Friday, December 08, 2006

The Festival of Faith

Do you know what faith is? Do you have any idea what people can do for their faith? I thought I did, until I was proven wrong by an event I witnessed in 2001.

I'm not talking about 9/11. I'm talking about the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad - the largest gathering of people in the world.

Visualise people around 70 years old, making overnight journeys on open goods train carriages in January in North India, wearing minimum or no warm clothing for the simple reason that they can't afford them. After they reach Allahabad, they will have to walk 6 km to the Mela grounds, then another 8 odd to reach the Ganga, carrying sacks full of firewood and a few edibles on their heads. There, in the early hours of morning in that chilly, windy riverbank, they take a dip in the Ganga to wash away their sins. Then they spend a night or two on the sandy river bed, lighting a small fire and cooking something to eat, before returning to their homes all over India again the next day.

Not a few people. Not a few dozen. Not even a few hundred or thousand. They come in crores. Most of them can't read or write. Many of them live in villages where there's no television or electricity. Who informs them? Who tells them the route? Who gives them the courage and confidence to come to an unknown city far away from their homes spending a large portion of their savings? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know one thing: faith can do wonders.

But the Kumbh Mela is not just a festival of faith; it’s a management marvel as well. It’s an event of astronomical proportions, something that would make an Olympic Games or World Cup hosting look like child’s play. And this last sentence was not an exaggeration. To understand how, read on.

Allahabad is a city with a population of about 10 lakhs (one million) situated at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. The Yamuna is a 1 km wide river with a stable course round the year. However, the Ganga occupies a 4.5 km wide bed in the rainy season and dries up to a narrower stretch of water during the drier months. The exact position of this stretch of water in the vast sandy riverbed varies from year to year and cannot be predicted until the water subsides in late October. After the water recedes, the Mela preparations begin on the drying riverbed: preparations to build a temporary city with a population of around 50 lakhs (5 million), and the potential to hold around 2.5 crores (25 million) of people for a day. A city built in just over two months, yet having most modern facilities like electricity, telephone, Internet, fully equipped hospitals, a fire service. You name a thing and it’s there.

This beautiful satellite photo I found on WikiPedia shows the result. In 2001, this temporary city (Kumbh Nagari, as it is called in Hindi) consisted of 77 km of roads made up of chequered steel plates (each of these heavy plates has to be laid by 12 people), 150 km of electrical lines strung over 70,000 poles, 80,000 telephone connections, 1100 fire hydrants, 26 deep tube wells and a hospital with 100 beds and telemedicine facility. 15 floating pontoon bridges were made- 13 over the Ganga and 2 over the Yamuna. Apart from this there were shops (selling everything from trinkets to tractors), public toilets, air-conditioned tent-hotels, petrol pumps and a state-of-the-art media centre with a round the clock satellite link for press briefings. Hundreds of small makeshift toilets and dustbins were installed all over the city of Allahabad. The roads were repaired and lighting improved. About 50 lakh (5 million) people stayed here for just over a month, from mid-January to mid-February. On particularly auspicious days, the number of people in the city reached crores, crossing 2.5 crores (25 million) on Mauni Amavasya, the day most special for a holy dip. The total number of people bathing in the rivers during this time was over 7.5 crores (75 million). These photos were taken by my father on some of the ‘less crowded’ days of the Mela. (Click on them to enlarge)
People who have not witnessed this crowd will have some problem visualizing these figures. Just as a comparison, the total population of Australia is 20.7 million and that of United Kingdom is 60.2 million. Managing such a crowd is not easy, especially when most of them are illiterate village folk. On an average, 50,000 people lost themselves each day. Among them are old people who are unable to remember anything, children who are too young to name their parents, handicapped and retarded people who can’t speak at all. Then there are people who have come from far corners of India and don’t know a word of Hindi or English, and scores of people who have the same name. But everyone finds their relatives in the end.

While handling such a crowd, there is always a fear of stampede. In addition to that there was the added threat of terrorist activity in 2001 and 20,000 policemen had been brought from all over India to maintain law and order. Special commandos, ‘spotters’ (people who can see through disguise of terrorists) and sharp shooters were brought from the army to stop terrorists. Surveillance cameras were installed all over the city and the Kumbh Nagari and helicopters were often seen hovering overhead. Contrary to what we urban people might think, the rural population of India is extremely well-behaved, honest, obedient and disciplined and so law and order problems are quite unheard of. Last time the death toll was about 70, all natural deaths. 70 people dying out of 70 million in one month… that’s way below the normal rate.

On the Mauni Amavasya day, the people were made to walk over a long road bridge right across the river bed to the far bank, and then back over the riverbed to the river. This lengthening of route reduced the chance of stampede. Traffic restrictions were placed all over the city. We saw people going to bathe from our terrace (we are fortunate enough to have a house just next to the beginning of the aforementioned road bridge) and again, it is a crowd only seen to be believed. For a period of around 18 hours, we could see a steady unidirectional stream of people walking, and the surface of the road (which is the GT road by the way, and not some narrow lane) was not visible at all. NGOs organized camps to distribute free food to these people during that whole month.

