The biggest human congregation in the world, the Kumbh Mela, brings together pilgrims as well as tourists. But which of these two should take precedence? This became the key point of the panel discussion at the IE Round Table Conference in Mumbai on Friday.
Themed around the upcoming Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, the discussion was titled ‘How to plan for the largest human gathering in the world’.
Among those in attendance were classical musician and Padma Shri awardee Umakant Gundecha and Bimlesh Kumar, Deputy Director, Uttar Pradesh Tourism.
Gundecha, also the chief guest, pointed out in his opening address that a small administrative decision can make or break the success of the Kumbh. Citing an example from the 2016 Kumbh Mela at Ujjain, he said, “That year, entry of private vehicles was stopped two kilometres from the Kshipra river. In the April heat, a lot of older people found that trek to the river difficult, as a result of which not as many people arrived at the Kumbh in the initial few days. The administration soon realised the mistake and made the required change, hence attracting the pilgrims. Such seemingly minor aspects need to be carefully addressed at the upcoming Kumbh in Prayagraj too.”
During the discussion, panelist and photographer Prashant Panjiar pointed out that the pilgrim at the Kumbh is paramount. “The facilities and infrastructure are improving with each Kumbh. But when we start gentrifying the event by focusing on setting up modern amenities like cafes, drones, virtual reality and so on, we may make the event overpriced and squeeze out the regular pilgrims. That is one of my concerns,” said Panjiar.
The other panelists included food and nutrition consultant Sangeeta Khanna; author and curator of Kumbh Art Mela Shantanu Gupta; and the managing director of Kesari Tours Private Limited, Shailesh Patil. The discussion was moderated by The Indian Express Special Correspondent Pooja Pillai.
Taking off from Panjiar’s point, Khanna added that the confluence of three rivers — Ganga, Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati — is what makes Kumbh a special and spiritual event of this magnitude. “It shouldn’t become like any other mega event across the world. And that distinction can be maintained by highlighting the spiritual importance of the Kumbh Mela over its magnitude and the spectacle it is.”
However, Patil said the spiritual aspects of the Kumbh are well-known and the pilgrims, who form the foundation of the event, do not need any further prodding. “They will come every year. But we have to view the Kumbh as an event that can push Indian tourism,” he said, pointing out that people across the world see the images of the Kumbh by numerous Indian and international photographers of renown, which inspires them to visit India.
Highlighting how the government is maintaining a fine balance between arrangements for the pilgrims and amenities to attract tourists, Gupta, who has been on ground for the last few months, spoke about the many initiatives being taken. “There is a separate administration set up for the area where the Kumbh takes place. That area gets its own District Magistrate, SP, SSP and so on to make sure the event is accident-free and also a success for the pilgrims as well as residents. This Kumbh will be bigger than ever before because adequate arrangements have been made for the stay of pilgrims, food, sanitation and other basic needs. At the same time, there are events such as a photo exhibition, stages to host cultural programmes, merchandise stalls etc to attract tourists and the younger generation.”
Gupta added that the team he is heading has been painting murals across Prayagraj, including prominent spots like the railway station where the visitors will alight.
The debate also had the panelists talk about the importance of sanitation and the state of the main Prayagraj city once the Mela concludes. Capturing the essence of the panel discussion, Khanna, in her concluding remark, said, “What memory someone takes back is what will decide the future of Kumbh.”
At the two-hour event, a collector’s edition magazine, titled Prayagraj Kumbh 2019, was launched by Gundecha. The magazine highlights the special aspects of this Kumbh Mela, which is being organised by the UP government on an unprecedented scale after the event’s inclusion in UNESCO’s list for Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.