Kumbh Mela 2019: Separating fact from fiction – Dhananjay Joshi

Prayag Kumbh 2019

Dhananjay JoshiThis Kumbh was about making a difference. Making the humblest pilgrim connect with their self. Making the humblest pilgrim proud of their shared heritage. It was about giving the pilgrim a clean and safe environment. – Dhananjay Joshi

A combing operation is conducted to weed out unwanted elements from an area. In our digital age, when narratives are built from keystrokes causing a dissonance between what we hear and what we see, let us comb the Kumbh and separate the unwanted elements from the much-tangled hair of humanity.

The Kumbh I had heard of was very different from the Kumbh I saw.

The Kumbh I had heard of was supposed to be stiflingly crowded, stinkingly filthy, starkly down-market and swarming with fake unwashed sadhus. So unspeakable it was, that only Indian government TV channels reported it. ‘Civil society’ was dismissive about it and regaled each other ridiculing the name change from Allahabad to Prayagraj.

The tribute UNESCO paid to the Kumbh as the living heritage of humanity is what I saw at Prayagraj. It took us 78 man-hours to criss-cross and soak-in the divinity spread over 7,907 acres.

There are no invites, no social media campaigns and no posts that attract the 5,00,00,000 pilgrims on just that one day of mauni amavasya alone (incidentally the Kumbh is from 15 January to 4 March, 48 days in total).

The Kumbh is a sensory overload. Rising above the cacophony of sounds and sights, I saw a throbbing vibrant mass of consciousness living the timeless ritual just as their ancestors had for eons before them. But this time, there was a difference.

This Kumbh was about making a difference. Making a difference to the humblest pilgrim. Making the humblest pilgrim connect with their self. Making the humblest pilgrim proud of their shared heritage. It was about giving the forgiving pilgrim a clean and safe environment.

I saw the bogey of hygiene busted. Uniquely designed penta-urinals for men dotted every walkway. At a discreet distance were arrangements for women. I saw safai karmacharis equipped with pressurised water hoses involved with their work. Thoughtfully named as swachchagrahi, they had a place they could call their own. For all 2,000 of them, massive, clean, brightly lit and well-insulated dormitories ensured that these health workers took responsibility for their tasks with missionary zeal. Their decentralised teams toiled under a distributed leadership model working round the clock in geographically dispersed teams to keep the 2,00,000 toilets squeaky clean.

And no, human waste does not flow into the holy waters.

The Kumbh I had read about scared me into being wary of wading the filthy e-coli infested water.

The Kumbh I saw was equipped with massive sump pits that collected human waste. Automated trucks sucked this sludge into tankers that would ferry it to the nearest sewage treatment plant. At the Kumbh, I missed seeing the rodents and the roaches entirely.

The Kumbh I had read about, endlessly debated the quality of Ganga water and the money spent on it.

The dubki I did at the Triveni Sangam, was an experience that connected me to every individual in the world. The oneness with the thousands around me was calming.

Everyone did their bit to be eco-friendly. The phoolwalay at the ghats had radically innovated their flower baskets from plastic to hand-made paper boats. These take-away boats were laden with organically grown, locally sourced rose petals, soluble mud diyas with bee wax and a cotton wick completing the boat contents. At the Triveni Sangam, this age-old, yet perfectly biodegradable, offering was bestowed on the Ganga. Clear water from the Ganga was carried home by the faithful in transparent plastic containers.

From the anchored pontoons in the middle of the Sangam, the aged, the young, the differently abled and the enthusiastic descended onto the dubki platform under the watchful eyes of lifeguards on their bobbing life rafts. Every single pilgrim was wearing a life jacket, the local boatmen ensured it!

Lips sent out silent prayers, tears streamed down faces, some shivered in the cold waters as they energised themselves with loud prayers. Hundreds of folded hands reached out to the heavens and one of them was mine.

The Kumbh I had read about narrated sordid tales of swirling unwashed masses jostling against each other. It warned me that women were not safe and to beware of inappropriate touches.

The Kumbh that I saw was full of families. Men, women, children, grandparents with headloads of their belongings, caring for each other, walking purposefully with devotion in their eyes. I roamed around at night, under the swathes of 40,000 LED structures that dotted the riverbanks, and felt safer here than in any city of the world. The voices of police personnel had gone hoarse, as they patiently gave directions and repeated instructions innumerably to even those that did not understand them the first time. These handpicked teetotallers, non-smokers and trained policemen, were an example of a trained and a sensitised police force.

The Kumbh I saw, had 22 pontoon bridges that crisscrossed the mighty rivers. Each of these was unidirectional and crowd controlled to prevent any chances of a stampede.

The Kumbh I had read about, told me it was a religious gathering of Hindus. Inside the Kumbh, there would be Hindu zealots, fake babas giving fanatic talks, persistent priests pestering for puja.

In the Kumbh that I saw, small crowds gathered in the innumerable akhadas to listen to soothing voices that told them how to lead a simple life. They passed on the age-old Indic wisdom of conquering greed, relinquishing ego and looking inward for the answers. These were distributed knowledge centres exchanging best practices for leading a fulfilled life.

