30 million gather for holy ceremony

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The Independent Online

For the next six weeks, the biggest city in the world will be a place called Allahabad in northern India.

For the next six weeks, the biggest city in the world will be a place called Allahabad in northern India.

Normally a stolid, modest, rather seedy university city lacking even a domestic airport, Allahabad is hosting what will almost certainly become the biggest Hindu celebration in history. It is called the Kumbh Mela and starts tomorrow. The last big one in Allahabad, in 1989, drew an estimated 30 million people. Some are predicting that more than twice that number will turn up this year.

Many have already arrived, coming by bus and train and car, by bullock cart and on foot. The wealthy few will stay in luxurious tents with bathrooms en suite, tasteful fittings and gourmet food. The vast mass of pilgrims, however, will make do with the simplest accommodation, lugging their own rice, wheat and lentils from the far ends of the country.

The object of the Kumbh is simple: to take a bath. For complicated mythological reasons, Hindus believe that on very rare and precisely determined dates the waters at the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna - both of which are regarded as holy - are transformed into ambrosial nectar, and by immersing oneself in them at these times salvation is assured.

So definite is this belief that poor people make great sacrifices to be present. Modern transport and the slowly rising affluence even of the Indian peasants have put a Kumbh pilgrimage within reach of more Indians than ever before.

The result for the authorities is a logistical challenge of vast proportions. Twenty-seven pontoon bridges have been built over the rivers, to allow maximum freedom of movement. The greatest danger is a stampede; at a Kumbh in the 1950s some 500 pilgrims were crushed to death. Providing enough food, drinking water and sanitation will be equally problematic.

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