The Kumbh Mela is a pilgrimage for the Hindus. But people from all over the world come to take a dip here. I have known Sikhs, Christians and Muslims bathing in the Sangam during this time. It’s the common thread of faith that unites them all. When you take a stroll around the Mela grounds in the evenings, the sound of hymns pouring out of tents all around, the smoke of wood fires, and the throng of pilgrims all around creates a magical atmosphere. People who stay there believe that they wash away their sins by spending a month there. At some places you’ll see small sand castle like things made on the riverbed. Those are made by people who have no house. It’s their way of asking mother Ganga for a house, in the next life in not in this one. If you want to see what India is really like, visit the Kumbh Mela once. I guarantee, you will want to revisit it the next time.

The Kumbh Mela takes place after every twelve years. Six years after the Kumbh there is a smaller version called the Ardha Kumbh. That will be held in January 2007. I’m booking my ticket to Allahabad. Are you?


  1. Wow. Thats amazing that you stay so close to the place. I am going to be home during that time, and have a very tight schedule as in visiting hazaar places and meeting hazaar people, but I am going to see if I can make it.

  2. That was really informative...I knew a bit about the planning but the Kumbh Mela for us was where twins in Hindi films always got separated...only to be found12, 24 or even 36 years later!! Thanks for letting us know there is more to it than lost twins.

  3. ei ekta bishoy amio tomar sathe ekdam eksathe bhag korte pari. kono churi chamarir ghatona nei, ato baro gathering kintu ektao asobhyotar ghtona nei, tar bodh hay ektai karon, jara ashe tara ato beshi sohure, ato beshi sobhyo r socalled cultured noy. Ekhane asar tagada ba prerona anno kotha, anno konokhane.

  4. Its fascinating how you brought to life the Kumbh Mela. You know often we do ignore our achievements and dismiss events like the Kumbh Mela as a dirty part of India to be ignored. But its fascinating isn't it.
    And faith, yes, we have fanatics within our midst and all, but overall Hinduism is an amazingly tolerant religion, which even gives you the liberty of not believing in it. Still the fact that so many people congregate at the Kumbh Mela is an amazing display of faith. In todays' gone mad world, this is something we should respect, even if we do not subscribe to the beliefs behind it.
    By any chance is this the largest gathering based on faith in the world?

  5. @shreemoyee: If you do, you will not regret it.

    @anyesha: Yes, I know about that reputation of the Kumbh Mela. But believe me, it is extremely well organised and even in the cases where an old or handicapped person has been deliberately left behind by his/her relatives(!), these people find out about their homes and make sure they reach there again.

    @pisimoni: Graamer lokera definitely anek well-behaved, tate kono sandeho nei.

    @prometheus_unbound: No! It's not a dirty part of India, and it is something very much to be proud of. So many people, why, I doubt if an average westerner ever sees so many people in their lifetime. Just imagine the amount of pressure it creates on every system of the city of Allahabad, right from traffic, to food, electricity, water, drainage, rail & road transport and law & order. But nothing breaks down.
    About the faith, that's what I wanted to convey, that 75 million people congregating at the same time just inspires a strange feeling of awe in you, and your head bows down, even if you don't believe in it. And yes, it is the largest congregation of people in the world, for faith or for any other reason. It is there in the Guiness Book of World Records.

  6. A very informative article (studded with lots of statistics)!!
    Really...this article had lots of facts that i was not aware of.

  7. I have been to the maha Kumbh mela in Allahabad as a child and I'm glad to note that amenity wise things have progressed so much. I was fortunate to have relatives in Allahbad to stay with so I never had to stay in the grounds. And yes, despite all the chaos and masses there is a strange peace that floats in the air! Lovely post btw.

  8. @aurindam: The magnitude of this event could not have been explained fully without the statistics.

    @30in2005: Thanks. Yes, I guess things were not this good previously. There has been one stampede in the Kumbh Mela in recorded history, and that was in the first Kumbh after Independence, when both Nehru and Rajendra Prasad went to have a dip on the Mauni Amavasya day and all the police force was sent to look after them. Now these kinds of VVIPs are not allowed on the Mela grounds on the auspicious days, and lesser VIPs (like Sonia Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan) are allowed only a personal bodyguard. That way, the focus can be maintained on the common people.

  9. Excellent post.

    Do you know if there are any articles that compare Kumbh melas of the past to the ones in the present (i.e. after the 1970s)?

  10. @km: I don't know of any such articles. You can search on the Internet. Previously things were definitely not this good but the bad reputation that the Kumbh has got regarding stampedes is based on that single stampede I mentioned in the previous comment. As a comparison, it may be mentioned that there are stampede deaths every year among the Hajyatris in Mecca.

  11. I would like to add one more information. When millions of people come walking for miles together, they are offered free water, tea and snacks on the way by roadside shopkeepers. For most shopkeepers the quantity runs into several thousand cups per day. There are some areas in Allahabad that consist of Muslim population only. The Muslim shopkeepers of these areas also equally take part in free distribution of food articles to the passing pilgrims. The service is absolutely voluntary.