I saw Sikh akhadas performing seva. Young turbaned men working enthusiastically at the langars, hauling heavy cauldrons to feed the pilgrims. Guru Nanak Dev ji gave his aashirwad to all from the entrance to every such akhada.

In the Kumbh I saw, there were hundreds of foreigners, many of whom were interested in the living unbroken history of mankind. Others were there to see a show, a spectacle so intense that nothing in the world matched it.

Many young Indians were there too on a selfie spree. But there were also thousands upon thousands who were there simply because they believed in the wisdom of their ancestors. To them, continuity of civilisation was far more important than trivialities.

I implore you to see for yourself ‘the living heritage of humanity’. If you stand in judgement, you miss the exquisite layers of an ancient civilisation’s wisdom that wants to shyly reveal itself. If you immerse yourself, maybe you would understand a fraction of it. – Firstpost, 28 February 2019

» The author is a former commander of the Indian Navy

Triveni Sangam Prayag 2019



Dharma Sansad: RSS-VHP’s sudden retreat on Ram Mandir – Suhas Munshi

Dharma Sansad, Kumbha Mela at Prayagraj, 2019

Suhas MunshiA sadhu at the Agni Akhada jokes that if, like the Ayodhya title dispute, the dispute between Kauravs and Pandavas was also tried in courts, it would have remained pending, centuries later, till today. – Suhas Munshi

On February 1, in the biggest assembly of Hindus across the globe, the Kumbh, chiefs of the largest Hindu organisation, the Sangh, were presiding over the most popular Hindutva issue—Ram Mandir.

One by one, over two dozen seers seated on a stage took over the mic to address a half-empty hall.

In the first hour of the hugely publicised Dharma Sansad on Ram Mandir, there were, in fact, more people seated on stage than in the audience, discounting VHP’s special invitees and volunteers. Could a fatigue over Ram Mandir be the reason?

Only two days earlier, a different conclave on Ram Mandir, “Param Dharm Sansad”, presided over by Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati of Dwarka Peeth ended with Swaroopanand asking all Hindus to gather at the disputed site in Ayodhya on February 21 and lay the foundation stone of the grand Ram temple.

It was a direct challenge to the Sangh’s authority on the Ram Mandir issue.

The Sangh responded, in its two-day event held from January 31, through a show of unity, flexing its entire organisational strength on stage.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, RSS joint secretary Krishna Gopal, VHP chief V.S. Kokje, Janmabhoomi Nyas chief Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, yoga guru Baba Ramdev, ISKCON Bangalore chief Madhu Pandit Das and BJP leaders, including Uttar Pradesh deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, were at various times present over the course of the event.

Praises were sung for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Yogi Adityanath and some, like Baba Ramdev, went as far as to ask the sadhus present to mobilise their followers in the upcoming elections.

Also, Bhagwat clarified that the Sangh will wait for the general elections to get over before taking any fresh call on the issue.

Last December, during a huge event on the Mandir held in the capital, RSS vice-chief ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi had said that “those in power” should respect the sentiments of the masses.

Three months ago, in his Vijayadashami address, Bhagwat had said the government should pass a law for construction of the Ram Mandir instead of “testing the patience of society”.

However, when Bhagwat took over the microphone, about an hour into the open event, his second address in as many days, he said, “This is election season. We have to be watchful about the effect the Mandir movement would have on the electoral atmosphere. We will not build Mandir just to please voters.”

The audience, which had so far been blowing conches and chorusing “Jai Shri Ram”, fell silent.

Bhagwat went on to say, “Balasaheb [Deoras] had told us that Ram Mandir won’t be built in one attempt. It would take at least 20-30 years. In three years the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation will complete 30 years. That’s the target we, in the Sangh, have in mind.”

Barely had Bhagwat taken his seat, a woman claiming to be an astrologer took over the microphone and said, “I can see through placement of the planets that Ram Mandir will be built in 2020….”

Chaos spread through the audience. The couple of hundred people present in the audience stormed the front rows where they clashed with VHP volunteers, demanding from the luminaries on the stage a date for shilanyas (stone-laying ceremony) and using strong words against Bhagwat and other Sangh leaders.

Kya muh leke jaayenge waapis? Jaisa sandesh ye log de rahe hain, RSS, VHP aur sadhu santo ki baat se logon ka vishwaas uth jayega (The kind of message they are conveying will rob people of their faith on RSS, VHP and seers),” Sushil Kumar Saraswati, from neighbouring Pratapgarh, was one of those who clashed with the VHP volunteers.

He added, “Bhagwatji ne tareekh ki ghoshna kyun nahi ki? Kyunki wo jaante hain ki ek baar tareekh ki ghoshna kar di to fir hum janta ko control nahi kar payenge (Bhagwat didn’t announce the date because he knows once the announcement is made, it would be difficult to control the masses),” Saraswati said. The 60-year-old man claimed to have been active on the Ram Mandir issue since well before ‘92 December.

Many walked out of the event, while sadhu after sadhu kept asking the audience to vote the BJP to power again to ensure the construction of Ram Mandir. The already thin audience over time dwindled to almost nothing.

Apart from Swaroopanand and the Sangh, there is just one other influential segment present in the Kumbh whose vote on Ram Mandir also matters—the akhadas.

