Skilled swimmers who prevent drowning incidents at Kumbh melas, gotakhors are yet to have a stable livelihood

Their watchful eyes shielded by easily identifiable white caps marked with gotakhor (diver in Hindi) mirror a reassuring feeling among the devotees. With their feet firm on the boats, parapets and sand bars, these 80-100 men must prevent any drowning at the Sangam during the Maha Kumbh Mela.

When somebody does drown, they must also retrieve the body from the deepest waters. Categorised among the Most Backward Castes in Uttar Pradesh, these Mallah divers by tradition have had to go to extreme lengths and depths to make a living.  However, even their reputation as skilled swimmers has not been enough to salvage for them a stable livelihood.

They are usually employed during the Magh melas (annual), Ardh Kumbh (held every six years) and the Maha Kumbh Mela (held every 12 years). After these events conclude, the Mallahs return to normal business — petty labour, sand mining, boating, fishing, some watermelon and cantaloupe farming. During these non-festive seasons, they are summoned for ‘bounty searches’, with no reliable wage fixed. They can only hope for a generous bakshish or tip.

Ram Nishad has recovered at least 80 bodies till date. “If a murder has taken place or somebody jumps from the bridge (in most cases, Yamuna bridge) we are called to search for the body. Whoever gets the body gets the prize,” he says.

Since it was built eight years ago, the four-lane concrete cable stayed New Yamuna Bridge has witnessed a spurt of suicides. Unofficial figures put the number of people jumping from the bridge at more than 200, with at least one-fourth of them leading to deaths. “Even if it be the middle of the night, we might be called to retrieve a body. And once that is done, we go back to our struggles,” says Narendra Nishad. He can swim as deep as 35 feet. Some can go deeper, he says.

However, their dreams of a permanent job remain as distant as ever.

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