Kumbh Mela: The World's Biggest Gathering Of People

Kumbh Mela: The World's Biggest Gathering Of People
India's Kumbh Mela festival is billed as the world's biggest gathering of people. Between now and March organisers expect about 120 million pilgrims to bathe at the Sangam - the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers.

Hindus believe that doing so will cleanse them of their sins and help them attain "moksha", setting them free from the cycle of birth and death. So how does one prepare for a gathering of humanity so mammoth it can be seen from outer space? The mela (Hindi for fair) is held in the northern city of Allahabad (recently renamed Prayagraj) every 12 years.

On Tuesday, when the festival formally begins, officials are preparing for 15 to 20 million visitors. But the biggest test they face will be on 4 February when 30 million are expected to attend for the most auspicious bathing day. The festival ends on 4 March.

This year's festival is an "ardh Kumbh" - a "half-size" version that falls mid-way between two Kumbhs - but there's nothing diminutive about it. In fact, it's much bigger than the last full Kumbh held in 2013.

A vast tent city has been built on the mudflats of the river banks and thousands of officials are working round the clock to ensure the festival runs as smoothly as possible.

"We've been working for more than a year," senior administration official Rajeev Rai said when I met him in his office a few days ago.

Some 6,000 religious and cultural organisations have been allotted land on which to put up a city of tents to accommodate visitors from India and across the globe, he says. Our conversation is constantly interrupted by his ringing cell phone, staff bringing him papers to sign, and saffron-robed ascetics barging in through the door to speak to him. In between, Mr Rai explains that the mela area is spread over 32 sq km (12.35 square miles), equivalent to a large town.

Kumbh Melas have been held for centuries but became huge only in recent decades. The 2001 festival at Allahabad is seen as the first "mega mela".

The budget for hosting this year's festival is 28bn rupees ($397m; £311m), and over 49 days, visitors totalling more than the combined populations of Britain and Spain are expected to visit. In the past 12 months, the city infrastructure has undergone a major overhaul.

A brand new airport now allows visitors to fly in from Delhi in less than an hour.
Across the city, roads have been widened and new flyovers have been built. In the mela ground, 300 km of roads have been laid. Huge car parks have been set up all around the city to accommodate more than half a million vehicles. The railways, too, have announced hundreds of new trains to tackle the rush.

"We are expecting about 3.5 million pilgrims to travel by train during the festival. All the eight stations that serve the city have been spruced up and expanded," says railway spokesman Amit Malaviya.

More than 30,000 police and paramilitary personnel have been deployed to deal with traffic and security. Senior police official Kavindra Pratap Singh says meticulous planning has gone into deciding where to set up check posts and security barriers.

"Our priority is to ensure there is no stampede or any disaster," he said.

 "We are working round the clock to meet the challenge, to ensure nothing goes wrong."

Officials say for the first time they'll be using artificial intelligence to monitor crowd movements.

"We'll be using footage from 1,000 CCTV cameras to assess the crowd size and if needed, take a decision to divert them to decongest crowded areas," a spokesman said.  

Most pilgrims who come on a short visit bring their own food. But camps set up by religious organisations and individual pilgrims, who stay for up to a month, often depend on the authorities for supplies.

Five warehouses and 160 "fair price" ration shops have been set up in the mela grounds to distribute rice, flour, sugar and kerosene oil for cooking. The supplies are given free to religious camps and are sold to other pilgrims at subsidised prices reserved for those living below the poverty line, an official in the food and civil supplies department, Aprita Upadhyay, said.

Cards have been provided to 150,000 pilgrims which entitle them to cheap rations for a month, including 2kg rice, 3kg flour, 7.5kg sugar and 4 litres of kerosene. Overall, 5,384 tonnes of rice, 7,834 tonnes of wheat flour, 3,174 tonnes of sugar and 767 kilolitres of kerosene have been allocated for the festival. Free and clean drinking water will be available from 160 dispensers around the mela ground. Read...

James Koroma

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