It’s 4am on January 27, an auspicious date for bathing called Paush Purnima. The full moon hangs big and sharp above the shroud of smoke that covers the Kumbh. It’s still dark, and people are moving quietly and calmly from all directions towards the sangam, the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The temporary roads, lit by powerful electric lamps, are ever more thickly lined with beggars. In the wide, sandy space between where the roads end and the river begins, groups of locals have been sitting patiently since midnight. No cars are allowed inside the Mela grounds on bathing days, and some have walked tens of kilometres to get here, bringing a change of clothes and the materials they need to perform puja—ritual offerings to the gods.
LED signs in Hindi tell the pilgrims to take no more than three minutes in the water. Three quick immersions should be enough to wash away their sins. Then they must make their way out, get dressed and move on to make way for others. Given that five million are expected at the ghats today, and they all have to come out of the water the same way they came in, the operation is surprisingly smooth. Men in yellow uniforms patrol the water’s edge, making sure nobody strays beyond the shallows into the fast-flowing current of the Ganges.
The PA system broadcasts instructions on a loop, and these are enforced by police and military who brandish guns and sticks and blow whistles at anyone who stops or strays off the designated route. There are entry and exit roads, and some of the narrow pontoon bridges spanning the river are one-way today. Should beggars dare to leave the road and approach the mass of bathers, the police raise their sticks to warn them off. Their time will come when the retreating pilgrims drop alms into their laps—another part of the ritual.
When the bathers emerge trembling and jubilant from the water, the word they use most often to describe how they feel is “rejuvenated”. What about the cold? “Your body goes numb, and after that you don’t feel it,” one man explains. The cold helps keep the crowd moving, as does the infrastructure—the road system and the four extra ghats. But the third factor that makes this mass gathering work is that people are considerate to one another. Cooperation oils the machine.
In fact, this crowd is so well-behaved that it’s hard to imagine it could ever produce a disaster like the one that happened in 1954, at the first Kumbh Mela held after India gained independence. That year, hundreds of people were crushed to death on the most important bathing day, Mauni Amavasya. But then crushes can come out of nowhere, as the Kumbh organisers know only too well. There’s no room for complacency, and their plans won’t be properly tested until February 10, the date on which Mauni Amavasya falls this year.