‘Siblings separated in Kumbh Mela’ happen to be a colloquial catchphrase among Indians to express a strong bond of friendship. In reality, hardly any pilgrim at Kumbh Mela has to wait years to be reunited with his or her family, thanks to one foundation – Bhule Bhatke Shivir.
Started in 1946 by Raja Ram Tiwari, better recognised as ‘Bhule Bhatke Tiwari’, the camp is still reuniting devotees who get separated from their families at the overcrowded Mela grounds in Prayagraj Sangam. They hold a record of reuniting more than 12,50,000 people and 22,000 children in the past seven decades.
Four generations of a family doing this work
After Raja Ram Tiwari passed away in 2016, his son Umesh Tiwari took the onus of maintaining his father’s legacy and being a saviour to hundreds of lost souls in distress. This year as well, the Mela is abuzz with constant announcements of names in loudspeakers by Bhule Bhatke Shivir (also known as Khoya Paya Shivir).
At the camp premises, lost individuals are provided with blankets and meals for free until their families find them. “We try our best to serve them. This seva is everything for us,” remarks Umesh, expressing his devotion towards Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganges). They manage their funds mostly on their own, but occasional help keeps pouring in from well-wishers and Mela authorities. Umesh states that though they have never received any significant help from the Government, Bhule Bhatke Shivir has always managed well.
Umesh Tiwari is presently supported by a team of around 150 volunteers from different Indian states. “Four generations of our family are involved in this work. The volunteers who work with us now belong to the families who originally supported my father throughout his life,” Umesh informs Efforts For Good.
For the rest of the year, the Tiwaris are farmers by profession. But, on the days of the Mela every year, they turn saviours for many desperate souls. His son Ashutosh Tiwari has also joined the noble family tradition at the 2019 Kumbh Mela.
While Umesh Tiwari speaks to Efforts For Good, the clamour of endless mike announcements and enquiries can be heard in the background. Yet he speaks with utmost humility, which shows how seasoned he is to handle such a massive affair with a calm mind. “On normal days, we reunite around 200-250 people. On auspicious days like Purnima (full moon), the number can reach up to 1600 – 1700,” he reveals.
How ‘Bhule Bhatke’ Tiwari started
In 1946, Raja Ram Tiwari had attended the Magh Mela at Prayagraj for the first time, as a young adult of barely 18 years. On his way through the crowd, he spotted a helpless elderly woman crying in panic. It turned out that she could not find her way back to her makeshift tent, as it had no distinguishing mark among hundreds of similar shelters. Raja Ram helped her find her home. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the woman had touched his feet then, which startled young Raja Ram. That’s when he decided that he would continue to pursue this work.
The next day, Raja Ram Tiwari fashioned a Bhopu (tin loudspeaker). He then scoured the Mela venue leading a team of lost people and declared their names tirelessly with his Bhopu. In the 1946 Magh Mela alone, he reunited around 800 people with their families, including little children.
Since then, Raja Ram Tiwari had been an integral part of every religious congregation happening at Prayagraj. Umesh Tiwari tallies the participation of his late father at 6 Ardh Kumbhs, 6 Kumbhs and more than 60 Magh Melas till his demise in 2016. The handmade loudspeakers were the only equipment used by Raja Ram Tiwari for many years till the advent of microphones.
They still work in the traditional way
Thanks to digital cameras, mobiles and internet now, finding a person’s family is a cakewalk. In fact, at the 2019 Kumbh Mela, around 15 digital lost-and-found centres have been set up. Yet, Bhule Bhatke Shivir chooses to stick to the traditional way of enlisting the names on paper, followed by announcements. And surprisingly, even in the digital age, panicked devotees forsake the digital centres and approach Bhule Bhatke Shivir for finding their families.
However, for non-Hindi speakers, the Shivir volunteers do take the help of Facebook and WhatsApp. By sharing their photographs, they find out the families in no time.
The Clean Ganga mission
Bharat Sewa Dal, Raja Ram Tiwari’s organisation which operates the Bhule Bhatke Shivir, has also started their Ganga cleaning mission a few years ago. “Throughout the year, we organise Ganga cleaning drives every Purnima (full moon days). My father’s last wish was to see a clean Ganga. So, he had initiated this mission before he left this world,” Umesh Tiwari shares emotionally.
Movie on ‘Bhule Bhatke’ Tiwari
‘Lost at Kumbh Mela, reunited decades later’ – this might have served as a plotline for many cult Bollywood movies. But, late Raja Ram Tiwari had brushed off the highly popular concept as fictitious. “There’s no such thing as lost forever. That’s only in films,” he had remarked in a 2013 interview with LA Times, adding that in reality, it takes hours, at most a few days, to reunite people.
Bollywood has long moved on from the cliched Kumbh Mela storylines and now the incredible story of Bhule Bhatke Tiwari himself is going to be adapted on screen soon. In November 2018, filmmaker Siddharth Roy Kapur revealed his plans for the same.
Siddharth Roy Kapur to make a film on Kumbh Mela’s famed ‘Bhule Bhatke Tiwari’, as Rajaram Tiwari was popularly called… He helped reunite people lost in Kumbh Mela… Umesh Tiwari, his son, now carries forward this distinctive legacy. pic.twitter.com/yeirgnz09c
— taran adarsh (@taran_adarsh) November 29, 2018