Imagine 150 million people, more than the combined populations of the United Kingdom and France, converging in one city!
This is the estimated number of people who will be attending one of the largest celebrations in India, known as the Kumbh Mela.
The Prayag Kumbh Mela is a Hindu religious festival that occurs every 12 years in the northern city of Prayagraj (previously known as Allahabad). This year's festival is the “ardh Kumbh” or a Kumbh that takes place midway between the two larger Kumbh festivals (at the six-year mark).
The Legend Goes...
The Kumbh festival takes place from mid-January to March during which the main event is the holy dip that millions of Hindus take in the waters where three rivers meet-- the Ganges, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati.
According to Hindu legend, gods and demons together churned the ocean of milk using a snake as a rope to extract a pot of immortal nectar. However, in a fight that ensued after, drops of the immortal nectar fell in four places. One such place is Prayagraj, and it is believed that on an auspicious few days, bathing in the river is like immersing oneself in the nectar. Hindus believe this will wash their sins away and release them from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
On February 4th, the most auspicious day, 30 million people are expected to converge on the river banks!
Preparations and Concerns
In order to accommodate the crowds, officials have set up a large tent city on the outskirts of the city and near the rivers. With about 150 million people attending this year’s festival, the setup includes 122,000 toilets, 20,000 trash cans, 524 buses, and over 1,500 rickshaws! Five warehouses and 160 ration shops have been set up to provide rice, flour, kerosene oil, and more cooking necessities. The total budget is estimated to be 28 billion rupees ($397 million)!
To make it easy for visitors to travel from India's capital New Delhi to Prayagraj, roads have been widened and new flyovers, car parks, railroads, train station, and even an airport has been added.
Security is one of the highest priorities for the fair’s organizers this year. During the last festival in 2013, 40 people were killed in a stampede in a train station and 1954 marked one of the deadliest stampedes resulting in 800 deaths. Measures that are being taken this year include the installation of a bridge to connect various pedestrian platforms and color-coded holding areas that will be strictly controlled by the 5,000 staff that have been brought from elsewhere outside the city.
In addition, 30,000 police officers and military personnel have been deployed for security and traffic-related concerns. Finally, a large 100-bed hospital and 10 smaller hospitals have been set up, along with ambulances in case of major emergencies.
Sources: BBC, The Guardian, NPR, Al Jazeera