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India Ink: Lost and Found at the Kumbh Mela

February 12th, 2013 World

By REBECCA BYERLY

ALLAHABAD, Uttar Pradesh— Most people know the heart-sinking feeling of losing someone in a crowded place. Imagine the feeling of being lost at the largest gathering of humanity in the world, the Kumbh Mela.

It’s a scene so dramatic, and so common, that it’s a theme in many Bollywood movies — families who attend the Kumbh are separated and then reunited decades later.

Pranmati Pandey, a middle-aged woman from Bihar, knows the experience well. The mother of four was separated from her family on Sunday morning in the tide of an estimated 30 million people who gathered for the auspicious bathing day. Late on Sunday night she sat huddled with hundreds of other people, mostly women, who had also been separated from their friends and family.

“I just looked away from my family to give rice to the poor people on the road,” Mrs. Panday said, too exhausted from the day to cry. “When I turned around they were gone.” She wandered around for a few hours before a benevolent stranger took her to the police.

Every 12  years, an enormous pop-up city is erected on a flood plain, where the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati rivers merge.  Organizers say up to 80 million people are likely to attend the six-week event.  Though there is not an official estimate of the crowds yet, the police and organizers say that on Feb. 10, the largest bathing day, the number of people separated from their family and friends at the mela rose above 20,000.

To reconnect the huge numbers of missing, scores of police officers, government officials, and nongovernmental workers, like Rajaram Tiwari, are collaborating to assure that the lost will be found. Mr. Tiwari started an organization, Bharat Seva Dal, to find missing people at the Kumbh Mela back in 1947.

Tin Cans to Smartphones

“I came to the Kumbh when I was a teenager,” Mr. Tiwari said. “I saw how many people suffered when they lost their loved ones. So, I decided to start this organization. ”

During the first few Kumbhs he attended, Mr. Tiwari said he walked around with megaphones crafted with tin cans, announcing the names of the missing. Mr. Tiwari, who is in his eighties, said that over the last few decades the government has understood the importance of his service, and eventually gave him more resources.

Now, there are tens of thousands of speakers throughout the gathering, blaring 24-hour announcements with the names and descriptions of the lost. The system is manned by Mr Tiwari’s organization, several other NGOs, and the police.

There is a chaotic order to Mr. Tiwari and his comrades’ lost-and-found command stations, the largest of which is easily identified by a golf cart-sized yellow balloon that floats several hundred feet above it. As people come in, their names and details are written on a slip of paper and broadcast across the Kumbh.

On non-bathing days when the crowds are more manageable, the system works relatively well. But as the masses gathered on Sunday, it teetered on total collapse.

Half naked and soaked pilgrims, who had been separated from their friends and family in the rush to take a dip at the Sangam, swarmed a platform set up by the police on the banks of the river in hopes of finding the missing. Terrified children stood on the platform and screamed for their parents. One little boy, who spotted his father  among the masses, jumped off the stage and crowd-surfed into his arms.

By Sunday night, mountains of paper scraps with names scrawled on them littered the tiny tin-paneled announcement room at Tiwari’s tent. With no system of tracking the missing, many of the names were read once and then discarded.

In hopes of improving the process, police this year tried to utilize mobile internet technology.

“At the last Maha Kumbh in 2001, we were using land line phones and only had one digital camera to take pictures of missing people,” said Alok Sharma, the inspector general of the police in Allahabad.

This Kumbh, Mr. Sharma, 42, said the police are using “WhatsApp,” a smart phone application that sends messages and photos in real time to share information. They’ve also created a digitized photo system of the lost and found people that is available online.

But for Mrs. Panday and the thousands of other frantic people clambering to get the attention of  the police and Mr. Tiwar’s tent for help on Sunday, cell phones mattered little.

No Phone, No Money, No Address

Mrs. Panday is illiterate,  has no money, cell phone or even a phone number to contact her loved ones. So she  relied on her name being called on the loudspeaker. She said she heard it three times but no one had turned up.

The new technologies are supposed to make policing easier and cut back on the time that people are lost from days to hours, Mr. Sharma said. But in many ways, the old-school system of public announcements remains the most effective.

“The crowds are such that they are still not that much into computers and things like that,” said Mr. Sharma, who expected 18,000 police to patrol this year’s festival. “They would just go back to the basics. That is the announcement system.”

 Hundreds of Languages

But, in a country with hundreds of different dialects, making announcements can be difficult.

During one of the bathing days in January, when Mr. Tiwari and his staff did not understand the language of a missing person named Manu, a middle-aged woman from West Bengal, he turned the mic over to her. Scared, Manu only managed to utter a few words in Bengali between sobs.

Luckily for her, a Bengali soldier heard the troubled call and came to the tent to make an announcement on her behalf. Within an hour, a member of her family showed up to claim her.

Overwhelmed with the droves of “lost people” on Sunday, the system of announcements was largely turned over to the missing.  The terrified voices of the old, young children and women reverberated around the Mela, a foreboding warning to stay close to your companions.

Bollywood Reunions

In the early hours of the morning on Monday, Mrs. Panday was still waiting for her family to claim her. A woman sitting nearby let out a shrill shout when she saw her husband. Both in their 70’s, the couple, who had been married for almost six decades, had been separated for hours.

The two made announcements for the other, but in the deafening madness of the Kumbh neither had heard them. As a last resort, the elderly man stopped by Mr. Tiwari’s tent where he reunited with his wife.

Despite the odds, the police and organizers said that in the next few days all of the missing will be reconnected. Well, almost all of them.

Some people who turn up at the tent in the Kumbh are still hoping for the Bollywood story.  A bespectacled man in his forties came to the tent to find his father, whom became a Sadhu 35 years ago.

“I’m not lost,” the man said.  “After attending a Kumbh when I was a child, my father decided to take up the life of a Sadhu and disconnected from the family. I was just hoping this could be the Kumbh I found him.”