How Kumbh Mela Has Enhanced India’s Soft Power

This forty-nine-day spectacle thus reminded the world of Bharat’s civilization strength and its spiritual genius.

By Arunima Gupta, Former Senior Manager, Strategic & Foreign Relations at Rashtram

The article was originally published in DNA

The source of this image is DNA

The Kumbh Mela, a splendid forty-nine-day spectacle concluded on Mahashivratri, with an estimated one crore devotees taking the last Shahi Snan in the Ganga. The largest human congregation on the planet, Kumbh has brought together seekers and believers, devotees and gurus, travellers and explorers since time immemorial. In every twelve years, the cities of Haridwar, Ujjain, Nashik and Prayagraj would build a temporary, yet an extremely planned city of Kumbhnagar. It is this city which serves as a hub of learning, a spiritual retreat, and a liberating pilgrimage.

All of this unfolded at the Kumbh this year as well when nearly 24 crore people participated in the festivities held in Prayagraj, on the banks of Ganga and at the crossroads of Triveni Sangam, where three of the most sacred rivers – Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati – meet. But this was also a Kumbh of many ‘firsts’.

This was the first edition of Kumbh since the UNESCO declared it an intangible cultural heritage in 2017, increasing its visibility and attraction.

It was also the first time, the Kumbh saw large international participation facilitated by the government. Firstly, even prior to the inauguration, Mission heads of over seventy countries were invited to witness the preparation of the Mela. Consequently, a delegation of PIOs attending the 15th Pravasi Bhartiya Divas visited the Kumbh in January. Furthermore, 190 delegates from across the world were invited to the Kumbh to experience Indian culture. The latest edition of Kumbh thus reflected on India or Bharat’s soft power potential and cultural diplomacy, more than ever, owing to the engagement with an international audience to vividly showcase India’s traditional knowledge systems, and civilizational heritage.

The Kumbh has time and again reminded the world of Bharat’s civilizational ethos such as the Indic belief in nature worship as a means to ecological sustainability. Towards this end, unparalleled efforts were made to ensure the cleanliness of the Ganga under the aegis of the Namami Gange project and Swachh Bharat Mission. The latest edition of Kumbh, therefore, became an organisational success in terms of both governance, and projecting Bharat’s traditional value systems. This was evidenced by the fact that over 24 crore visitors, the highest ever, mapped long journeys from across India and the globe to congregate in the most harmonious manner.

The Kumbh is where scholars, yogis, and religious leaders from across Bharat have assembled for centuries to discuss matters of dharma, civilization and social order. Walking past the akhadas, attending a dharma sabha or simply talking to the sadhus in their quaint tents, a participant could reflect on Bharat’s spiritual profoundness and rooting. Even though it is difficult to date the beginning of the Kumbh Mela, visitors were certain about the civilizational origin of Kumbh – that during the churning of the ocean, drops of Amrit had fallen on the present-day cities of Haridwar, Nashik, Ujjain and Prayagraj, and taking a dip during certain auspicious days in these locations purifies and liberates. This sentiment was also conveyed through artworks and exhibits, installed throughout this Kumbh. The magnificent entrance of the Sanskriti Gram tent city, for instance, depicted the episode of Samudra Manthan in the most vivid manner. Even the most mundane walls in Kumbhnagar were transformed into colourful corridors.

Furthermore, storytelling through art wasn’t confined to Kumbhnagar. It expanded to the entire city of Prayagraj, with over 200 artists from across the world coming together to paint the walls of the ancient city. The Paint My City initiative – the largest-ever street art drive transformed over five lakh square feet of Prayagraj’s public areas, all painted to tell the story of Bharat. As a part of the Paint My City initiative, over 7,600 visitors participated in the ‘Jai Gange’ handprinting exercise, which consequently entered into the Guinness World Records.

This Kumbh of many ‘firsts’ also included two other Guinness World Records. First for its traffic management plan, which included a parade of over 500 shuttle buses. The second for engaging more than 10,000 sanitation workers to achieve the ideals of Swachh Bharat, thus becoming the largest ever cleaning exercise undertaken. By juxtaposing infrastructure and governance with traditions and customs, this edition of Kumbh deserves praise not only for its administration but also the global recognition it has attracted.

Moreover, the Kumbh was also representative of deep-rooted values and ethos of Bharat – the sacredness of nature, the spirit of sewa, and of equality by bringing millions of individuals together, irrespective of their sociocultural or economic backgrounds. While the scale of international engagement was unprecedented in this Kumbh, its core message and the underlying cultural tenets were just the same, as continued over centuries. This forty-nine-day spectacle thus reminded the world of Bharat’s civilization strength and its spiritual genius.