The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A ripple of politics in a sea of the faithful

Ujjain, April 5: Like a huge ragtag army they descended on the riverbank — ash-smeared sadhus, children, young men and women, the old and the invalid.

Then the human avalanche plunged into the Kshipra.

Simhastha 2004, the temple town’s version of the Kumbh mela, began amid blowing of conch shells and chanting of hymns as thousands of devotees took a dip the moment the first rays of the sun rippled across the river.

But if faith was the driving force for the devotees, politics, too, lent its flavour. Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje arrived last night quietly for a holy dip though her Madhya Pradesh counterpart Uma Bharti had publicly opposed “VVIP participation” during the three royal baths (shahi snan), the other two being on April 22 and May 4. Vasundhara also made it a point to visit each and every akhara.

Sources close to Vasundhara said the chief minister came in “personal capacity” as the Scindias used to be patrons of religious festivals.

Vasundhara’s gesture did not go down well with the state Congress, too, which felt the “real heir” — her nephew Jyotiraditya Scindia — should have been invited.

If Vasundhara has irked the Congress, the huge banners thanking Yashasvi (reverend) chief minister Uma for the arrangements have raised eyebrows. State Congress spokesman Manohar Bairagi said the previous regime under Digvijay Singh had made elaborate arrangements to make the Simhastha a success.

But such claims and counter-claims hardly mattered to the thousands who gathered on the bank of the Kshipra. According to one estimate, 700,000 people took their soul-cleansing bath this morning along a seven-kilometre stretch. Their number is expected to swell to 25 lakh by the end of the day.

“The fruits of the Kumbh snan (bath) is equal to the fruits of thousands of Ashvamedh yagnas and lakhs of religious journeys around the earth,” said Baba Gopal Das of Varanasi quoting from the Skanda Purana and emphasising the significance of a Kumbh dip.

The sadhus and seers led the shahi snan in keeping with the tradition that those who have renounced worldly comforts are the real “shahs (royals)” and, therefore, accorded preferential treatment.

But not all sadhus or heads of akharas seemed to be lacking in material goods or ostentation. There were elephants, horses, camels and even jeeps. If devotional music blared, gold and silver ornaments glittered in the light of the morning sun.

Some sadhus have even made themselves comfortable in imported tents fitted with air-conditioners to beat the heat. One came driving a Safari with his elbows — he is said to have lost his hands in an accident.

Mahant Ramdas of Joona akhara explained the contradiction. Indians, he said, see religion as a way of life, not just “an ethical science”.

As many as 11 main akharas took part in the festivities. But inter-sect tussles also played their part. Two akharas — Ahvahan and Agni — stayed away protesting against the preferential treatment given to Joona akhara.

Ujjain inspector-general of police Sarabjeet Singh, who had tried to mediate, said akharas, which have over time split into groups, have differences over whose flag should be hoisted. “Some of them are extremely volatile, so we do not have much option but to take some strong steps,” he said.

Thousands also thronged the Mahakal temple that houses the idol of Mahakaleshwar, the God of time.

There is talk of several top Bollywood and Hollywood stars arriving in the ancient temple town in the third week of this month. Politicians are also expected to seek divine blessings for the coming Lok Sabha polls.

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