As per traditions this should have been an ‘Ardh Kumbh’ (Half Kumbh) in Allahabad this year. But the Government that swears by tradition possibly wanted no ‘half’ measures and hence decided to treat it as ‘Kumbh’. It was in this fulness of things that the Government may have decided to give Allahabad a face-lift and change the name of the city itself to Prayagraj.
The seers are far from happy. Dates of the ‘Kumbh’ are determined by the position of celestial bodies and not by resolutions of the government, quips an angry-looking monk.
The Kumbh takes place after every 12 years while the half-Kumbh is held every six years when millions of Hindu pilgrims converge at the confluence of rivers Ganga and Yamuna and the ‘mythical’ Saraswati in the belief that a dip in the river would cleanse them of their sins.
One must say the UP Government has spared no effort to give the traditional spiritual gathering a glitzy, corporate look.
Makar Sankranti, which falls on January 15, is when the first holy dip is ordained this year. Everywhere in Allahabad work is going on to put up speed breakers, repairing the roads and demarcating plots for different camps and tent cities. Priests and ‘Pandas’, sort of soul brokers, are yet to be allotted their tents. Most of the new overbridges and flyovers seem to be ready for use but traffic over them awaits formal unveiling or inauguration by VIPs.
Public sculptures have come up at road crossings but they too have been covered in veils—to be uncovered with a flourish once the VIP politicians arrive. The ‘Paint my city’ campaign has resulted in most visible walls, pillars, lampposts and even trees getting fresh coats of paint. They have also provided both commercial and amateur artists to express their creativity. Never mind the fact that the painting spree has left the dusty leaves looking forlorn.
Drawings and paintings depicting the Kumbh have come up everywhere along with specimen of Madhubani painting, calendar art and paintings in the Gondwana style. There are also imitations of more well known artworks.
The walls of the Naini jail depict gods and demons. Several other monuments in the city have been decorated with paintings of mythological characters, gods and beasts. The ancient Nagavasuki Temple at Daraganj has also been freshly painted.
Even houses around the site of the Kumbh mela site and small temples have been decorated with tridents, bells and portraits of gods and goddesses. The background is invariably saffron of course.
Trees on the roadside have been also given a makeover with figures of Micky Mouse, fish, penguins, zebra and giraffe adorning the trunks in a riot of colours.
A team of artists, led by Saiful Islam, say that they had proposed to the government a complete strategy for art display and decoration, but the final decision and the instructions were given by the organisers. Noted designer Ashok Siddharth believes that a coordinated strategy on display of art at public spaces could have achieved better results in making use of public art and also make the city look more attractive.
A lack of coherent strategy has been counter-productive, he says. Instead of making the city visually more attractive, it has made the city look more shoddy, he laments.
The state government is believed to have spent a whopping ₹4408 Crore in making the arrangements. But hoardings put up with public funds are blatantly and overtly political.
Tulsi, tere desh me Ram Kachahari Jaaye (Tulsi, see how lord Ram is being forced to plead in court) is just one provocative message. Janmabhoomi par agar nahi Ram ka adhikar/Ram, tere desh me Hindu hone par dhikkar (If Ram is denied his right over his place of birth/Oh Lord Ram, in this land now it is a sin to be a Hindu) is another communally loaded message on a hoarding. Politicisation and commercialisation of the pilgrimage is brazen and is not lost on residents.
Professor RC Tripathi, a retired professor of psychology at Allahabad University, believes that the Kumbh this year has all but lost its spiritual overtones and is now more driven by profit and political motives. “The central question is if you want the Kumbh to make devotees better persons or better Hindus,” he quips.
There are three categories of Kumbh visitors, he adds. The first category of pilgrims are those who visit the Kumbh for entirely spiritual reasons and because of family traditions. The second category of pilgrims are curious visitors, voyeurs and tourists. They visit the Kumbh and go back awestruck. The third category of visitors, says Tripathi, is of those who come to Kumbh for selfish reasons, be it spiritual, economic or political.
Political and economic interests of the ‘Akhadas’ of various sects are obvious, he points out. The Kumbh allows these Akhadas to cultivate followers, collect donations and influence people. They also find it convenient to recruit people. Every passing Kumbh, these Akhadas seem to have become even more prosperous. This may not be entirely accidental.
Professor Rashmi Kumar, the head of Psychology Department at Allahabad University, says that the character that authorities are imparting to the Kumbh this year mirror the prevailing social and political realities and the ideology of the ruling dispensation.
She recalls that not too long ago, Muslim residents of the city would arrange for tea and biscuits for pilgrims returning after a bath in the river. Similar arrangements were made by Hindus in the Ghazi Mian’s mela by the Hindus. This reflected the syncretic culture of society.
But overt attempts to make political use of the Kumbh in this election year is a sign of changing times, she admits. This is manifest in the cutouts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the entire route to the river and back. Residents claim this will be the first Kumbh when pilgrims will have to pass through a series of cutouts of the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister has already visited ‘Prayagraj’ on December 16. He is again expected to come calling on January 24. While Vishwa Hindu Parishad used to be active in all previous Kumbh Melas, this time the RSS and its affiliates are also hyper active, bolstered no doubt by handsome grants from the government. An unprecedented number of RSS volunteers are attending the Kumbh, unlike previous years. The RSS and Sanskar Bharati are also said to have organised at least 40 plays at the Kumbh on themes promoting their ideology including one that is titled, “Sangham Sharanam Gachhami” !
One of the features of Kumbh has been its spontaneous character. The world’s largest peaceful and spontaneous gathering, acknowledged UNESCO on its website, visitors to the Kumbh were not invited or sponsored. But that character has already been breached.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath is learnt to have invited heads of six lakh villages to this year’s event besides diplomats and foreign dignitaries. UP Tourism is also active in luring visitors and veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan is helping authorities with publicity. Large hoardings has the actor exhorting people to visit the Kumbh.
As a sign of the times, electronic display boards continue to warn visitors : Beware of pickpockets.