The bubble universes of the ‘pop up mega-cities’, as the Maha Kumbh Mela 2013 at Prayag, Allahabad has been aptly described by a research team hailing from Harvard University that is stationed there to study it, perhaps have a set of laws governing their myriad operations, which are jocundly and confidently different from the ways the affairs are conducted in the ordinary world outside the purview of that great aggregating impulse called ‘faith’. As the dramaturgy of jostling tradition, spectacular piety, jaw-dropping holiness and undeterred belief played out against a logistical backdrop of crowd management, health and sanitation facilities, provision of food and drinking water, as well as a nice attempt at addressing immense security issues, about 35 million Hindus of various denominations took a dip in the turbid waters of Prayag, the confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. Amidst batteries of ash-smeared naked sadhus escorted by the police and orchestrating a coordinated consecration in the waters, amongst colourfully-attired women and children trudging along with their husbands and fathers, amongst celebrity businessmen and out-of-steam politicos providing camera-friendly moments of liquid religiosity – the greatest show on earth, the biggest conglomeration of people spread over 55 days, had been unfolding in a peaceful fashion, until the stampede at Allahabad Railway Station came to us as a rude shock.
It’s unfortunate, of course, and deeply ironic. Chiefly because despite all the clamour and chaos of the Maha Kumbh, and despite the presence of the teeming millions who gathered there scrounging for salvation, or purely for the joy of being a part of such a magnificent carnival of belief, the fatal incident happened away from the venue, at the railway station, that is. Obviously, upon hindsight, it is easy to decry the lack of adequate arrangements and transport facilities, such as directing more trains to and from Allahabad, but, as the evidently frustrated Railway Minister lamented, is it really possible to micro-manage the movements of three crore devotees who are all ready to depart at once after receiving a suitably blessed cleanse? The resignation of Azam Khan, the minister who was in charge of the Kumbh organising committee, aside, preparing for millions, although a process that has been planned and undertaken meticulously, remains an unfinished business. Astrological calculations and announcements of collective sanctification, nevertheless, will carry on unaffected by the fateful, though not completely unexpected, tragedy that hit the Kumbh visitors on the very day that was declared the most auspicious of them all. Just as Muslims brave hazards to make their pilgrimage to Haj, Hindu believers, too, will keep assembling at the vast but temporary tent-city, as tradition and modernity collide head on at this sacred site of mass devotion.