A human invasion almost akin to the annual migration in Serengeti, where some six million hooves pound the open plains in Africa. But mercifully, this Mela occurs only once in twelve years. However, the one this year is a Maha Kumbh occurring only in 144 years.

When I heard about the event, despite being aware that prayers of ordinary mortals may not be answered , I hoped against hope that there should be no stampede and no death. Well, my worst fears were confirmed by the avoidable tragedy at the railway station where 36 people gave up their lives like herds in Serengeti. This is what happens when faith overlooks safety, superstition replaces reason and religious myth makes humans herds of cattle.

Astronomical numbers

The scale of attendance of the devout at the Maha Kumbh is astronomical and mind-boggling. The estimates of the number of pilgrims expected range from 35 million to 80 million. Just imagine such vast numbers converging on a single piece of land only 8 sq.mile in area: they sleep in tents, bathe, eat, drink, and some of them smoke charas, on the sands of the river.

The administration is left with the Herculean task of installing water and electricity lines, setting up police stations and building 90 km of makeshift roads and 17 pontoon bridges to cater to the visiting faithful.

Even if one estimate puts the number of toilets constructed at 1,40,000, including 35,000 portable potties, much to the chagrin of Jairam Ramesh, visitors could see open defecation. The health department is worried sick about the outbreak of epidemics even as mosquitoes and flies swarm the place, despite use of copious quantities of bleaching powder and fumigant.

Arrangements are also made for the orderly conduct of the ceremonial processions of sadhus belonging to various akharas — a star attraction of the mela — for ritual bathing, particularly on three important festival days, rendering crowd control a parlous feat.

The sadhus draw huge numbers of curious onlookers. Thousands of them come as if from nowhere and stay for free throughout the Kumbh period lasting eight weeks.

Health risks

The Kumbh Mela is, no doubt, a great tradition: visitors even as far back as the famous seventh century traveller from China, Hsuan-Tsang, have written about what they observed. Even now, it may help in sharing the thrilling experience of travel and community bath. But we city dwellers are content to watch it from afar.

Why are the perspectives of the vast mass of visitors to Kumbh different from ours? Maybe, we are afraid of catching infectious diseases from such a mass ablutionary exercise in icy cold water.

But do these millions of visitors not see any potential risk to their health even if the purpose is to seek divine blessings? We do not know of any statistics about the health status of these bathers after the Kumbh. How many of them caught caught diseases, as they went back home?

Likewise, I am sure most us have not personally come across any of the sadhus belonging to these akharas. We know more about them from published photo stories in glossy journals from abroad. We hear about freaks; one sadhu who claims to have lived for two hundred years, or another who has not sat down for ten years even to sleep and a third who has kept one arm raised for years and a fourth who has not combed his hair for a quarter of a century, and so on.

Salvation for many, and death due to accidents for some. Strange are the outcomes of religious faith.

(The author is a retired civil servant)

(This article was published on February 14, 2013)
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