There are said to have been 13 militias of sadhus, or akhadas, centuries ago, roots of which some trace back in mythology to Parshuram and Agastya.

These akhadas were infamous for the brute force with which they suppressed other akhadas and fought outsiders.

Montstuart Elphinstone, a Scottish historian, notes while talking about a 1760 Kumbh in Haridwar, “An affray, or rather a battle, took place between the Nagas of Shiva and those of Vishnu, in which it was stated on the spot that 18,000 persons were left dead on the field”.

Scores of them co-exist now, more or less peacefully, and many of them have placed giant tents in the Kumbh occupying acres and acres of space. Each claims to be more influential, commanding loyalties of more sadhus, than the other.

So, what about Ram Mandir?

“Mandir needs to be built. But we need to look at the law of the land also. After all it’s here that we live. It should be built soon, but peacefully and without any more controversy,” says Gopal Krishn Satyam, a sadhu and kathavachak at the Aadinath Akhada.

“It has already taken so much time. What’s the big deal if it takes some more? Today there is a race to claim credit. Nobody seems serious actually. And the youth anyway is more interested in getting jobs, let’s be clear on that,” Satyam adds before resuming his sermon on stage.

Sadhu of another akhada, Agni Akhada, expresses impatience.

“If they say that a grand Ram Mandir will be built in 2020 then shouldn’t the construction work begin now? Swaroopanandji’s word has to be honoured. He is the Shankaracharya of two peeths. Who in the Hindu Samaj has greater authority on religion than him? By what authority is the VHP holding a Dharma Sansad?” says Mahant Gopal Anand Maharaj of Agni Akhada.

“Today, BJP has called a Dharma Sansad, tomorrow Congress will call one, day after SP and then BSP. This has become a joke for them. Neta logon ko Ram Mandir banane ka theka kisne diya (Who gave the authority to politicians to build Ram temple)?” His colleague Mahant Sachiv Som Swaranand says.

Yet another sadhu at the Agni Akhada jokes that if, like the Ayodhya title dispute, the dispute between Kauravs and Pandavas was also tried in courts, it would have remained pending, centuries later, till today.

A sadhu from the influential Juna Akhada expressed his outfit’s position on Ram Mandir, but on condition of anonymity.

“Right now, all parties are trying to gather votes in the name of Mandir. And they are trying to polarise Hindus and Muslims on the issue, trying to instigate riots between the two communities. The temple should be built but taking on board Muslims as well. They are our brothers. We need to respect their sentiments as well.”

Because of the politicisation of Ram Mandir, he added, his Akhada has stayed away from the Dharma Sansads. “The temple should be built and in accordance with the law of the land.”

The akhadas too, like regional parties, were trying to pull their own weight on the issue.

They are taking their time to consider which view—between that of Swaroopanand and of the Sangh, who, to take the metaphor forward, were behaving antithetically like the two national parties—to align themselves with.

However, the question of Ram Mandir seemed to be confined to just these three power centres.

Keeping in mind that the Kumbh, spread over 800 acres, in which at any instant roam crores of visitors, is right now the centre of attention of billion-plus strong Hindu Samaj, the issue of Ram Mandir was remarkably almost absent from public discourse.

VHP’s marquee, where the two-day event was being held, was nearly as full of ordinary people as any other venue.

At some distance from the VHP event, Rajveer Singh Gaur’s troupe performing a nukkad natak “Safai ka Superman” held scores of people, including sadhus, in rapt attention.

Four-year-old Chandni, walking a tightrope with one foot tied to a plate, had within minutes of starting her performance, begun attracting attention of curious visitors.

Dekhiye, is sawal mein ab gati nahi reh gayi hai. Yeh ek bhavnaatmak dhruvikaran ki koshish hai ye sab samajh chuke hain (no wind remains in Ram Mandir issue anymore. The fact that there is an attempt to polarise people is evident to everyone),” says Surya Narayan, associate professor in the Hindi department at Allahabad University.

“A lot of youth were born after the demolition of Babri Masjid. Someone who was born when the masjid was demolished is 27 today. Some of them have joined MNCs and travelled abroad. Others aspire to do that,” he adds.

“Also those who visit the Magh Mela at the Sangam every year know that the big sadhus talk about Ram Mandir for a month and earn enough to spend the rest of the year comfortably in its name. Kumbh is a mela for most of us. You take a dip, sit through a pravachan, buy a souvenir, look at some spectacle and leave by the next train,” Narayan adds.

Gopal Krishn Satyam of Aadinath Akhada doesn’t dispute the fact that Kumbh is, apart from everything else, a political event.

“Politicisation of Kumbh didn’t start yesterday. The process started in Indira Gandhi’s time. Sadhus, akhadas, everyone else was always inclined one way or another. Some are aligned with the BJP, some with SP, some with Congress, some also with the BSP. It’s a social reality. I don’t see it as a problem,” Satyam says.

“These pilgrims had come from all over India; some of them had been months on the way, plodding patiently along in the heat and dust, worn, poor, hungry, but supported and sustained by an unwavering faith and belief, they were supremely happy and content, now; their full and sufficient reward was at hand; they were going to be cleansed from every vestige of sin and corruption by these holy waters which make utterly pure whatsoever thing they touch, even the dead and rotten.”

