Summers are unbearably horrid in Ujjain, the holy city on the banks of the River Kshipra in Madhya Pradesh. Temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius are common and the situation is made worse by dry afternoon winds. But the past few days have been an exception. With the Simhasth Kumbh Mela in progress, the rain gods, too, seem to be making unscheduled visits to the city. One such visit on the afternoon of May 5 proved to be fatal, with thunderstorms uprooting more than 300 pandals, killing eight people and injuring many more.
Three days later, however, more than 25 lakh pilgrims flocked to the city for the shahi snan (royal bath), the second among the three important holy dips during the Simhasth festival, demonstrating the power of faith, the resilience of the faithful and the magic of the Kumbh.
The Simhasth Kumbh being held in Ujjain from April 22 to May 21 is one of the four kumbh melas held in Allahabad, Haridwar and Nashik. The kumbh melas are held once in 12 years, with their schedules finalised on the basis of auspicious planetary alignments. According to legend, devas and asuras joined hands to churn the ocean in search of amrut (the nectar of immortality), but once they got hold of it, the devas refused to share it. In the ensuing struggle, which went on for 12 days, a few drops of amrut fell in the holy rivers of Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari and Kshipra. The kumbh melas commemorate this and devotees believe that a dip in these rivers during the kumbh absolves them of all sins.
At the Simhasth Kumbh, the shahi snans begin with sadhus from the 13 major akharas (schools of religious practice) taking a dip in the Kshipra, which is in full flow these days after being linked with the River Narmada as part of the national river-linking project. To watch nearly 10,000 naga (naked) sadhus of the Juna akhara starting the predawn snan chanting “Har Har Mahadev” is awe-inspiring. Soon, other sants arrive in colourful processions from their akharas, with senior seers leading the way on tastefully adorned elephants, camels and raths. The ritual bath goes on till afternoon after which the bathing ghats are thrown open to the public. “The dust from the feet of the sants makes the water purer. It is a blessing to take a dip in the Kshipra after them,” says Rajesh Kumar Trivedi, a local priest.
Apart from the spiritual high, the Simhasth festival, which is said to be running on a budget of nearly Rs 5,000 crore, has also become a centre of hectic political activity. BJP president Amit Shah's proposed samrasta snan (harmony bath) with dalit and tribal sants is an attempt to drive home the message of social justice and to reap its political dividends. Initially planned as a mega event, it was scaled down after protests from senior seers, who said the sants had no caste. Another controversy broke out with the Ram Janma Bhoomi Mandir Nirman Nyas announcing at the Simhasth its decision to start the construction of the Ram temple in the disputed site in Ayodhya on November 9.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to attend the festival on May 14 and he will also be the chief guest of the concluding ceremony of the international seminar on the universal message of the festival. The three-day seminar, which is likely to witness the presence of a number of foreign participants, is seen as a diplomatic manoeuvre with Modi's blessings.
For ordinary devotees, the Simhasth Kumbh has mostly been a mixed experience. Traffic in Ujjain has been somewhat chaotic, the police have been occasionally rude and the weather has been hitting the extremes at will. Yet, as they drown their sorrows in the waters of the Kshipra, those irritants seem to vanish magically for the surging millions. All that remains for them is the bliss of redemption.