When I got an invitation from the UP Government and Lonely Planet Magazine India to visit the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj I accepted it without any hesitation. I was under the impression that I would never be able to do it on my own, so I was thrilled that I could be part of the media group to visit Kumbh. I am now back from the visit and though I will write many posts, it is easier to start with the nuts and bolts of what to expect at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj.
Consult the Official Website
If you wish to visit Kumbh Mela please consult the official Kumbh Website, it will provide answers to many of your questions. The mela is held at four locations- Nasik, Ujjain, Prayagraj and Haridwar. This post pertains to the Kumbh Mela 2019 at the Prayagraj.
What is Kumbh Mela?
According to mythology:
“The origin of Kumbh Mela was transcribed by the 8th-century philosopher Shankara. The founding myth of the Kumbh Mela points out to the Puranas (compilation of ancient legends). It recounts how Gods and demons fought over the sacred pitcher (Kumbh) of Amrit (nectar of immortality) called the Ratna of Samudra Manthan. It is widely believed that Lord Vishnu (disguised as the enchantress ‘Mohini’) whisked the Kumbh out of the grasp of the covetous demons who had tried to claim it. As he took it heavenwards, a few drops of the precious nectar fell on the four sacred site we know as Haridwar, Ujjain, Nashik and Prayag. The flight and the following pursuit is said to have lasted twelve divine days which is equivalent to twelve human years and therefore, the Mela is celebrated every twelve years, staggered at each of the four sacred sites in this cycle. The corresponding rivers are believed to have turned into Amrit at the cosmic moment, giving pilgrims the chance to bathe in the essence of purity, auspiciousness, and immortality.”
Also no one invites anyone to Kumbh Mela, people reach the site on their own. It is primarily a gathering of sages and saints but common public and travelers, including foreign guests, turn out in huge numbers. The mela is basically about saints, sadhus and mystics who gather at Kumbh to deliberate on topics of public interest including politics.
The impression among the public is that it is too crowded and difficult to attend gathering. When I posted pictures from the Kumbh on my Facebook I got private messages within the first few hours with requests to share practical information about the Kumbh Mela.
When to Visit?
The Prayagraj Kumbh Mela is held from January 15 to March 4, 2019. However there are 6 special dates January 15, January 21, February 4, February 10, February 19, and March 4 known as Shahi Snan (special bath). This is when the Akharas (religious sects) take bath in a procession and millions gather at the Sangam.
If you wish to have a peaceful experience, don’t go within a few days of the Shahi Snans. Allow the crowd to get in and get out of the city on these big days and then visit the mela. You will still get the experience minus the crowd.
Visiting During a Shahi Snan
I was at Kumbh for the February 4, Mauni Amawasya Shahi Snan. We entered Prayagraj on February 2, and we faced a traffic jam to get to the Indraprastham Tent City. But it was still livable. However, if we tried to enter on the day of the Shahi Snan it would have been a logistical nightmare as there would be huge traffic restrictions in place to manage the flow of the people. If you wish to enter on the day of the Shahi Snan be prepared to walk a lot on foot.
We however tried to exit Prayagraj on the day of the Shahi Snan i.e. 4th February. It was a nightmare. We knew there would be a huge traffic jam if we tried to cross over via the city. So the organizers took a detour, which in the end turned out to be of 160 km. It took us close to 14 hours to reach Lucknow from Prayagraj in a backbreaking bus journey.
Hence my recommendation- if you are planning to go during the Shahi Snan get in two days before and leave after two days, so that the crowds have dispersed.
Visiting During the Other Days
If you visit during the other days, you will still find a lot to do, minus the insane crowd. You can drive in to the tent cities with relative ease. If you plan to stay in the city and visit Kumbh it is still feasible. Do take a look at the Traffic Plan offered by the Mela Authorities.
Where To Stay?
We stayed at the Indraprastham Tent City which I believe is the more costly option. It is also far from the Mela but they have e-rickshaws to ply guests from the tents to the nearest pontoon bridge (19 in this case).
On ordinary days staying in the city is also a good idea. You can visit the mela grounds during the day and get away to a relatively quite place afterwards.
For truly adventurous souls there are public accommodations that can be booked at the site for 100 to 200 rupees.
Crossing Over to the Mela Grounds
There are pontoon bridges to get into the Kumbh Mela. It may happen that when you wish to cross over, the bridge nearest to you might be closed. There are thousand of security personnel deployed. CCTV cameras are used to control both the crowds and the traffic. If the administration feels that the grounds are getting too crowded they may close a few bridges to manage the crowd. Please bear with them and cooperate with them.
The Experience at Kumbh Mela
I walked along the Kumbh Mela site extensively with my media group and two guides Kunal and Satish. And I was impressed with what I saw. The mela grounds are clean and if you wish to click a picture, almost always you will get a toilet in the view! So if you are worried on the account of the cleanliness, don’t, the mela is really clean.
It was crowded yet manageable. I had no trouble in walking, thanks to the crowd management done by the police and other authorities. We saw plenty of Naga Sadhus (but that is another story which you can follow) and other saints. The area is huge so in our limited time, we saw only a fraction. But what I saw surely makes me want to go back for more.
Taking a Dip in the River Ganga
I personally did not take a dip (only sprinkled the water over me and my precious story telling tools) but if you wish to do so, it can be done. Tent Cities like Indraprastham have their own private ghats. The public ghats on non shahi snan days are not too crowded. On Shahi Snan days you will have to wait your turn and brave the crowd.
I am no expert on the water quality but I can assure you that sewage management is in place. Also the Ganga is a mighty flowing river and not a pond. But beyond this I have no idea about the water quality.
This is my first visit to the Kumbh Mela, so I have nothing to compare it with, but I have come back impressed. The level of cleanliness is commendable. There is crowd but there is management too. I always thought that I could not go to Kumbh on my own, but I now think I can plan a trip myself!
With all the discussion going around the home about Kumbh my daughter yesterday asked me- “so mom have you got rid of all your bad habits now?” I wish it was that easy, but Kumbh Mela has clearly made an everlasting impression on me!
If I have missed out on anything you have a question about, please feel free to leave a comment. I will try to respond as soon as possible.