Mark Twain was in all probability talking about the Kalpwasis while describing a Kumbh at Prayag that he witnessed in course of his round-the-world lecture tour in 1895-96, which he documented in “Following the Equator”.

Away from the bustle of the akhadas, contortionist sadhus, street performers, missing persons announcements, the humdrum of Ram Mandir, away from all noise, reside the devotees which lend to the Kumbh an air of historic sanctity.

Thousands of them, many who have made it here on foot, have taken a month-long pause from their livelihoods to live here in small tents in a separate corner of the Sangam.

For a month—from Makar Sankranti (January 14) to Kumbh Sankranti (February 13)—the Kalpwasis live a spartan life; cooking their own food on earthen posts and eating once a day, bathing thrice a day, offering aarti twice a day, and spending the rest of their time listening to pravachans.

Magh mein idhar aane ka uddeshya shuddikaran hai. Ek mahine ka tap hai. Is mahine mein hum bairagi hain. Aadhyatm mein hi pura samay lag jaata hai (The purpose behind coming here is purification. This is a month-long penance during which we are free from worldly affairs. We spend our time in spirituality),” says Baijnath Mishr, who has come from Saharsa, Bihar.

This austere month-long pilgrimage has to be done 12 times by devotees to attain moksha (liberation). But the exercise isn’t without worldly benefits of its own.

A study, funded by UK-based Economic & Social Research Council and conducted by experts of five universities, including Allahabad University, has found that the Kalpwasis return home healthier and happier after their stay at the Sangam. A part of the findings was published in the Guardian and in the journal PLoS One.

Baithjath Mishr sits with his other Maithili colleagues who complain about how the government, in the race to please all the big sadhus, has completely blanked them out.

Bade baba log ke liye deluxe toilet Dilli se mangwaye jaa rahe hain. Yogi baba bhi cabinet ke saath meeting karte hain toh special tent mein. Aur hame na paani diya hai na toilet. Bataiye mahilayein kahan jaayengi. (Big sadhus get imported toilets. Yogi (UP CM) also holds his cabinet meeting in special tents but we are not provided with either water or toilets. Where will the women go),” complains Phoolbhadra Jha who has come from Darbangha.

But, we ask them, what about Ram Mandir?

Ye Kumbh dhyaan aur ekatm ka waqt hai. Hum kisi nirmaan ke liye nahi aaye. Bataiye in Ram bhakton mein se kaun kaun apne kul guru ko poojte hain (Kumbh is a time for solitude and meditation. We haven’t come here for any construction work. Tell me of all these “Ram bhakts” here, who still worships his/her local deity?)” says Bhagwan Charan from Janakpur.

“Everything on that side is commercial. Everyone has opened their own shop and are selling spirituality. Some baba had sent his car to us to get to his tent. Some VHP people also asked us. But we are people from Mithila. We are not fools. We know what they’re doing,” another Kalpwasi, Pancham Singh from Purnia, says.

Bholanauth Chander was a Calcutta-born writer, a contemporary of Michael Madhusudhan Dutta and Bhudev Mukhopadhyay. For a travelogue that he was commissioned by the Raj in 1860s, Chander roamed the length and breadth of the country and wrote about his experiences, which were later published in “The Travels of a Hindoo” in 1869.

On the Allahabad Kumbh, he wrote about the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna. “Each at first tries to keep itself distinct, till, happy, to meet after a long parting, they run into each other’s embrace, and losing themselves into one, flow in a common stream.”

He also makes a note of mythologies around this spot, “The Duria-Ghaut on the Jumna is a sacred spot. They say that Rama, with his wife and brother Luchmun, crossed here at the ghaut, on their way from Ajoodhya to go over to the land of their exile.”

We ask the ochre-robe wearing Bhagwan Charan about it. He adds to the information that when Sita, Ram and Lakshman were passing through Prayag, Ram is said to have remarked to his brother “Koi kaha sake Prayaag prabhaavi (Who can remark about the force of Prayag).” – News18, 6 Februarary 2019

» Suhas Munshi is a journalist who hasn’t been to journalism school. He writes for News18 at the moment, and earlier for other mainstream news media outlets.

Kumbha Mela 2019

Dharma Sansad: RSS-VHP back off Ram temple date, face sadhus’ ire – Namita Bajpai

Ramdev & Mohan Bhagwat

Namita BajpaiThe RSS reposed faith in Modi government and decided to drop the demand of immediate commence of temple construction till the formation of the new government at Centre after the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. – Namita Bajpai

Day two of Dharma Sansad convened by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad at Kumbh on February 1st was lost in the furore and ruckus created by agitated sadhus demanding date for temple construction in Ayodhya.

Contrarily, the saints and seers, led by the RSS, reposed faith in Modi government and decided to drop the demand of immediate commence of temple construction till the formation of the new government at Centre after the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

However, ruckus ensued after RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s address in the last session of the Dharm Sansad as a section of protesting sadhus were demanding early construction of Ram Temple. At the onset, Mahamnadelshwar Akhileshwaranand read out a proposal which had no mention the temple issue. The Mahamandelshwar said that to avoid politicisation of the issue, no new announcement would be made from the platform of Dharma Sansad.

