“Jo Kumbh mein bichadte hai, voh kumbh mein hi milte hai!” is a satire comment recited since centuries. There is a widespread notion about Kumbh Mela that whoever accidentally splits up from their loved ones there, finds them only after months, years, or even decades later; sometimes never! Bollywood has also overly romanticized the idea of lost brothers finding each other in a Kumbh Mela after decades; recognizing each other merely through a childhood locket!
In reality, it is scary, and a distressing scenario to be in! Finding lost people in Kumbh Mela is a messy, agonizing affair. Imagine the hand of your loved one slipping out from your palm, and when you turn to hold it back, they’ve vanished! How will you find them in a flood of million humans? Whom will you go to for help?
Raja Ram Tiwari has helped more than 14 lakh such adults, and about 21,000 children who were lost in Kumbh Mela, reunite with their families for 77 years of his life. He set up “khoya paya shivir” or “lost and found” camps during every Kumbh Mela since he was 18-years old. He first visited the Kumbh Mela in 1946 at the Sangam in Allahabad (now Prayagraj). There he encountered an old lady weeping at the corner and randomly approaching strangers asking possibly for help. Upon approaching her Tiwari learnt that she had been separated from her relatives, and was unable to locate them. Instead of brushing off the incident as unfortunate, he made a makeshift Bhopu or a tin loudspeaker and started announcing the lady’s name and detailed her appearance. A few hours of efforts later, they finally found the lady’s relative. The elderly woman was overwhelmed with his help and touched his feet – a mark of respect generally reserved for elders in India.
This incident and thousands of others like it along with the absence of any facility to aid such lost people compelled him to set up his own “lost and found” camp in the Mela.
“It gave me such satisfaction; My soul soared, and I thanked the Ganges“, he exclaimed.
Since then, he has been to every Kumbh Mela held in the country, setting up his “Khoya Paya Shivir”. He became the Bhule Bhatke Baba of the Kumbh, and soon anyone who was lost in the mela would come to his shivir in the hope of reuniting with their family. He established Bharat Seva Dal, and eventually, many volunteers joined hands with him.
He ridicules the way the issue is depicted in films. According to him, losing your family forever is a rare possibility. Though it is a tedious task, people usually find their loved ones in a couple of days. He reminisced a difficult case about a lady who had accidentally split up from her husband. Extracting information from her was difficult since she could not speak nor hear. Raja Tiwari then explained to her in sign language to give them information about her husband, to which she continuously pointed towards a tree. After a few guesses, they were able to understand that she was pointing towards the colour of the tree, meaning her husband’s name was Hari. Even with minimal information, they were able to find her husband in 10 days.
Though there is no concrete data, crimes such as kidnapping, sex trafficking, and rapes are not uncommon during Kumbh Melas. Being aware of this, Tiwari handles all the cases of people whom he cannot reunite with their family to the police. Children who fail to reunite with their family after Tiwari’s and police efforts are counselled and given up for adoption.
Bhule Bhatke Baba has been doing this selfless service without charging a penny. Except for occasional private donations, he refrains from any form of compensation for his service. At 88, he died on 20th August 2016, and till his last breath, he was actively serving people at the Kumbh Mela. Along with him, his entire family is now involved in his charitable work. His eldest son Umesh Tiwari is carrying forward his father’s legacy by setting up camps in Kumbh Melas. He calls his father a true humanitarian. Apart from setting up free lost and found camps, Raja Ram Tiwari was also extremely passionate about the issue of cleaning the sacred Ganga river. “Babuji initiated his new venture, that of undertaking a massive cleaning work of Ganga from Purnima (full moon) of April and wanted to do the same on every Purnima, but could not do much”, says his family.
It is popular folklore that Lord Shiva, in whose honour the Kumbh is held, visits every Kumbh in human disguise to bless his devotees. I feel, his disguise would be Raja Ram Tiwari, our beloved Bhule Bhatke Baba.