The 2013 Kumbh Mela drew an estimated 70 million people over 56 days. Describing events, when the gathering was at its peak, Frank Jack Daniel of Reuters wrote: “Upwards of a million elated Hindu holy men and pilgrims took a bracing plunge in India’s sacred Ganges river to wash away lifetimes of sins on Monday, in a raucous start to an ever-growing religious gathering that is already the world’s largest. Officials believe that over the next two months as many as 100 million people will pass through the temporary city that covers an area larger than Athens on a wide sandy river bank. That would make it larger even than previous festivals. After a slow start, police chief Alok Sharma said 1.5 million people had gathered by 8 a.m. on Monday, with more on their way. [Source: Frank Jack Daniel, Reuters, January 14, 2013 /*]

“That the ancient festival grows in size each time it is held partly reflects India’s expanding population, but is also seen as evidence that spiritual life is thriving alongside the new-found affluence of a growing middle class. The ritual “Royal Bath” was timed to match an auspicious planetary alignment, when believers say spiritual energy flows to earth. “I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,” said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold. He said he gave up a career as a senior civil servant 40 years ago to become a holy man, travelled on foot and for decades ate only nuts and fruit./*\

“Mobile phones and better roads also make the festival more accessible, while a thriving Indian media make the festival well known all across the country. There is even a smartphone app to guide pilgrims around the site. “I won’t become a sadhu, I want to be a cricketer,” said Gaurav Vashisht, 21, a business student from New Delhi, whose family gives money to support one of the sects. “It’s very important that this should survive, it’s a great Indian tradition and has been going on for so many years.” /*\

“The festival attracts global followers too, with a number of foreigners ordained in the hierarchy of sadhus, including Baba Mangalannand, who is also a popular trance music DJ under the name Goa Gil. He first came to the festival in 1971. To cope with the flow of people, authorities in Uttar Pradesh have installed 35,000 toilets, laid 550 km (340 miles) of water pipes and 155 km (95 miles) of temporary roads at the riverbank site. Mostly, though, the festival’s spirit does not change. Pilgrims make their way there without advertising, announcements or buying tickets. The sadhus show off yogic feats, catch up with old friends and discuss scripture, just as they always have. “The Indian people don’t change their attitude to spirituality overnight, we’re not like the West,” Ram Puri said, laughing. “That’s why in India the spirit is strong.” /*\

Kumbh Mela: Where Commercialism and Mass Spirituality Meet

The spiritual and the commercial intermingle and overpower the senses. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Foreigners faced with the sea of pilgrims, pickpockets, beggars, yogis and self-declared god men of this year's 144-year festival, can relate. "It's a bit overwhelming," said Andrea Kjirkby, a British tourist, comparing the carnival atmosphere to an English seaside resort. "But there's also great generosity. India is extreme. You don't get ordinary days." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2013 ++]

Billboards calling for the protection of sacred cows ("Treat them like your mother") compete with more worldly entreaties to buy Close-Up toothpaste, Rupa underwear and Domino's pizza. Near a stand selling hologram gods that wink, Sonu, 20, hawks $2 tattoos of Lord Shiva. "I change the needle every time," he said, adjusting a dirty blanket. ++

pilgrims ready to bathe

“Nearby, vendor Lal Madari was selling reptile bones to cure boils and thorns to banish ghosts, as he showed off a snake that drinks milk. A potential customer wearing eyeglasses, a "+/- 3.00" sticker still affixed to them, seemed interested until a sadhu shooed them both away. "He's jealous I'm getting more attention," Madari said, hurrying off. ++

About 1 million foreigners have or are expected to attend, including New Age travelers, Hare Krishna devotees and Harvard academics researching 21st century urban challenges. For the well-heeled — Madonna and Mick Jagger are reportedly past attendees — $500-a-night tents boast living rooms, verandas and wireless Internet. Others survive on straw mats. "It's pretty crazy, dirty, dusty — an amazing experience," said Zach Saltzman, 26, a backpacker from Berkeley sleeping in an ashram. "I could sure use a nice American shower." ++