He even urged the saints and sadhus to keep patience for some more time so that the next government could pave the way for a grand Ram Temple in Ayodhya. “Focus your spiritual power and inner strength to realise this dream of ages which is now only a matter of few months. Let’s not indulge in anything unconstitutional as the fight is in the decisive phase now,” said the Mahamandelshwar putting the proposal for second day proceedings forward.

Addressing the delegates in the concluding session of the conclave, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat assured the sadhus that the temple will be built but after 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “Otherwise the opposition will accuse us of constructing the Ram temple for electoral gains,” said the RSS chief adding: “I want to assure all of you that the construction will begin in the very first session of assuming power.” This led to the din and sloganeering in the conclave. People started shouting—Mandir banao ya vapas jao (build the temple or go back)—much to the shock of the RSS chief who might have faced such a public protest for the first time in a meeting.

Earlier, assertive Bhagwat said that the majority Hindu community would settle for nothing less than a grand temple at the birthplace of Lord Rama in Ayodhya. “Yeh humari maang hai aur rahegi. Ab sarkar dekh le kaise karegi (This is our demand and ti will remain so. Now it is up to the government to do it),” he said.

He cautioned the saints and the people claiming that despite all the political upheavals in the country, this issue would be addressed in next 3-4 months. “We will not be climbing down even an inch from our position on the temple issue,” Bhagwat maintained.

The RSS chief referred to the High Court decision of September 30, 2010 saying that even the court was convinced of the presence of the temple at the disputed site. “We had promised the government to keep quiet for three years after which we started raking up the issue.” However, he took a jibe at judiciary saying for the Supreme Court of India it was not a priority issue.

“Let the government work in this direction. If the government will facilitate the temple, we will get the blessings of Lord Rama. We have to maintain the momentum and the spirit for the temple,” he stated.

In an attempt to seek support for the BJP government, as soon as the RSS renewed the call to elect a government capable of facilitating the temple, the sadhus became agitated and started shouting slogans—tareek batao, tareek batao (tell us the date)—-and accusing the RSS chief of using the platform to bolster BJP’s political fortune.

But the RSS chief continued with his pro-government narrative saying that it was a dispensation which framed the law to offer citizenship to the Hindus abandoned in other countries. “We will not create problems for the government of the day, rather we have to support it,” he said hoping that the temple would come up with positive thinking as the time and space for the victory of Santana Dharma was there. – The New Indian Express, 1 February 2019

» Namita Bajpai  reports for The New Indian Express in Lucknow.

Ganga must become a political issue like Ram Mandir – Nivedita Khandekar

Sadhu at Kumbh Mela

Nivedita KhandekarA Central Pollution Control Board report found that all Ganga river locations where monitoring was carried out from Uttarakhand to West Bengal were “moderately” to “heavily polluted”. … Environmental and social activists and a group of sanyasis have been at pains to draw the attention of the government to their demands for a cleaner Ganga. – Nivedita Khandekar

Even as the Kumbh Mela kickstarts at Allahabad—now renamed Prayagraj—on Tuesday, January 15, with all the government paraphernalia advertising a cleaner Ganga for the devotees, activists and Opposition party leaders have come down heavily on the government’s failure on exactly the same.

Dams in the higher reaches of the Ganga, illegal sand mining, dumping of debris following massive road construction under the Char Dham Yatra project and, of course, the intermittent sewage—treated and untreated both—flowing directly into the Ganga in the plains—the list of all that is wrong goes on and on.

Environmental and social activists, not to mention a group of sanyasis, and a few leaders from Opposition parties have been at pains to draw the attention of the government to their demands.

In fact, Samajwadi Party leader and member of Parliament, Revati Raman Singh, has announced launching a jan andolan (people’s protest) at the Kumbh itself.

Carping on the Modi government’s attempt to turn the Ardh Kumbh almost into Maha Kumbh in an election year (Kumbh Mela is held every four years at four different places across India, with each of those places getting to host it once in 12 years in rotation; Ardh Kumbh is once every six years at Allahabad/Prayagraj, midway between the two Kumbhs), Singh said, “Our demand is very simple. What we need is Ganga’s aviral dhara (continuous flow). The government is talking only about treated-untreated sewage from smaller tributaries and nullahs flowing into the Ganga. Where is the Ganga jal then?”

Singh had first announced the jan andolan and court arrest (jail bharo andolan) too at a multi-lateral stakeholder meeting in December 2018.

“Today and tomorrow, there would be hundreds and thousands of people at the Kumbh venue for the Shahi Snan on the occasion of Makar Sankranti. Once that is over, I will definitely launch the protest there. People need to reach the Kumbh area to protest,” he told me over the phone on Tuesday.

The largest congregation of humanity

Advertised as the largest congregation of humanity, a great number of sadhu and sanyasis, Indians from across the country and abroad—and nowadays, several foreigners—reach the Kumbh venue, the Triveni Sangam, the meeting point of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Kumbh tourism has been on the rise as scores of non-believers, both Indian and foreign, also throng the venue, especially for witnessing and photographing the Shahi Snan by the myriad sadhus and sanyasis of various akhadas (schools of sanyasis).

