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Maha Kumbh: A market waiting to be tapped

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Maha Kumbh 2013 has opened a new gateway for tourism business targeted at upper middle-class pilgrims, who wish to wash away their sins with modern amenities at hand.

It was Mark Twain who first expressed the sense of wonderment that generations of writers and journalists have felt after participating in what is now billed as the greatest spiritual spectacle on Earth.

“It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining,” wrote the keen observer of human life in Following The Equator, recording his experience of the Kumbh Mela of 1894 in Allahabad. “It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”

On Monday, January 14, on the auspicious Makar Sankranti day, 119 years after Mark Twain’s Kumbh Mela, Allahabad hosted the first big congregation of the Maha Kumbh, which takes place once in 144 years after the completion of a dozen 12-year Kumbh cycles.

Up till the Maghi Purnima Snan of Monday, February 25, more than 70 million pilgrims from all over the world are expected to converge on the banks of the Holy Sangam. That is about 200 times the number of pilgrims who had gathered for the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar in 1904.

Never before has the travel and tourism sector seen it as an opportunity to promote deluxe pilgrimages.

In a move that is bound to have a ripple effect in the industry, online travel portal Ezeego1.com has announced a three-night, four-day Maha Kumbh Mela package, priced variably at Rs. 4,500 (standard), Rs. 23,650 (deluxe) and Rs. 40,750 (luxury).

The package covers accommodation for three nights at the Lakshmi Kutir Camp, which is located at the highest point of the Maha Kumbh; all meals (vegetarian; made from organic produce); 24-hour tea lounge loaded with baked breads, cookies and pies; evening and morning aarti at the camp; and viewing terrace with a telescope for panoramic views of the Mela. The tents have modern toilets, refrigerators, bath amenities and towels.

There’s an in-house astrologer, just in case you wish to know how sin-free you’ve become; a spiritual teacher, who doubles as guide — she’s been guiding pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela for the last 22 years; and you get access to an ayurvedic spa as well as demonstrations of cooking sattvik food. Pilgrimages no longer are about jostling your way through milling crowds.

“People want to attend an event as historic as the Maha Kumbh, but stay away because of accommodation issues,” says a spokesman for Ezeego1.com.

The time has come for comfortable, nothing-to-worry pilgrimages, where a secure living environment is guaranteed. There was a time when a Char Dham Yatra would take about a month. Today, NRIs charter helicopters and complete it in two days. The Maha Kumbh, too, is well on its way to becoming a hassle-free spiritual opportunity.

Pilgrimages needn’t be painful to the pilgrim.