An unknowing visitor to the Magh Mela may be perplexed on seeing hordes of flags with symbols of deities, vegetables and other patterns fluttering against the skyscape. But these very symbols guide the pilgrims (Yajman) from far and wide to the pandas (priests) who meticulously maintain their family chronology in their registers (bahis).
Long before pictorial symbols became important for India’s myriad political parties, some 1,700 priests belonging to Ghatia and Prayagwals in Sangam city started using them as a powerful tool to run the country’s biggest system of maintaining family chronology of pilgrims who arrived to take a holy dip in the Sangam.
The system is centuries-old, when fewer than one in 10 people could read or write. Although literacy rates have improved, this system is still running successfully, underscoring the importance of symbols not only in the political but the spiritual world too.
Ghatia and Prayagwals priests in Allahabad, who help pilgrims in performing various rituals on the banks of the Sangam during Magh and Kumbh Melas, are still continuing their centuries-old struggle to retain their ancient symbols on parcham (flags) that can be seen flying high in Magh Mela these days.
In fact these priests can go to any extent to retain the symbols on parcham (flag) that attract their clients (jajman) from across the country during Magh, Kumbh and Ardh Kumbh Melas, besides other occasions all through the year.
Colourful flags with pictures of silver coconut, image of fish, katori, lauki, Bajrangbali, dots and all kinds of other patterns can be seen dotting the Magh Mela skyscape these days.
Some of the flags have been hoisted at a height of 25-30 metres so that the pilgrims who take help of the panda (priest) of their clan can identify their respective camp in the mela area easily, even from a distance.
“All that a pilgrim has to do is recognise the panda (priest) of his clan, with the help of the specific symbol on the flag and tell him where he comes from and the panda will show him his family’s chronology and help in performing rituals on the banks of the Sangam during Magh Mela,” said Ghatia purohit Pandit Rajendra Prasad Pandey, who carries a blue flag, which is a symbol that he is recognised by the district administration for performing Ganga Aarti during the Magh Mela and other festivals.
And just in case one does not know one’s family symbol, no hassles. The pandas will help trace family history if one tells one’s native place.
According to another panda Anjani Kumar, when any pilgrim comes they ask for the name of his district, village and one’s caste. “We are then able to tell him of the panda that he might belong to. Many youngsters these days don’t know even the names of their grandfathers. They come here to look up in the book and we help them trace their ancestors,” he said.
Pandey said that nearly 1,484 priests belonging to Prayagwals who live in Daraganj had also set up camps in Magh Mela. Besides, nearly 250 families of Ghatia purohits or pandas were also camping in the melakshetra these days. “All the priests registered under Prayagwals and Ghatia purohits have separate symbols and flags. Each Prayagwal tent is marked by a fluttering flag, symbolising the territory of which he has records. So for a panda a symbol is very important, as the clients recognize this flag only. We can even die to retain this symbol and flag, allotted to us centuries ago. FIR is lodged if any unregistered priest tries to use the flag for attracting client. Things can also turn nasty, if he refuses to remove the flag,” he added.
The descriptions and family history of the pilgrims are in the scrolls carried by the tirth purohit. The accommodation and shelter for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and kalpawasis coming to Prayag are arranged by the Prayagwals.
“It’s a great and time proven system that overcomes even language barriers. I was greatly amazed by it,” said Pramod Kumar Sai from West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh who had accompanied his grandparents on a pilgrimage to Allahabad.