ALLAHABAD, India -- Hundreds of ash-smeared holy men charging naked into the Ganges River is a spectacle that has played out over centuries, but it never gets old.
The hypnotic sight of the wild-haired ascetics is only dwarfed by the jaw-dropping panorama of pilgrims in the millions congregating on the banks of the Ganges River. The Kumbh Mela, often called the greatest show on earth, is the world’s largest human gathering. It is held every three years in one of these four cities -- Allahabad, Nasik, Haridwar and Ujjain.
These spots, the story goes, is where four droplets of sacred water fell on Earth from a Kumbh (pitcher) as the Gods and demons fought over the elixir.
This year, the city of Allahabad welcomed an estimated 80 million to 100 million visitors, during the Maha Kumbh Mela, which, based on the alignment of the stars, takes place every 12 years. The 55-day Mela concluded on Sunday. The pilgrims, mostly Hindus, came from all over India to take a holy dip in the sacred river with the hope of washing away their sins.
Varun Vummudi, a Delhi-based entrepreneur, said that he came to “find out what all the fuss was about.”
“I went because I had heard so much about it and it is part of my Hindu culture,” said Vummudi, 29, who hails from Chennai in southern India. “I think it's faith and worship mingled in one huge festivity.”
Allahabad, a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, is also considered sacred by Hindus because it holds the confluence of the three holy rivers -- the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, which is believed to flow under the ground.
For the past eight weeks, people have boarded crammed trains and crowded buses to get to Allahabad. The poor have spent their meager savings to be packed into second class bogies while the affluent have traveled in air-conditioned comfort. The privileged few have stayed in comfortable tents and luxurious cottages near the riverbank, while the majority of pilgrims have slept on the ground under the night sky and cooked their own food.
But for rich and poor, the final walk to the Ganges has to be made by foot.
Feb. 10, which was regarded as tremendously holy for a dip, saw almost 30 million pilgrims come into the city on one day. Managing the movement of these many people is one of the most challenging organizational feats in the world.
Months of preparations included setting up a big tent city of about 60 sq. kilometers (approximately 40 sq. miles) around the riverbank for accommodation, coordinating trains to transport people, constructing temporary bridges for their movement inside the city and developing a separate sewage system.
The state government said that it had laid an additional 570 kilometers (approximately 356 miles) of pipelines to provide 80 million liters of drinking water to the pilgrims. Even Harvard University professors descended on the Kumbh Mela to study how this mega-event is pulled off.
The Kumbh Mela is also a tremendous boost to the economy of Uttar Pradesh as well as neighboring states in both the organized and unorganized sectors, which included a host of employment generation activities from rowing boats to selling bangles and tea to the pilgrims.
P.N. Mehrotra, an economist, who teaches at Allahabad University, pointed out that employment and revenue generation during the Kumbh is of a temporary kind, but the benefits are considerably localized and seep down to the grassroots.
The state government has invested 2,000 crore rupees or approximately $400 million (1,200 crore rupees from the central government) in the Kumbh Mela. By comparison, The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) in January projected that the Kumbh would generate economic productivity of 12,000 crore rupees or $2.4 billion. It would also generate 600,000 extra jobs in several sectors like infrastructure, airlines, hotels, public health and tourism. Approximately one million foreign tourists were expected as well.
Anil Rathi, the head of ASSOCHAM for the state of Uttar Pradesh, couldn’t confirm whether the group’s projections had been met. But he estimated a minimum revenue generation of about 8,000 crore rupees for the state. Rathi calculated this on the basis of 80 million people staying for about four-to five days and spending about Rs. 200-Rs. 300 ($4-$6) a day at the Mela.
But Rathi was critical of the government for not creating permanent structures for the Kumbh Mela, instead of creating temporary structures like pontoon bridges every 12 years at great expense. “It is money going down the drain,” he said. “Permanent structures will also benefit the city permanently.”
Despite extensive preparations around the Kumbh Mela area closer to the banks, pilgrims found it difficult to maneuver in the city. The heavy crowds and chaos did result in one tragedy on Feb. 20 when more than 35 people lost their lives following a stampede at the railway station. Devastated family members blamed the state government for poor crowd-control arrangements.
The polluted condition of the Ganges River is another problem that got highlighted during the Kumbh. Anecdotes of pilgrims getting skin infections or falling sick after the holy dip are often narrated with a laugh. Behind the hilarity, however, there is concern about the deteriorating condition of India’s mightiest river.
Ahead of the Kumbh, the state government did take steps to curb chemical pollution by ordering tanneries and distilleries, which pump effluents into the Ganges, to shut down during the gathering.
Bharat Lal Seth, Deputy Programme Manager Water and Advocacy, at the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, said that the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers became a cesspool of industrial waste and sewage as they traversed across big cities and industrial areas before reaching their confluence in Allahabad.
Seth said that 250 million liters of industrial waste mainly from tanneries in Kanpur, along with 1.3 billion liters of partially treated sewage, drain into the Ganges everyday.
While taking a dip is a matter of faith, the experience leaves some pilgrims glum.
Ratan Talukdar, 37, a computer hardware seller, hasn’t returned to the Kumbh Mela after his visit to Allahabad in 2001 with his mother and sister. This is how he described his dip in February more than a decade ago.
“After the second dip, the person bathing next to me pointed at my head. I put my hand on my head felt something very unpleasant and I quickly dipped my head back in to the water to wash it away. I had gone to get rid of my sins, but the experience was not very good,” he said.
But Sameer, 37, who developed an eye infection after bathing at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2001, returned a decade later for another dip. The Delhi-based private sector executive said that this Mela brings family together, and allows him to glimpse the way Hinduism has evolved over centuries. “It makes me want to learn more about the spiritual side of faith,” he said.
Mehrotra, the economist, said that he and his brother eventually decided not to take a dip in the river this year. But Mehrotra hopes that the pilgrims and tourists who visited this year will raise a cry for protecting the Ganges. “I didn’t take a bath but millions of people did,” he said. “And the sensitivity that has been generated should help the cause.”
Photos: Getty (top); Betwa Sharma (others)