The next day I walked with them across the main permanent bridge to Allahabad. From up here, high above the pop-up city, we could get a better feel for its composition. “They create a completely gridded city on top of this shifting floodplain,” said Mehrotra. “And the way that they impose this grid on the river is by building 18 small pontoon bridges that crisscross the Ganges and Yamuna, allowing the grid to go on, even across the water.”
On one side of the bridge we could see what was called the Sangam, the holy bathing area, where the two large rivers came together as one. Sandbags fortified the banks; fences in the mid-stream bathing areas kept pilgrims from drifting down the river. “Before 1954 the Sangam area was much, much smaller,” said Mehrotra. “But at the Kumbh Mela that year there was a terrible stampede in which hundreds died. After that the authorities decided to expand the Sangam and reduce the chances of that happening again.”
Below us, between the bridge and the bathing area, was Sector 4, where the 16 major akharas, Hindu religious organizations, had their headquarters. Across the water, on the other side of the bridge , was the temporary administrative center, with a hospital, portable ATMs, a shuttered Kumbh history exhibit and an open-air market for food, clothing, religious goods and souvenirs. Going away from the Sangam, on the other side of the bridge, stretched more and more tent cities. “Think of it as an ordinary city,” said Mehrotra. “Over there is the downtown where the biggest and most important groups reside and where everyone comes together, in this case to bathe in the Ganges. Behind us are the suburbs, more sparsely populated, farther from the action, with all kinds of other, different groups living out there. Some gurus choose to be out there so they can be away from the maelstrom and gather quietly and peacefully with their followers. Others are relegated to the margins because they don’t have the clout to get a place in the center. It works just like any other city. Except that it’s all built, lived in and then dissembled in a matter of a few months.”
The government of Uttar Pradesh, the Indian state in which Allahabad is located, runs the Mela. This is a prestigious posting, and government officials spend years planning the event. On the private side, the most powerful akharas seem to take a lead role organizing the central sectors and deciding the order in which they will proceed to the Sangam on auspicious bathing days. The Kumbh Mela works in a way that most other Indian cities do not in part because everyone is on their best behavior: Civil servants know that their careers will be defined by these few weeks in the national spotlight; members of the public arrive with a sense of purpose and community.
One other quality that Mehrotra was quick to point out was the population fluctuation. On ordinary days probably two million to five million showed up. But on the auspicious bathing days, of which there were nine, with one of primary importance, the population could easily reach 20 million to 30 million, according to news reports. I asked Mehrotra how this place managed to function so well, especially in contrast to so many permanent Indian cities. “The Kumbh Mela is like an Indian wedding,” he said. “You can do things at this level of intensity only because you know it will be over soon.”
On the eve of the next auspicious bathing day, the air of the Kumbh Mela was so smoky from countless wood cooking fires that my eyes teared up. The streets were bustling long into the night as pilgrims stumbled off trains and buses and walked to their camps. The next morning, before dawn, I made my way to the bathing area. The bathers were quiet, but shrill police whistles pierced the air, warning pilgrims to stay near shore and to swim only in designated areas. Along the perimeter of the beach priests had set up stations to sell their services, helping pilgrims with their rituals before they waded into the Ganges. It was certainly more crowded now at the Sangam than at any other time since I’d been here. But it was very hard to gauge the numbers.
The truth is that the claims that 20 million or 30 million people a day bathe in the Sangam, or that 120 million people visit the Kumbh over the course of the event, are hard to substantiate. The government authority that runs the Kumbh Mela has an interest in making these numbers seem as big and as bombastic as possible, to validate its efficacy and ensure greater funding next time. The news media in India and abroad also thrive on the event’s extreme nature, so they, too, have little reason to challenge the numbers.
Whatever the actual number of people that morning, the city remained orderly. There was some congestion down at the front lines of the flowing river, but it was more like crowding of the kind you’d have seen on a hot summer afternoon on Coney Island in its heyday, not the jostling, compression and danger of a stuffed soccer stadium.
Once the crowds dispersed, the banks of the Ganges were clogged with dams of garbage, including flowers, food, plastic bottles and unidentifiable objects. One guru who spoke to the Harvard group confided that though he would never tell this to his followers, he no longer bathes in the Ganges at the Kumbh Mela. “It is a sacred river,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s pure.” At least one member of the Harvard team contracted bilharzia, a parasitic infection, after bathing in the Ganges. There are efforts to clean up the water, most notably the green Ganga movement headquartered at a camp just opposite the Sangam.