms for the defense of their religion. The Nagas lead a very austere life and are naked. The Shaiva sects are divided into further groups or Akharas which are called Dashnami Akharas. These are:








The Vaishnava or Vairagi Akharas:

These are the wandering mendicants who are followers of Lord Vishnu. They see themselves as parts of the Supreme Lord and live a life of service and dedication to the Lord. They are above the concept of liberation or merging with the Brahman or non-dual aspect of the Supreme. The initiator of these is said to be Shree Balanand Jee. They are divided into three broad categories:

1. Nirmohi Ani Akhara: The various sub-sects of this akhara are Ramanandiya Nirmohi Akhara, Ramanandiya/Jhariya Nirmohi Akhara, Ramanandiya Maladhari Nirmohi Akhara, Ramanandiya Mahanirvani Nirmohi Akhara, Harivyasi Nirmohi Akhara, and Dadupanthi Akhara.

2. Nirvani Ani Akhara: The various subdivisions of this Akhara are Ramanandiya Nirvani Akhara, Ramanandiya Khaki Akhara, Ramanandiya Niralambiya Akhara, Ramanandiya Tatambari Akhara, Harivyasi Nirvani Akhara, Harivyasi Khaki Nirvani Akhara, Balbhadri Akhara.

3. Digambar Ani Akhara: This is further divided into Ramji Digambar, Shyamji Digambar.

4. Udasin Akhara: These are the followers of Guru Granth Sahib and comprises Sikhs who have converted to Hinduism. This is further divided into: Udasin Panchayati Bara Akhara and Udasin Panchayati Naya Akhara.

5. Nirmal Akhara: These are Sikh followers of Guru Nanak Ji. The akhara is known as Nirmal Panchayati Akhara.

The religious preacher and the head of the akharas of ascetics is popularly known as Mahamandaleshwars. They are held in high esteem and reverence by the inmates of the akharas and are carried around in beautifully decorated palanquins during the procession of the shahi snan (royal bath).

The Kalpwasis

Kalpa means a day of Lord Brahma. It is believed that if one spends the whole month of Magh (Jan/Feb of Roman Calendar) at the banks of the Ganga leading an austere life in thatched huts (nowadays tents) and sleeping on the sandy river bed listening to discourses, giving alms, bathing thrice daily in the holy confluence, eating once in 24 hours, they purportedly can be freed from the cycle of death and rebirth (moksha).

(This article is from:

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