According to government data, this year, the Prayagraj Kumbh is spread over 3,200 hectares land—about 700 hectares more compared to 2013’s Maha Kumbh. The area has been divided into 20 sectors. Eight km-long bathing ghats have been developed at the Sangam for the holy dip and similarly, several other ghats have also been developed along the banks of river Ganga in different sectors of the mela. About 12 crore pilgrims and tourists are expected during the Kumbh. Massive security arrangements are in place for the smooth passing of the first bathing festival and the Shahi Snan.

Every Kumbh witnesses a large number of visitors, devotees, tourists with the majority reaching there only for their faith—the faith in the Ganga, India’s national river.

In all their devotion, they take a dip in the Ganga waters, oblivious to the actual condition of the water quality, or choosing to neglect it for the time being, even if they do worry about it.

The people and their Ganga

How good is it to play with people’s aastha (faith)?

That is the question on the lips of the common visitor as activists harp on the fact that the Ganga can clean itself provided the government lets it flow continuously. Aviral (continuous) flow will ensure nirmal (cleaner) Ganga, the activists point out time and again. Only 80 kms of the Ganga witness this natural flow.

The meeting of the stakeholders in December at Delhi, where Revati Raman Singh had made the initial announcement to launch his protest during the Kumbh, was organised by Ganga Aahvaan, an organisation striving for a free-flowing, cleaner Ganga.

It was attended by activists and political leaders. Apart from Jairam Ramesh, Congress leader and former Environment Minister, and another Congress leader, Pradeep Tamta, the event was attended and addressed by Somnath Bharati of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Govindacharya, a former RSS ideologue.

Clearly unhappy with the Modi government’s October 2018 draft bill for protection of the Ganga, aiming to regulate minimum environmental flow in the river, the attendees discussed the People’s Ganga Bill 2018—which was initiated during the times of late Professor G.D. Agrawal, who laid down his life after fasting for more than 100 days for the Ganga in October 2018.

The cornerstones of the draft act are identifying the unique status and special features of the National River Ganga; identifying and recognising the self-purifying and bacterial properties that lend gangatva to the river; acknowledging the adverse role that developmental projects have had on the river and management and implementation of conservation plans through an autonomous body.

Environmental activists Mallica Bhanot, Ravi Chopra and Rajendra Singh dwelled on the draft act which proposes a primary core zone, a secondary zone and a buffer zone for the river. The primary core zone will comprise areas from the Himalayas, the secondary zone will be the Ganga floodplains and the length of the river from Dev Prayag till Gangasagar while the buffer zone will be the entire Ganga basin.

Ganga’s condition today

The government’s draft Bill does not talk about hydropower projects on Ganga.

There are 100-odd existing hydropower projects across the Ganga basin in the state of Uttarakhand alone, with more than 100 either planned or under construction, together targeted at more than 25,000MW (majorly from projects on the Alaknanda river).

The Modi government has been harping on its success of how it will clean the Ganga up to 80% by March 2019—but it does not talk about stopping the work on hydropower projects. “We are not going to build any new projects,” is all that the Ministry of Water Resources maintains.

At a time when solar power is increasingly becoming cheaper, why the need to harness so much from hydropower on the Ganga alone is beyond anyone’s understanding.

Underlining that there are only 5 per cent high-end power users, Govindacharya asked if indeed we need that much power production that leads to the devastation of rivers and suggested, “Congress aur BJP ko apna mann banana padega (It is for the Congress and BJP both to take it on themselves)!”

Out in 2019, none of the parties actively said anything about hydropower projects, even when there has been a lot of noise about the clean/nirmal Ganga initiative, from both sides. The centre duly tries to showcase pockets where very little or superficial action is taking place.

But on the ground, the scores of STPs are yet to be constructed, pipelines taking sewers away from the Ganga are to be laid and even the cosmetic ghat cleaning is yet to happen at all places.

In fact, a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report “Biological Water Quality Assessment of the River Ganga (2017-18)” found that almost all locations where monitoring was carried out in pre-and post-monsoon season from Uttarakhand to West Bengal were “moderately” to “heavily polluted”. Daily-O, 16 January 2019

» Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental, developmental and social issues.


All about Makar Sankranti – FP Staff

Surya Deva

FirstpostOne of the most ancient of Hindu festivals, Makar Sankranti is celebrated in different parts of the country in different ways with great fanfare. Sankranti denotes the entry of the sun into the zodiac sign of Makara (Capricorn) as it travels on its celestial path. This transition welcomes longer and warmer days. The festival is associated with colorful decorations, spring harvest fairs, ritual bathing, kite flying, bonfires and elaborate feasts. – FP Staff


While most Hindu festivals are celebrated as per the lunar cycle, Makar Sankranti follows the solar cycle. Dedicated to Lord Surya, the day marks the onset of summer and beginning of auspicious period uttarayan. The connection with uttarayan dates back to the Mahabharata when Bhishma Pitamah lay down on a bed of arrows and waited for the sun to be in uttarayan to breath his last.

