Special Report:  Kumbha Mela 2001

Allahabad – 21th February, 2001

Uttar Pradesh Government Congratulates Itself
by Tony Fernandes

While I have been away visiting the neighbouring state of Bihar, Allahabad has been slowly getting back to normal. The streets are no longer congested and the mela grounds have been transformed into what looks like an empty wasteland. A few camps are still around in sector seven including that of ISKCON. The infrastructure which was put in place over the past few months is continuing to be dismantled.

The Govt. of Uttar Pradesh has been congratulating itself for a job well done. At a function held on 19th February at the media camp to celebrate the achievements of the officers of the Mela administration, the Kumbh Mela Commissioner began with "As a Hindu I believe in religion. All living beings perform duties in this world prescribed by God which is already pre-determined". All senior officials were presented with Kumbh mementoes and were each conferred with titles ranging from Shankaracharya, Baba and Mahatyagi to Paramahans and Chaitanya. A time for self-congratulation.

Fortunately nothing went seriously wrong during this Kumbh. There were no bombs and no stampedes. Groups and volunteers from among the pilgrims carried out all of the truly inspiring work. The work of feeding hundreds of thousands everyday and providing psychological support to the distressed was carried out by people from all over India and all walks of life who subscribe to the Karma Yoga ideal. The lost and found camps were also non-government initiatives and run independently. The story behind the administering of this Maha Kumbh is as interesting as the one behind the governing India, this vast and sacred land. It is a story that will have to wait another day.

In the meantime, here in Allahabad and particularly in Benares (Varanasi) preparations are underway for tomorrow’s Maha Shivatri celebrations. The primary focus in Allahabad will not be at the Sangam, but at a famous Shiv temple some 12 kilometres away. Most pilgrims will visit both sites. This will be mainly a local event and so only about a million people are expected. The situation in Benares is different. Many more pilgrims are expected there. Many choose to arrive by foot after walking for days. This Maha Shivratri will be particularly challenging for the authorities in Benares because of the extra large number of pilgrims, sadhus and naga babas who have ‘overflowed’ there from the Kumbh. Access to the Kasi Vishwanath temple there is via some of the narrowest lanes in India. These small lanes are surrounded by very old houses and shops. An added complication is that the temple almost touches the Gyanvapi mosque. This is one of three mosques in this state, targeted by a coalition of Hindu organisations for demolition and replacement. Following the successful demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu fanatics in 1992, the Government has put in place extra fortifications and armed troops here to prevent a repetition. Visiting the temple on an ordinary day can be like walking past a military camp. The narrow lanes, protecting the Gyanvapi mosque and the extra large number of people are the three constraints which will make this year’s Maha Shivratri yet another challenging experience for the poor hard done by pilgrim.

The Mangla aarti will begin at the Vishwanath temple at 2.15am and end at 3am. From 4am the temple will be open only to pilgrims who have been issued with tickets. The naga babas have the 7.30am to 10am slot reserved for them. The ghats along the Ganges will be packed and boats will remain on hand every few meters to ensure nobody drowns. Meanwhile I will continue my reports from Allahabad and the surrounding area.

Tony Fernandes was Zenzibar's correspondent at Kumbh Mela 2001 in Allahabad, India. Y


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