Veteran attendees note the growing materialism in an event expected to generate $2.2 billion in economic activity, part of what a local newspaper termed "the God economy." The festival is mostly funded from state and federal budgets, with a limited portion covered by advertising. "Sadhus with cellphones and tablets preach religion but aren't living it," Mahant Baba Bharti, a naga with Rastafarian hair uncombed for a quarter-century, said as he stood near a mobile ATM. "Those in the big tents with the music and lights, they're posers."” ++

Crowd Control and Head Counts at the Maha Kumbh Mela

On population fluctuations and head counts at the Maha Kumbh Mela, Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “On ordinary days probably two million to five million showed up. But on the auspicious bathing days, of which there were nine, with one of primary importance, the population could easily reach 20 million to 30 million, according to news reports. I asked Mehrotra how this place managed to function so well, especially in contrast to so many permanent Indian cities. “The Kumbh Mela is like an Indian wedding,” he said. “You can do things at this level of intensity only because you know it will be over soon.” [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

“On the eve of the next auspicious bathing day, the air of the Kumbh Mela was so smoky from countless wood cooking fires that my eyes teared up. The streets were bustling long into the night as pilgrims stumbled off trains and buses and walked to their camps. The next morning, before dawn, I made my way to the bathing area. The bathers were quiet, but shrill police whistles pierced the air, warning pilgrims to stay near shore and to swim only in designated areas. Along the perimeter of the beach priests had set up stations to sell their services, helping pilgrims with their rituals before they waded into the Ganges. It was certainly more crowded now at the Sangam than at any other time since I’d been here. But it was very hard to gauge the numbers.

The truth is that the claims that 20 million or 30 million people a day bathe in the Sangam, or that 120 million people visit the Kumbh over the course of the event, are hard to substantiate. The government authority that runs the Kumbh Mela has an interest in making these numbers seem as big and as bombastic as possible, to validate its efficacy and ensure greater funding next time. The news media in India and abroad also thrive on the event’s extreme nature, so they, too, have little reason to challenge the numbers.

Whatever the actual number of people that morning, the city remained orderly. There was some congestion down at the front lines of the flowing river, but it was more like crowding of the kind you’d have seen on a hot summer afternoon on Coney Island in its heyday, not the jostling, compression and danger of a stuffed soccer stadium.

Allahabad in 2013

Kumbh Mela Holy Men in 2013

Frank Jack Daniel of Reuters wrote: “More than 2,000 years old, the festival is a meeting point for the Hindu sadhus, some who live in forests or Himalayan caves, and who belong to dozens of inter-related congregations. The sects have their own administration and elect leaders, but are also known for violent clashes with each other. Some naked, some wrapped in saffron or leopard-print cloth and smoking cannabis pipes, the holy men hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated with coloured neon lights, where they are visited by pilgrims who proffer alms and get blessings. [Source: Frank Jack Daniel, Reuters, January 14, 2013 /*]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “One naga, Radhey Puri Naga Baba, hasn't sat down for 10 years, even to sleep. He leaned on a pole to protect an infected right foot as he blessed people's foreheads between hits on a hash pipe. "I'm not looking for enlightenment," he said, advising tourists on their best camera angle. "There's no particular reason I'm doing this." Another naga walked past, his penis adorned with a fake diamond ring and beads. "These are ornaments in worship of the lord," explained the Shiva devotee, known as Lightning Baba.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2013 ++]

Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I traveled to the central sector where the 16 major akharas were located....The first sadhu I saw was a peculiar sight: a bearded, dreadlocked white guy smoking a stone chillum filled with hashish who, after he exhaled, began speaking with a distinctively American accent. Baba Rampuri, a 63-year-old U.S. native raised in California who joined the Juna akhara over 40 years ago and has since ascended its ranks, gestured to me to sit down before him. One of his followers, also clad in the orange robes of the akhara, prepped and passed Rampuri another chillum of hashish, which sadhus smoke as part of a holy ritual to improve their focus while meditating. He carefully wrapped a piece of white cloth around the bottom hole and proceeded to inhale deeply before passing it along to another follower. [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

Daniel wrote: “Despite their asceticism, the sects, known as akharas, are moving with the times. Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji, who leads one of the main groups, has a Facebook page. Some gurus advertise on billboards and posters to attract followers, others drive trucks and chat on cellphones. At the riverbank, men with dreadlocked beards to their feet vied for media attention with yogis supporting heavy weights with their genitals, while others holding golden brellas, flags and swords rubbed sand on their bodies after the dip. ”I feel pleasure,“ grinned Digambar Navraman Giri,” who said he had not sat down for a year, even sleeping on foot. “This is why I became a sadhu,” he said, steam rising from his body in the cold air and wearing nothing but two rings on his fingers. /*\

