Kumbh Mela: How to plan a festival for 100m people

Indian devotees shower flower petals on Hindu holy men during a religious procession towards the Sangam area during the 'royal entry' for the upcoming Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad on January 2, 2019Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionDevotees have been gathering in Allahabad for days

India’s Kumbh Mela festival is billed as the world’s biggest gathering of people.

Between now and March organisers expect about 120 million pilgrims to bathe at the Sangam – the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers.

Hindus believe that doing so will cleanse them of their sins and help them attain “moksha”, setting them free from the cycle of birth and death.

So how does one prepare for a gathering of humanity so mammoth it can be seen from outer space?

The mela (Hindi for fair) is held in the northern city of Allahabad (recently renamed Prayagraj) every 12 years.

On Tuesday, when the festival formally begins, officials are preparing for 15 to 20 million visitors. But the biggest test they face will be on 4 February when 30 million are expected to attend for the most auspicious bathing day. The festival ends on 4 March.

Tents are pitched on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers, for the upcoming Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad on January 9, 2019.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe budget for the festival is about $400m

This year’s festival is an “ardh Kumbh” – a “half-size” version that falls mid-way between two Kumbhs – but there’s nothing diminutive about it. In fact, it’s much bigger than the last full Kumbh held in 2013.

Where does everyone stay?

A vast tent city has been built on the mudflats of the river delta and thousands of officials are working round the clock to ensure the festival runs as smoothly as possible.

“We’ve been working for more than a year,” senior administration official Rajeev Rai said when I met him in his office a few days ago.

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