The stars are aligned. The first aiders are on standby. The latrines are dug. And the city of Allahabad is waiting to see how many tens of millions of people will descend on it between now and March 10. One thing is certain: the Kumbh Mela, a giant gathering of Hindu pilgrims that takes place every 12 years in four cities in northern India, and that is celebrated this year in Allahabad, is unique. No other religious gathering comes close to it in terms of scale. And because true pilgrims come here to stay—some for days, some for weeks, some for the 55 days of its duration—it is more than just a site of pilgrimage. It’s a city. Temporarily, it may be the world’s largest.
Allahabad is where the sacred River Ganges meets another, the Yamuna, and people come here in the cold months of January and February over which the Kumbh Mela is held to bathe in the holy water and wash away their sins. The timing is astrologically determined, but the Indian monsoon ensures that the huge river plain on which the tent city is constructed is often flooded until the previous August or September. Building can’t get underway until the waters have receded and the new river patterns have revealed themselves, which this time meant last October. So the Mela authorities have three months to build the city and another three to dismantle it. It is usually cleared away by April.
In 2001 this half-year city welcomed between 30 and 70 million people, depending on who you ask, and this year the authorities are predicting 80 million. But numbers are notoriously hard to obtain, because nobody is counting. There is no official registration. Locals wander in and out. People from further afield find accommodation, usually cramped, with relatives in the town. Of all the four cities that host the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad boasts the largest because it has the most space. Jiwesh Nandan, who was Mela Officer and hence oversaw the last Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2001, said that estimates are made on the basis of aerial photographs and the dimensions of the habitable area, but these are very approximate.
In the past, when most people arrived by train, ticket sales were a useful indicator. But now people have many more modes of transport at their disposal, notably the car. Allahabad’s District Commissioner, Devesh Chaturvedi, expects up to 10 million to come for the most important bathing day, Mauni Amawasya, on February 10, and he puts the “permanent” population of the temporary city at about a million.