ALlahabad, India—The Maha Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest religious festival, is meant to be spiritually uplifting. But for the thousands who get lost in the swell of humanity, the experience can be terrifying.
The festival takes place on a sprawling site in northern India next to the river Ganges where as many as 20 million people are expected to cram in on the most auspicious day on February 10 for a bath said to cleanse them of their sins.
It’s a dusty and crowded temporary city made up of tented accommodation, areas reserved for godmen and gurus, miles upon miles of walkways and vast open areas where pilgrims push and shove their way to the banks of the Ganges.
Dealing with the packed crowds is a constant problem and although mobile phones have helped to re-unite divided groups or families, the young, elderly and poor are still vulnerable when lost.
Sharphya Harijan, a frail and distraught great-grandmother aged around 80 from a village near Varanasi, sits sobbing in a plastic chair at a “lost and found” centre set up by a local charity.
“I was walking in the bathing area and had my daughter by the hand but due to the pressure of so many people I got separated and lost in the crowd,” Harijan told AFP. “I asked the police for help and they took me here.”
Around her, nearly a dozen solemn-looking women in saris sit patiently for people to come to pick them up, while a 10-year-old boy who has been waiting for two days is finally heading home with a family friend.
At a similar but smaller festival in Allahabad six years ago, a young girl was left unclaimed for 15 days. As the tents were being taken down, the charity placed her photograph in local newspapers and her parents finally came forward.
“Most of them are collected by their own relatives but for others who aren’t, we have to send them back to their homes by train or by bus at our own cost,” says Chaman Rawat, a volunteer at the centre.
From a loudspeaker in the street outside which is connected to the public announcement system comes a stream of names and addresses delivered at ear-splitting volume.
“Sanju Sen. Aged 18. From Narendra Nagar in Reva district, Madhya Pradesh. Your brother Ajay Sen is looking for you and wants to meet near the Ramjanki temple,” announces Pushka Upadhyaya into the microphone.
Sitting in a small hut made of sheets of metal with a single light bulb hanging from the roof, Upadhyaya has a pile of discarded slips of paper at his feet on which the details of lost people have been written.
His announcements, along with innovations this year including 13 large LED displays featuring photographs of lost people, are a key part of the vast effort to make sure no one gets left behind.
“The parents tend to fear the worst when they lose their children in such a huge crowd,” explained Sanjeev Tuagi, a police officer in charge of one of the 17 “lost and found” police posts around the Mela site and nearby town of Allahabad.
“One of the dangers for kids particularly is that some bad elements here might catch them and might be after them,” he added.
By mid-afternoon on day one of the festival, which runs for 55 days until February 25, he said nearly 6,000 had been reported missing, including children aged five, seven and nine.
“The moment they saw their parents they were so happy,” he said, as a crowd of people waited at a police desk staffed by his subordinates who passed the hand-written slips to the announcer.
Parents’ fears are often fanned by Bollywood plotlines about characters who lose a brother or a family member at one of India’s raucous, colourful and often chaotic religious festivals.
The Maha Mumbh mela is the biggest festival of them all and takes place every 12 years in Allahabad.
The man who has scripted more happy reunions than anyone else at the event is 86-year-old Raja Ram Tiwari, who claims his organisation Bharat Seva Dal (India Service Group) has helped nearly a million people since 1946.
He started as a teenager when he found a distraught elderly woman amid the chaos and realised there was little or no infrastructure to help her.
Setting out with his own home-made loud hailer fashioned out of a sheet of metal, his seemingly impossible search proved successful.
“Finally she was reunited with her relatives and her joy at the reunion motivated me to launch a full lost and found service,” he told AFP.
His son has since taken over the running of the organisation and Tiwari senior says new technology has helped to reduce the number of people needing help.
“Mobile phones have especially turned out to be blessing for us,” he explained.
But not everyone has the means to own phones and widespread illiteracy among the pilgrims leads many people to confuse signs and find themselves lost in the dozens of similar-looking thoroughfares.
Fortunately for the sobbing Sharphya Harijan, her ordeal would last only a few hours. Shortly after AFP spoke to her, her family arrived for a happy reunion.