There is a stubborn rumour here at the Kumbh Mela that some people come to abandon elderly female relatives and children in the crowd.
There are two lost and found camps on site, one of which is run by 86-year-old Raja Ram Tiwari, who took the initiative after seeing an old woman weeping uncontrollably at the Mela once she had become separated from her family. That was in 1946, he was in his teens, and he and his friends helped reunite her with her people. He’s been doing the same ever since, and his son Umesh is gradually taking over from him.
Shiv Kumari, a 70-year-old widow who has been at the camp for going on 24 hours, is distraught. She came to Allahabad on a bus with a group of relatives from her village, and lost sight of them while the baggage was being unloaded. She made her way to the Mela and the Tiwaris’ camp, from where she broadcast a tearful plea to her family to come and collect her.
Since January 13, Raja Ram Tiwari says, over 10,000 people have passed through his camp, most of whom were eventually “found” with the help of the festival-wide PA system (in the past, volunteers roamed around shouting information about the lost person through tin cans). Only two elderly men and six elderly women could not be placed to date, he says, and they have been sent home to their villages by train. When asked if they might have been abandoned by their families, he laughs and dismisses the idea. Vinita Bahuguna, who runs the other lost and found camp next door, reacts similarly.
But Delhi-based women’s rights activist Mohini Giri, who used to chair India’s National Commission for Women, says that abandonment of widows of all ages, and of female children, is a problem countrywide—though it has decreased a lot over the last 10 years. One reason it’s not spoken about, she says, is that many people consider it a holy deed and a family’s personal choice.
A particular hotspot is Benares, Giri says, because Hindus believe that anyone who dies in that holy city goes straight to heaven. She estimates that there are 10,000 abandoned women on the streets of Benares. It happens at the Kumbh Mela too, she says, for a similar reason, and some women are left to beg in Allahabad or nearby cities long after the pilgrims have departed.