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18 January 2019

Kumbh Mela 2019 Special: Rare instance when promises match reality, and other nuggets from the camps

When 150 million people come together on a patch of land to bathe and pray at the same time, think about this: where will they take a shit?

The authorities say they have installed 1.22 lakh toilets across the Kumbh Mela venue in Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad. To keep them clean and clog-free through the nearly two-month-long festival ending on March 4, the government has put to work 15,000 sanitation workers.

The Kumbh Mela is a massive project, a big town in itself that is larger than the Vatican City and even a full-fledged country like the Republic of Nauru, an island nation near Australia, according to a report in The Times of India.

The official Kumbh Mela website looks neat, and has all the nuggets that journalists need: 40,700 LED lights, 84 parking areas for over five lakh vehicles, and so on.

This event must be one of the rarest instances in India when what the government says matches closely to what is on the ground. A walk across this mini town confirmed the presence of these facilities. It is a well-organised event, no doubt.

The big tents at the fair ground belong to public relations savvy godmen and godwomen whose religious organisations are moneyed. The small tents scattered around the dusty ground belong to the average ascetics. It cannot be denied that religion is closely linked to politics and politics is money, and so maybe religion also costs a lot of money.

The government describes the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj as thus:

Historic evidence points towards the rule of King Harshvardhana (590-647 CE), as the time when Kumbh Mela got widespread recognition across geographies. Famous traveller Hsuan Tsang has prominently mentioned the grandeur of Kumbh Mela in his travelogue. The traveller’s account also summarises King Harsh’s charities at the confluence of holy rivers where he gave gifts and donations to the scholars and sanyasis. King Harsh used to hold a great quinquennial assembly on the sands of the holy confluence at Prayag and would distribute all his possessions…

When you’re approaching the new airport at Prayagraj, you will see that the outer wall along the main road has a series of paintings that starts with the birth of a child. The last painting shows a famous stupa.

It tells the story of Gautama Buddha. It’s beautiful.

King Harshvardhana was said to have turned into a Buddhist around the time the Kumbh Mela got widespread recognition under his reign. He even went on to build stupas along the river Ganga.

Whoever commissioned that particular series of paintings on the airport wall perhaps was considerate enough to drop an educational hint for people leaving the Kumbh Mela and flying out of Prayagraj to discover for themselves Buddhism’s deep connection with the event.

What a parting shot.

End note: This is the third of a four-part series on the Kumbh Mela, being held in Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad, from January 15 to March 4, 2019. First part is here, second here, fourth here. If you want specific information like how to enter the Kumbh Mela grounds, less-crowded places at the site, or general stuff on Prayagraj, I’ll try my best to answer them. Mail to journeybasket [at] gmail

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Journalist. Taking a walk in India. | Email to journeybasket[at]gmail | Special thanks to M.S. Gopal | All rights reserved. No commercial use.

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