Cooking rice porridge (pongal) for Surya Deva

Harvest festival

For most parts of India, this period is a part of early stages of the rabi crop and agricultural cycle, where crops have been sown and the hard work in the fields is almost complete. The longer spell of sunlight is important for the crops, and also acts as a retreat for everybody who has been dreading the winter months. The harvest festival is celebrated across the country with much fervor and gaiety. While the harvest festival in Punjab is called as Lohri, in Assam its known as Bhogali Bihu and the southern states term it as Pongal.

Sadhu offering water to the sun at the Kumbh Mela (2013)

Holy dip

Makar Sankranti also marks the beginning of six months auspicious period for Hindus known as Uttarayana period. Every twelve years, the Hindus observe Makar Sankranti with one of the world’s largest mass pilgrimages and bathe in the holy rivers at the Kumbh Mela.  This year, the Ardh Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj will begin from January 14 and continue till March 3 at the Triveni Sangam—the holy confluence of river Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati. Many thousands of devotees are expected to arrive in the city to take a holy dip in the Triveni Sangam.

Sesame Seed Ladoos


Sesame seeds (til) are used in almost every Makar Sankranti recipes. As per the Hindu view, sesame seeds helps to cleanse the soul and improve spiritual awakening. In Maharashtra, the practice of exchanging sweets made of til such as tilgul ladoo and gulachi poli is common. The exchange is considered as a token of goodwill, while these foods give energy as well as helps to keep us warm. While exchanging, people greet each other with the words, “Til gul ghyaa, goad goad bola!” meaning “eat tilgul and speak sweet words”.

In Delhi and Haryana, people cook ghee churma, kheer and halwa. In Punjab, it is a tradition to consume khichdi and jaggery. Sankrati is one of the major festivals of Rajasthan. The day is celebrated with special Rajasthani delicacies and sweets such as pheenitil-paati, gajak, kheer, ghevar, pakodi, puwa, and til-laddoo.

Enthusiasts flying kites various shapes of kites on the second day of International Kite Festival, in Ahmedabad on Monday (2018).

Kite flying

The morning of Makar Sankranti witnesses colorful kites wafting in the sky. In Gujarat, flying kites and competing with others is regarded as one of the biggest festivals. Scores of people from not only around the country, but across the world, come to participate in the annual International Kite Festival (Uttarayan), the preparations for which begin months in advance. – Firstpost, 13 January 2019

Arunachala Hill


The Laxmi Narayan Tripathi Interview – Sumati Mehrishi

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

Kinnara“We, the Hindus, are a society where members of the third gender have the status of demigod. Today, I feel that we need to go back to our roots.” – Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

In 2014, the Supreme Court, in a landmark verdict, granted India’s transgender community its rights and place as members of the third gender. With this verdict, the apex court accepted the broad definition of “transgender” as including people who do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the person at the core and helm of this great moment and movement, transgender rights activist, dancer and author, joined the hijras, her brethren across Bharat, in celebrating the community she had found herself drawn to and had walked into, accepting the woman in her, accepting the tradition of guru and chela, years ago.

In 2016, Tripathi, as Acharya Mahamandleshwar of the Kinnara Akhara, walked towards another spiritual and symbolic milestone, at the Ujjain Mahakumbh. The community of hijras moved, in rapturous procession, stirred a new story, of assimilation, inclusion and acceptance, that transcended gender, as they whirled into the mela of millions, millions of Hindus, and gathered at a shivir of their own—a Kinnara Akhada shivir.

Today, Tripathi, the tireless representative of the hijra community and a global Bharatiya, not only shapes India’s LGBT discourse, but also moulds the Indic narrative on gender, dharma, identity and acceptance. She speaks to Sumati Mehrishi on hijras, Mahakaal, her identity and challenges.

• Gender is not limited to biological sex, and transgender to gender. The landmark verdict from the Supreme Court (SC) changed lives. What thoughts cross your mind when you look back at the SC verdict?

The SC verdict restored the dignity of the transgender community. It gave hijras new hope and strength to meet challenges. Today, we need to do a lot more in order to provide hijras education, opportunities and jobs. Transgender people would do a wonderful job as people’s representatives. An Anglo-Indian can have two feet in the Parliament. Why can’t a hijra, too? They would do a wonderful job as people’s representatives in the higher echelons of power. Members of the kinnara community can do so much more. They can be employed in the different departments of the Railways. They’ll do a wonderful job as guards in compartments reserved for women. Why can’t they be given government jobs? They would do the job much more beautifully. Hijras have no respect and no political presence. But, I am sure, greater change will come. Rome was not built in one day.

• When were you first drawn to dharma?

As a child, I was interested in dharmic teachings. I come from a Brahmin family and was drawn to religious stories and mythology. Later, I realised that I belong to the most modern religion. We believe in “Aham Brahmasmi”. We believe in accepting. We have been a modern society. We believe in Sanatan. We have suffered a lot owing to barbaric rules and have welcomed outsiders at the cost of our heads. We, the Hindus, are a society where members of the third gender have the status of demigod. I was drawn to the aspect of acceptance in dharma. Today, I feel that we need to go back to our roots.

• In one of the interviews, you said you “came out” the moment you came out of your mother’s womb. What gave you this clarity about gender and self?