“Baba Ram Puri was given to his guru by his parents when he was barely one year old. At 31, he is now a young spiritual leader himself and says Indians with disposable income want to support traditional holy men. “They earn a lot of money but they don’t get peace, so they turn to spirituality,” he said, sitting on cushions by a smoking fire. “That’s why we continue to grow in strength.” /*\

sadhus at the 1998 Kumbh Mela

Jim Mallinson, a Sanskrit scholar and expert on sadhus, says that, while exact numbers are hard to come by, it appears the sects are growing in strength and size, and the fair is becoming more religious. “I suspect it is because the emerging middle classes are more than happy to spend their surplus cash on sustaining the sadhu tradition,” he said.” /*\

Kumbh Mela Crowds in 2013

On February 10, 2013, overcrowding at a railway station in Allahabad led to a stampede that killed 36 people. Laura Spinney wrote in National Geographic: “The city was full at the time. Very full....The authorities estimated the number of pilgrims in the city that day hit its peak, at 30 million. The stampede made headlines around the world and is what most non-Hindus remember about the festival. But there’s another story about the Maha Kumbh Mela that hasn’t been told. [Source: Laura Spinney, National Geographic, February, 2014 ^^]

“It begins two weeks earlier, about four miles from the station, on the banks of the River Ganges. It’s the second major bathing day of the festival. Dawn has yet to break, fog shrouds the river, and a full moon illuminates the crowd massing at its edge. There are thousands of people here already, but this crowd is serene, unified. There’s no pushing or shoving, let alone panic—only a palpable sense of purpose as they wade in, immerse themselves in the icy water, and wade out again. People make way for each other, give each other a helping hand. The ritual complete, purpose turns to joy. “How do you feel?” I ask a man wearing a dripping loincloth. “Rejuvenated,” he says, as two, then three, then four newcomers take his place. ^^

“Looking on is a policeman whose job is to keep the crowd moving, since no fewer than seven million people are expected to bathe here today. “Each one, on his own, wouldn’t be able to do it,” he says. “They give each other strength.” His words echo my thoughts. There’s an energy coming off this crowd, a sense that it amounts to more than the sum of its parts.” ^^

Kumbh Mela Pilgrims in 2013

Laura Spinney wrote in National Geographic: “Half an hour’s jeep ride from the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna, but still within the Kumbh “city,” 70-year-old Bishamber Nath Pandey and his wife, Bimla, 65, invite me into their tent. Carpets cover the dirt floor, but otherwise there’s little comfort. The Pandeys are kalpwasis, pilgrims who come to the mela for at least a month and live a spartan lifestyle while they’re here. They describe their daily routine to me: a dip before dawn, one frugal meal, chores, prayer, chanting. [Source: Laura Spinney, National Geographic, February, 2014 ^^]

“Have you ever been sick during your stay?” I ask. The kalpwasis are predominantly elderly, their tents are unheated, and the temperature at night often falls to near freezing. The Ganges, according to the local authorities’ own measurements, is so polluted with sewage and industrial effluent that it is neither drinkable nor safe to bathe in (the kalpwasis do both). And thanks to a PA system that broadcasts music, religious discourses, and practical announcements on a 24-hour loop, the noise level in their camps varies from 76 to 95 decibels, high enough to cause permanent hearing loss over a prolonged period. Pandey shakes his head. It’s his 12th mela, and he always goes home in a better state of mind than when he arrived. “Living among the gods,” as he puts it, helps him to forget the hardship. “My mind is healthy, so my body is too.” ^^

Farmer Shrimoni Devi, 60, saved for six months for her family's $35 train fare. The festival was an experience she'll never forget. "My daughter's lost her job and my grandson's taking his exams, so I'm here to earn good karma," she told the Los Angeles Times, trying to sleep as neighbors banged drums and cymbals. "It's so exciting. I've never seen such a gathering." ^^

