Over 70 lakh people took dip at the holy ‘Sangam’ on the last of the ‘Shahi Snan’ during the on-going Kumbh mela in Allahabad on Friday.
What apparently insured a smooth sail of mammoth crowds was the alertness and preparedness of both mela officials as well as the district authorities, who had at long last learnt their lesson -- albeit sadly only after the February 10 stampede that left 36 dead and 39 injured.
A fire that broke out close to one of the ‘akharas’ and killed one sadhu after midnight had come as a warning to the officials.
Realising their mistakes and shortcomings, the administration made it doubly sure that there was no repeat of the tragedy that occurred on the occasion of ‘Mauni Amavasya’ that drew an unprecedented 3 crore pilgrims along the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. ‘Mauni Amavasya’ is regarded as the most auspicious occasion during the 55-day long festival that began on January 14.
Crowds had started pouring in from Thursday evening itself prompting the mela administration to clamp a complete ban on movement of vehicles of all sorts. The Allahabad administration also rose to the occasion to ensure proper deployment of cops all along the entry and exit routes -- something they had overlooked on February 10.
Heavy rain in the afternoon did come as a dampener for a while, but very soon the rush for the dip was resumed. However, the rain did come as a curse for lakhs of poor people who were spending their days and nights under the opens skies.
Significantly, unlike the fateful stampede day, the administration also earmarked certain ‘holding areas’ in the open fields of some educational institutions. “The idea behind creation of these holding areas was to prevent over-crowding at the railway or bus terminals”, said a senior police official. He said, “Bulk of the crowds had cleared by 9 p.m.”
Besides 70 special trains arranged by the North Central Railway, as many as 6,000 buses were deployed for the return of pilgrims to their respective destinations across different corners of the country.
While movement of people had always remained smooth within the 58-sq km sprawling spread of the defined Kumbh Mela area, it was outside its boundaries that the lapses took place earlier.
While the ‘akharas’ commenced their ‘shahi snan’ at the crack of dawn, they chose to remain sober and shun any kind of ostentation or frolic as a mark of respect to those who had met their gruesome end in the stampede.
“The ‘Akhara Parishad’ took a resolve to express their condolences by shunning any kind of celebration, which usually marks every ‘shahi snan’ during the Kumbh,” said Mela district magistrate Mani Prasad Mishra.
He said, “25,000 policemen have been on their toes since Thursday afternoon to ensure a trouble free ‘shahi snan’ and I am glad that we have been able to accomplish our task.”
Earlier, during the day, the Sangam banks remained packed with members of the 13 Akharas, who came one after the other for the dip. As usual, the ash-smeared naked Naga sadhus remained the key attraction as they marched flaunting tridents and swords in the air. The ‘shahi snan’ concluded around 5 pm but the flow of other pilgrims continued until late night.
For a change, some top police officials were caught on camera violating the Supreme Court guidelines for complete ban on movement of vehicles. At least two top cops stood completely cornered as they not only came down in chauffer driven cars but also used the VIP ghats for their dip, in gross violation of all established norms.
While routine bathing will continue daily, the key bathing dates now are February 25 and March 10, when the 12-yearly mega festival will come to a close.
Image: Naga Sadhus raise their arms while shouting religious hymns on the banks of Ganga after taking the holy dip during the third 'Shahi Snan' at the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Allahabad on Friday
Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters