Pamphlets bearing the Prime Minister’s images float on the river Ganga. Inches away from it, ash-smeared Naga Sadhus bedecked in marigold garlands take a dip. Moments before the naked ascetics dunk their dreadlocks into the green water again, volunteers standing atop a safety rail scoop up the flyers. This simple act of cleanliness struck a resounding chord within me while attending the largest gathering of humans in the world: Kumbh Mela.
During this 55-day-long spiritual fair held in the city of Prayagraj, the aforementioned scenario, in its various iterations, occurs millions of times on a daily basis. And that’s just a conservative estimate. On auspicious days anchored in Hindu mythology like Maha Shivratri (March 4), regardless of near-freezing weather, authorities expect over 50 million visitors to take the sacred bath.
Truth be told, despite having come across a Harvard University study which claims that Kumbh Mela was far better organised than FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I was sceptical. That is until I witnessed its Rs 4,200 crore budget being put to good use, first-hand. Prominent infrastructural examples include: a brand-new airport terminal, 10 flyovers, 264 streets, 25 pontoon bridges, 1.10 lakh toilets, 500 e-rickshaws, 4,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots, and more than 1,200 strategically placed CCTV cameras.
Not to mention the veritable army of enlistees, workers, and government officials—some donning reflective orange jumpers with the words #MeForSwachhKumbh emblazoned on it — maintaining law and order, sustaining sanitation, distributing informative booklets, and providing guidance to visitors and pilgrims alike. However, if one peeks beyond staggering statistical figures, there’s no denying it that things can get overwhelmingly chaotic in the tent city. Nevertheless, there is a method to this madness.
To chronicle this astral conjunction, I made my way from our ‘glamping’ site, Indraprastham City, to the Sangam point (a confluence of three rivers: Ganga, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati). During this three-kilometre walk and subsequent boat ride, it becomes apparent that the 2019 edition of Kumbh Mela boasts another unique facet. This spectacle also caters to the luxury- focussed traveller now—a first since the mela’s inception in the first millennium CE.
Ever since UNESCO inscribed the gathering on its list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’, visitors from 192 countries have reportedly arrived at the festival. So it comes as no surprise that besides ‘glamping’ options—complete with deluxe tents providing five-star amenities, multi-course sattvic meals, and private dipping areas within a sprawling Ganga Ghat—authorities are converting the Kumbh Mela into a hotbed of activities to target affluent millennials. Case in point: Arail Ghat’s adventure sports outlets.
Beyond the banks
Nowadays, one can also hire helicopters for a ‘six-minute joyride’ to witness the legions of humanity congregated at the Sangam from an aerial perspective. Ardh Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj ends on March 4.