Kumbh Mela Infrastructure and Disaster Control in 2013

Laura Spinney wrote in National Geographic: “ The histories of both the Kumbh and the hajj, another major religious gathering, are punctured by outbreaks of communicable diseases as well as stampedes or other crowd incidents. Though these threats are ever present, improved public health measures and understanding of crowd dynamics are gradually limiting their impact. [Source: Laura Spinney, National Geographic, February, 2014 ^^]

In 2013 there were no outbreaks of serious communicable diseases in Allahabad. The Kumbh “city” covered more than ten square miles—roughly half the size of Manhattan. The inhabited area was divided into 14 sectors, each with its own hospital, police station, roads, grocery store, and supplies of electricity and drinking water—an extraordinary feat, when you think that construction couldn’t get under way until the previous November, once the floodwaters had receded after the monsoon. “Incredibly well organized, incredibly clean, very efficiently run” was the verdict of Rahul Mehrotra, a professor of urban design and planning at Harvard University, who observed the festival. ^^

“The Kumbh authorities plan the layout with crowd management in mind. Exit routes from bathing places are roughly twice the width of entry routes, for example. This year the task of managing the crowd fell to Alok Sharma, inspector general of police for the Allahabad zone, who had a 14,000-strong police and paramilitary force at his command. When I met him in early February, he explained to me that his basic strategy involved shifting and dividing crowds with the use of detours to avoid buildup at hot spots. ^^

“One such hot spot was the main railway station, so the police monitored the arrival of trains. “Any crowd of 500 plus is reported because I have to make room for it,” said Sharma. But he was also worried about the 18 pontoon bridges spanning the rivers. They were, in his opinion, too narrow. Where people funneled onto them, there was the potential for a crush. “We can identify the hot spots,” he said, “but we can’t predict when or at which one something might happen.” ^^

Often times, “when there is the potential for violence, crowds can have a calming influence—a finding that flew in the face of previous research on the so-called bystander effect, which suggested that some people surrender individual responsibility in a crowd, standing helpless as horrors unfold before their eyes. Between them, Reicher and his colleagues have studied religious crowds, football crowds, political parades, and music festivals. ^^

““Living out your beliefs takes a different form in a crowd of kalpwasis than in a crowd at a rock concert,” Reicher says. “But the underlying process is the same.” Reporting on the opening day of the Woodstock festival in 1969, Life magazine quoted an official who had just realized that more people would be coming than he had anticipated. “There are a hell of a lot of us here,” he said. “If we are going to make it, you had better remember that the guy next to you is your brother.” They did, and the three-day festival is remembered as much for its peace and love as for its mud, food shortages, and traffic jams. “The Kumbh works because of a combination of good infrastructure and psychological cooperation,” says Reicher. But in more advanced industrialized societies, the power of cooperation has been neglected, and we may be paying the price.” ^^

Kumbh Mela Train Station Stampede in 2013

On February 10 during the 2013 Kumbh Mela, crowds coming from the railway station converged on a small bridge at the edge of the Kumbh grounds and a stampede ensued, killing at least 36 people. What exactly started the stampede and why it got so bad remain a mystery. Sharat Pradhan of Reuters wrote; “A stampede at a railway station in Allahabad killed at least 36 Hindu pilgrims on the busiest day of the Kumbh Mela at which some 30 million had gathered. Twenty-seven of the dead were women, mostly elderly and poor. An eight-year-old girl was also crushed to death. A Reuters witness saw a woman weeping at the train station, surrounded by six bodies dressed in brightly coloured saris. [Source: Sharat Pradhan, Reuters, February 11, 2013]

“Officials gave contradictory versions of what caused the crush. A railway official told Reuters police had been using batons to control the crowd, triggering panic. A state government official said a footbridge handrail collapsed, sending people slipping down the stairs and starting a stampede. A spokesman for Indian railways said authorities had found 36 bodies and 30 people were injured. The injured were being treated at hospitals in Allahabad. “Since there were huge crowds and a lot of panic, it took time before the bodies could be extricated,” said another official, R. M. Srivastava, the top security official in Uttar Pradesh.

