On 12 December 2017, Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, announced that the Ardh-Kumbh Mela, currently being held in Prayagraj, would be renamed as the Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage held every 12 years at Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, Hardiwar in Uttarakhand, Nashik in Maharashtra, and Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. An Ardh-Kumbh, or half Kumbh, is held every six years, thereby falling between two Kumbhs at each of these sites. At Prayagraj, the last Kumbh was held in 2013 and the next one is due in 2025.
Adityanath’s announcement in December 2017 kicked up a row, with several political and religious leaders in Uttar Pradesh opposing the move. But the chief minister persisted and introduced the new name through the Prayagraj Mela Authority Bill, which was passed by the state assembly on 22 December that year.
Renaming the Kumbh was a part of the UP government’s attempts to turn the 2019 Ardh-Kumbh, an otherwise low-key affair, into a grander event. Given its proximity to the upcoming Lok Sabha elections this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party governments—both in the state and at the centre— and the Sangh Parivar have created much hype around the symbolism of the Kumbh. Various organisations that are part of the Sangh Parivar—including the BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Vidya Bharati, Sanskar Bharati and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram—have set up camps in the mela area to spread the message of Hindutva.
Despite these efforts, the government has been unable to change the character of the ongoing Ardh-Kumbh. The paucity of devotees in the tents set up in Prayagraj shows that it is easy to change nomenclature and create media hype around the Kumbh, but harder to change the popular perception about it.
“The BJP underestimated the Hindu mass’s traditional wisdom,” Yatindranand Giri, one of the mahamandaleshwars—a high-ranked sadhu elevated by his peers—of the Juna akhara, a militant ascetic order, told me. “To ordinary Hindu devotees, especially those from a rural background, the tithee”—auspicious dates in the Hindu calendar—“is sacrosanct for pilgrimage,” Giri said.“They tend to reject or ignore information which does not conform to their understanding of the [Hindu] calendar. They know that the Kumbh is held every twelve years and that the previous Kumbh at Prayagraj was held only six years back. They also know that the present mela is an Ardh-Kumbh. That’s why you don’t find Kumbh-like enthusiasm.”
Raghunandan Das, a sadhu from Ayodhya, said that he put up 64 tents hoping devotees would throng them. “More than half are still empty,” he said. “It was my mistake. I should have realised that it is after all an Ardh-Kumbh, which cannot attract as many devotees as the Kumbh does. The majority of those visiting the Ardh-Kumbh are kalpvasis, who prefer to reside in their own small tents and live on the bare minimum.” Kalpvasis are devotees who spend a month between mid-January and mid-February every year living an austere and minimalistic life near Sangam—a place in Prayagraj that marks the confluence of the rivers Yamuna, Ganga, and the mythical Saraswati—where the Kumbhs and Ardh-Kumbhs at Prayagraj are held.
Like Das, a large number of sadhus, who always put up tents for rent during the melas, said they felt elated as they watched the BJP government hype the religious fair. “Most of the sadhus were so euphoric in the beginning that, like the BJP men, they also started calling the present Ardh-Kumbh as a Kumbh,” Sanjay Das, a sadhu from Vrindavan, said. “Now they are at a loss. The paucity of devotees has made it difficult for them to realise even the investment they made on tents. The euphoria has disappeared, and these sadhus have once again started calling the fair as an Ardh-Kumbh.”
According to Devanand Saraswati, the spokesperson and one of the secretaries of the Juna akhara, the All India Akhara Parishad was not initially in favour of calling the 2019 mela a Kumbh. “But the chief minister persuaded them and they agreed,” he said. The All India Akhara Parishad—an overarching body of 13 akharas—is traditionally responsible for organising the Kumbh fairs in India.
This “exposes the sadhus,” Martand Puri, one of the mahamandaleshwars of the Mahanirvani akhara, said. “Kumbhs and Ardh-Kumbhs are calculated in accordance to the positions of celestial bodies,” he added. “They can’t be changed by a government order or for the sake of helping the BJP in the election. Sadhus should have questioned this change. This is a political jamboree organised to send the message of the RSS to the masses and not that of the Kumbh.”
One feature of the original Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj is that attending devotees often proceed to Ayodhya, which is considered the birthplace of Lord Rama. No such journey is happening this year, indicating that even devotees have not taken the name change seriously.
“Every time there is a Kumbh at Prayagraj, a good section of devotees visiting Sangam also come to Ayodhya as part of their pilgrimage,” Pawan Kumar, the manager of the Birla Dharmashala at Ayodhya, said. “However, this time almost all dharmashalas in Ayodhya are empty as there is hardly any flow of such devotees from Prayagraj.”