'Chalo Kumbh Chale' is the slogan and also the mantra for peace maybe for thousands of visitors who arrived here Monday for the Kumbh Mela, the largest congregation in the world, and walked for miles as they made their way to the Sangam for a ritual dip in the waters. The confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati has called out to the religious for centuries, and it was so on Monday as well.
While Tuesday is when the fair officially begins on the occasion of Makar Sankranti, one of the sacred bathing days of the 50-day Kumbh, pilgrims made a beeline for the holy waters on Monday as well. Due to the huge number of people expected to take part in the mela, the administration has restricted the entry of all types of vehicles -- other than those required for essential services -- in the vicinity of Kumbh Nagari, the sprawling 32,000-hectare township that has come up on the banks of the river.
"Anand aa raha hai (I am feeling real contentment)," said 55-year-old Pramod Prakash from Kannauj as he made his way inside the Kumbh Nagari after walking from Allahabad Railway station with three heavy bags on his head. "Don't think of comfort, devote yourself to Ganga 'maiyan' completely and you'll feel light yourself," he said, pointing to many in the crowd doing the same as him.
Posters with the slogan 'Chalo Kumbh Chale' were up in all public areas of the state and the city and many thousands walked their way through the Nagari to the river. But no one was complaining. For most, it was a walk to remember. On the way, as loudspeakers blared devotional songs, sadhus broke into dance and Naga babas with ash smeared on their naked bodies puffed on chillums of hash. Foreigners could be seen asking for a picture at the sight of the exotic India coming to life before their eyes.
About 12 crore people are expected to visit Kumbh between now and March, when the festival will come to a close, for a holy dip at the Sangam. It was traditionally called 'Ardh Kumbh' as it takes place twice in 12 years, but the present state government recently renamed it 'Kumbh'. The place, according to an Italian couple, is a perfect case study for "solid devotion" and "impeccable administration" for people worldwide. "We are out of words. One has to see it to believe it. The place is mammoth, and with so many people, it looks like chaos too, but then everything works so smoothly here. About devotion, of course, the energy of this place is something else," said Alacio Companaro who has come from Italy with his wife.
"I just can't wait to see how the place will look like tomorrow when the sacred bath is supposed to take place," Companaro added. Fifteen state government departments implemented 261 projects while 28 government departments and six Central government ministries are behind managing the mela for the Kumbh this year. "It is amazing that this most of this place was under water during the monsoon season. It is only when the water receded that the construction could take place. And again, it will be dismantled when the mela is over," Companaro said, as his wife quietly read a Lonely Planet guide to know more about the mela and the venue.
The pop-up megacity, which is divided into 20 sectors, is an engineering marvel built on a river-bed. Touted to be the world's biggest temporary city, it has 250 km of roads and 22 pontoon bridges. It is equipped with hospitals, police stations, banks and everything that is there in a functional metropolis. "In 2013, the Kumbh Nagari was the largest city in the world in terms of population density, but the only catch was that the city does not really exist in a permanent sense," quoted a recent book "Kumbha: The Traditionally Modern Mela".
The budget for organising the Ardha Kumbh is Rs 4,200 crore, more than thrice the budget of the Purna Kumbha in 2013, which occurs every 12 years "The facilities this time are certainly better than last time. But it is not as if everything is great. There are shortcomings. Yesterday, I had to give a bribe of Rs 200 to a person to install some lights in my tent," said a sadhu from Juna Akhara who didn't want to be identified. The 13 organisations of sadhus that have traditionally participated in the Kumbha Mela are called 'akharas'.
For a long time, 13 akharas -- seven Shaiva, three Vaishnava, two Udasina, an one Sikh -- have participated in the mela. Juna is believed to be the oldest of akharas. Besides, religion is political too in this part of the world. With elections coming up, the Ram temple issue was sought to be highlighted in many hoardings. "Agar ab bhi Ram mandir na ban paoge aane wali pedi ko kya muh dikhaoge (What face will you show to the next generation, if even now you are not able to built Ram Temple)", said one. But for many people like Prakash, the Kumbh was still about finding their core of spirituality.
(With inputs from agencies.)