Allahabad in 2001

Rahul Mehrotra of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design told Smithsonian magazine: “It’s terrible and regrettable, of course, and there are some crowd management techniques that, if implemented, would almost certainly have prevented that.” Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews wrote that one possible cause for the stampede may have been that the pilgrims no longer formed a psychological crowd. The others around them were no longer part of a larger whole but competitors for seats on a train bound for home. When asked to describe her feelings in the crowd at the station, one pilgrim said, “People think they are more powerful than you, they can push you around.” [Sources: Smithsonian magazine, Laura Spinney, National Geographic, February, 2014 ^^]

Lost at the Kumbh Mela

It is not surprising that people often become separated or last at the Kumbh Mela. Reporting from Allahabad, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Saraswati Devi shivers in the dirt near a small fire, tears streaming down her face, her tattered sari wrapped tightly around her small frame. The 73-year-old farmer from a small village in the central state of Madhya Pradesh had arrived earlier in the day with her younger sister-in-law at the Kumbh Mela, a massive Hindu religious festival on the edge of the sacred Ganges River. But in the crush of the crowd, which is expected to number about 100 million this year, they had become separated. Devi wandered around in panic until police escorted her to the tent of Bharat Seva Dal, a charity group that helps family members reunite. She has never traveled alone, Devi says, and doesn't understand train tickets so she feels extremely vulnerable. "I'm so worried," she said. "I wasn't even sure I wanted to come. My sister-in-law even has my coat." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2013 +++]

“During the 55-day Kumbh Mela, held on a 4,700-acre site, hundreds of thousands of people get separated from their relatives. But most find their way to the tent, called a khoya paya shivir, or "lost and found camp." Since the festival opened Jan. 14, about 275,000 people have been reported lost, 100,000 of them on Feb. 10, a day when 36 people died in a stampede. Most of the missing are reunited with their companions within hours.” +++

“Police have urged people at the festival to pin names to vulnerable family members. Others employ a more traditional method. My sister and I have one cellphone between us," said Ram Naresh, 70, a farmer. "We'll hold hands tight so we don't get lost." As Tiwari's fame and good karma have spread — he charges nothing, relying on occasional private donations — others have edged in. Adjoining charity Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna focuses exclusively on lost women and girls. "With men, we push them over to the others," said Kanak Sharma, a volunteer.” +++

Found at the Kumbh Mela

For more than 60 years, social worker Raja Ram Tiwari has used low-tech methods to reunite family members who become separated at the Kumbh Mela. Magnier wrote: “Tiwari, 86, founder of Bharat Seva Dal, says he found his life's calling in 1946 at his first Kumbh Mel...In those days, the festival, held every three years, was attended mostly by older people, Tiwari said, and he noticed one elderly woman crying hysterically. He crafted some tin into a makeshift megaphone and called out her relatives' names until they were reunited. The woman thanked him for saving her life and touched his feet, an honor normally reserved for older people. "It gave me such satisfaction," Tiwari said, sitting in the nondescript tent he inhabits throughout the lengthy festival. "My soul soared, and I thanked the Ganges."

Kumbh Mela crowds

“He's been to each Kumbh Mela since then and several smaller festivals — 65 in all — and has helped reunite more than 1 million adults and 20,000 children with their relatives, he says. His methods have become slightly more sophisticated — dozens of volunteers now scour the grounds for the dispossessed, blaring their names over loudspeakers across the smoky, dusty landscape — but not much. +++ “Around the corner, the Computerized Lost and Found Center is using a high-tech approach, snapping digital camera shots that it posts on an oversized screen. Tiwari takes the Johnny-come-latelys in stride. "We've been here for the longest time and villagers know us," he said. "I haven't scrutinized the computer approach, but I sense they're trying to make their name. Who has time to look at images of the whole family?" +++

“The octogenarian recently handed more responsibility to his youngest son and says this may be his last Kumbh Mela. "I was very sick in November and thought I'd die," he said, taking a rest on a blanket, but his doctor told him it wasn't his time. "I thanked him. But he said, 'No, thank the Ganges.'" Tiwari has twice been nominated for India's prestigious Padma award, a government honor that farmer Devi and thousands like her believe he richly deserves, even if selection-committee bureaucrats haven't seen fit. "These guys fed me, gave me a blanket," she said, shortly before being reunited with her sister-in-law. "They're good souls, much better than my own family. "I tell you, I'll think twice before coming to the Kumbh Mela again," Devi said. "And definitely not with that sister-in-law of mine."”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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