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?