Accredited by Guinness Book of World Record in 2013 as the ‘largest ever gathering of human beings for a single purpose’, the Maha Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj is without a doubt an overwhelming experience. It is not only the number of people that contribute to this feeling, but the purpose of their visit. Over millions of pilgrims walk for days to take a dip at the Triveni Sangam—the confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati. This is their motivation, objective and faith.
Mythologically, the fight between gods and demons for the Kumbha (sacred pitcher) of Amrit (nectar of immortality) marked the beginning for this event. It is believed that Lord Vishnu disguised himself and whisked the Kumbha away from the demons, taking it onward to heaven, while spilling drops of nectar in Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and Nashik in Maharashtra—the four locations of the mega event. It took 12 days to retrieve this sacred Kumbha, corresponding to 12 years of human life—denoting the occurrence of the event every 12 years.
I visited the Ardh Kumbh Mela 2010 in Haridwar, however, the Ardh Kumbh gathering in Prayagraj this year is more sacred for Hindus, owing to the presence of Sangam. I was invited by Uttar Pradesh Tourism and Lonely Planet Magazine India to attend the Kumbh Travel Writers’ Conclave which was held a day before the shahi snaan (royal bath) on the occasion of Mauni Amavasya (February 4). There are six auspicious dates for taking a holy dip in Sangam: Makar Sankranti (January 15), Paush Purnima (January 21), Mauni Amavasya (February 4), Basant Panchami (February 10), Maghi Purnima (February 19) and Mahashivratri (March 4)—where Makar Sankranti and Mahashivratri respectively mark the beginning and end of the Kumbh Mela.
What to do
Needless to say taking a holy dip in the Sangam (sector 3) is the primary objective of the pilgrims. Apart from that, the Kumbh Mela comprises all elements of a typical mela (fair).
Visit Kalagram in sector 19, on the Arail side of Prayagraj. This art and craft fair has 13 pavilions each with unique look and design. There are many more exhibitions by academies and galleries from the country.
(Kalagram will be closed from February 17 to 19, 2019.)
During the Kumbh Mela, cultural events like numerous musical and folk dance performances are organised at various stages. Stage 1 and 2 are in sector 19, on the Arail side of Prayagraj which have performances by Sangeet Natak Academy (SNA) and SPIC MACAY, amongst others, through the course of the mela. On the other hand, Stage 3 in Ashok Nagar of Prayagraj have more than hundred stalls with beautiful craft items by the artisans from all over the country.
(Cultural events will not take place from February 17 to 19, 2019.)
The government of Uttar Pradesh has also organised a couple of tourist walks. Sangam Walk explores a short trail around the Sangam Nose or sector 3, including the Allahabad Fort, Patalpuri Temple and Ram Ghat, amongst others. Prayagraj Walk, on the other hand, explores the heart of the city with popular attractions like Allahabad Museum, Chandra Shekhar Azad Park and the Central Library dotting its path.
I would recommend taking walks around sectors 1, 16 and 17 to get a feel the grand fair. Sector 1 has the amusement park with many rides including the Well of Death. Sectors 16 and 17 is where the Akharas (organisations of various religious sects) and entertainment kiosks are lined up, respectively.
Go here for a map of the Kumbh Mela.
Where to stay
Accommodation options across budgets are available in the mela. From public spaces scattered in many sectors (can be booked directly at nominal tariff of ₹100 or ₹200 on special days), multiple B&Bs, dharmashala and hotels for pilgrims across the city to the luxury tents, there is something for everyone.
I stayed in Indraprastham Tent City in sector 20. The ‘luxury’ tents were spacious, they lacked basic facilities and hygiene. Also, the dining hall or restaurant, as they called it, definitely needed to be organised with better management.
Getting there and away
Trying to get into Prayagraj a day before, after or during the bathing dates is futile. We were stuck in traffic in Jhusi, about eight kilometres ahead of Shastri Bridge, for three hours, a day before Mauni Amavasya. Pilgrims who walked it were definitely better prepared. On our way out of the city, we took a 160-kilometre detour through Mirzapur, owing to the crores of pilgrims visiting Sangam on Mauni Amavasya and traffic restrictions. It is advisable to get in at least two days before and get out one day after an auspicious day.
To get around within the mela grounds, there are e-rickshaws available for long distances (commute through sectors). However, pontoon bridges and certain sectors are only accessible on foot. Police personnels are very helpful and polite. It makes sense to clarify with them, in case of doubt or confusion.
-Plan much in advance for accommodation and transport, especially around Bathing Dates.
-Inland Waterways Authority of India has established four floating terminals at Quila Ghat, Old Naini Bridge, Saraswati Ghat and Sujawan Ghat for pilgrims who wish to ferry and use motorised boats to the region.
-If travelling in a group, stay close to all and take care of all your belongings
-There are authorised bathing areas. Use those only.
-There are numerous toilets and urinals at varying distances. Do not defecate in the open and maintain the cleanliness of the toilets.
-Do not litter. Use the dustbins available every few metres.
-UP Police and organising departments have done an incredible work to manage crowds. They are polite, organised and have everyone’s best interest in mind. Please cooperate with them and seek their help when needed.
-Expect delays in traffic or crowds. Plan accordingly.
-Do not photograph people in the bathing areas.
-Do not pollute the river with offerings or bathing cosmetics.
-Refrain from using plastic anywhere.
-Be polite and friendly to everyone you meet.
-Expect to pay sadhus before photographing them.
Will you visit the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Prayag this year?