It is true. I “came out” the moment from my mother’s womb and I was out. I had enjoyed and still enjoy the femininity in me. A boy born in a Brahmin family, I was told I am gay. I was abused. I got the power to say “no”. The whole journey of Laxmi twisted once I got the courage to say “no”. I faced patriarchal pressures and many challenges in my evolving journey, but my faith and love in the power of the feminine and my own femininity, stood by me. I have been aware of my feminine strength. For my husband, Vicky, I am his woman.

• You mention patriarchal pressures. You have found support in your father. Do you smile when you think of this balance in life?

(Laughs) My father is the real purusha. He came from an orthodox Brahmin family. He loved his religion, but never forced his ideas on me. He heard me out with an open mind. People defined and redefined me. But I searched for my roots. I reclaimed them.

• What hurts the members of the kinnara community?

The feeling of not being loved. Members of the kinnara community are equal to men and women. The saddest story is that people who have been given the status of demigod in our great civilisation are begging on the streets. They are harassed and troubled. They have to sell their bodies. What for? They have been ostracised in the same society that seeks blessings from them. People ask kinnaras why they clap. The clap is their only weapon. They are “Mangala Mukhi”, but they face insults and so many challenges. People keep defining and redefining them.

• What can the Hindu community do in order to protect the kinnara community, their cultural spirit and interests?

As Acharya Mahamandleshwar of the Kinnara Akhara, a lot of my energy is spent in fighting challenges from Hindus, my own people. I want to take many steps for the betterment and inclusion of the kinnara community in the larger Hindu umbrella, but I face a lot of opposition from other akharas—all Hindus—my own people, at so many levels. Isn’t it sad? The kinnaras deserve to be accepted. Their inclusion will only make us, Hindus, stronger, collectively and culturally. Our tradition speaks of hijras in eminent positions—as political advisers to generals, administrators and kings. Today, they face tiraskar. The situation cannot be changed without support from within the larger Hindu family.

• What challenges have you faced as Acharya Mahamandleshwar of the Kinnar Akhara?

The Kinnar Akhada got its symbolic place and shivir in the Ujjain Kumbh, in 2016. One of the biggest challenges was that other akhadas opposed us when we asked for a piece of land for the Ujjain Kumbh. We are moving towards the Ardh Kumbh, which will be held in Prayag, in 2019, facing the same discouraging attitude from other akhadas. Some people call me “BJP ki beti, RSS ki bahu”. I am angry and exhausted fighting these akhadas when I should be spending my energies in creating opportunities and an equal space for hijras, my brethren, instead.

• Will putting an end to this exclusion of hijras within the larger Hindu tent strengthen Indic cultural values?

It will not only strengthen us as a community, and as Hindus, but will also help us reclaim our culture, cultural roots and values.

• Tell us about Mahakaal’s impact on you and your sringar.

I love Mahakaal. I am devoted to Him and I am in love with His sringar. I love doing sringar. I celebrate Mahakaal and I enjoy the feminine.

• The tilak and the glittering bindi on your forehead point at a spiritual singularity of two elements. Are they a mark of love and respect for Mahakaal?

Yes. I travel the world as Laxmi, as a devotee, as a Hindu, as Acharya Mahamandleshwar of the Kinnara Akhara, as a dancer, an author, as Laxmi who loves Mahakaal and whose heart stays in Ujjain.

• What is the next task on your mind?

Giving hijras the life they deserve and bringing back their dignity. I want to work towards my goal of establishing and strengthening the Shivshakti Vidyapeeth, in Ujjain, to ensure hijras safety, security, education and opportunities. For this, I need support from my own.

• Thank you, Laxmi ji.

Thank you. See you in Ujjain some day. – Swarajya, 16 December 2017

» Swarajya is proud to honour Laxmi with Sree Narayana Guru Award for social service at the India Ideas Conclave, Goa.

» Sumati Mehrishi is the editor of Creative India.

Arjuna as the hijra Brihannala

Kumbh Mela recognised as ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’ – UNESCO

Naga Babas at Haridwar

UNESCOUNESCO has inscribed the Kumbh Mela on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017.

Kumbh Mela (the festival of the sacred Pitcher) is the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth, during which participants bathe or take a dip in a sacred river. Devotees believe that by bathing in the Ganges one is freed from sins liberating her/him from the cycle of birth and death. Millions of people reach the place without any invitation. The congregation includes ascetics, saints, sadhus, aspirants, kalpavasis and visitors. The festival is held at Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik every four years by rotation and is attended by millions of people irrespective of caste, creed or gender. Its primary bearers, however, belong to akhadas and ashrams, religious organizations, or are individuals living on alms.

Kumbh Mela plays a central spiritual role in the country, exerting a mesmeric influence on ordinary Indians. The event encapsulates the science of astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, and social and cultural customs and practices, making it extremely rich in knowledge. As it is held in four different cities in India, it involves different social and cultural activities, making this a culturally diverse festival. Knowledge and skills related to the tradition are transmitted through ancient religious manuscripts, oral traditions, historical travelogues and texts produced by eminent historians. However, the teacher-student relationship of the sadhus in the ashrams and akhadas remains the most important method of imparting and safeguarding knowledge and skills relating to Kumbh Mela. – UNESCO, December 2017

Kumbh Mela at Haridwar