Experiencing the 'living heritage of humanity’ at the Kumbh Mela 2019: Separating fact from fiction

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.

Experiencing the living heritage of humanity’ at the Kumbh Mela 2019: Separating fact from fiction

The Kumbh is spread over 7,907 acres. All images courtesy of the author

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.

Clean waters.

Clean waters.

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.

Every pilgrim navigating across the waters wears a lifejacket.

Every pilgrim navigating across the waters wears a lifejacket.

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 lifejacket, 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.

Experiencing the 'living heritage of humanity’ at the Kumbh Mela 2019: Separating fact from fiction

Sikh akhadas performing Seva.

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.

The author is a former commander of the Indian Navy

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Updated Date: Feb 28, 2019 13:28:23 IST

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