– Michael Vortmann
February 9, 2013
The crowds in the Kumbh Nagri have swollen to fill the sandy Gangetic floodplain as the largest bathing day begins tomorrow. Today the roads brimmed with pilgrims on their way to and from the Sangam; the barricades rolled to block all vehicular traffic from entering the City. A great deal of attention has been paid to developing infrastructure that can both accommodate and control the movements of cars, lorries, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, and millions of people.
The streets at the Kumbh Nagri are wider than those in most Indian cites. The major thoroughfares can easily hold four or five standard lanes of traffic. Although the road margins are periodically obstructed by celebrants lining up crossed-legged to receive Prasad or by the ubiquitous informal merchants displaying wares on ground cloths, there is no encroachment of the semi-permanent structures of the camps onto the road. The size and uniform width of these thoroughfares provide an ostensibly bottleneck-free area for the movements of people going to bathe at the Sangam.
At each major intersection moveable metal barricades manned by police can rapidly shunt the flow of traffic away from a particular area and generate unidirectional flow. These barricades typically control auto traffic only, but could in theory be used to move people away from a highly congested area with stampede potential.
Walking to the Sangam from the east bank of the Ganga one crosses the river on a dense network of pontoon bridges. Because the bridges are only wide enough for one lane of auto traffic flanked by two narrow sidewalks, major roads with bidirectional traffic split to traverse the river on 2-3 bridges each. A network of barricades and pikes control flow onto the bridges. Auto traffic is unidirectional but pedestrians so far are allowed to move in both directions. The bridges represent bottlenecks compared to the generous width of the roads. The western bank of the Ganga has a flat and gradual slope but the eastern bank is a 10-20 foot escarpment of sand that drops abruptly into deep and fast moving water. There is obvious potential for drowning in the event of a stampede. Post and rail fences and cuts through the earth of the embankment that funnel the crowds onto the bridges attempt to mitigate the dangers posed by these natural obstacles.
At the heart of the Sangam on the west bank of the Ganga, the land gently slopes into the water. As one nears the bank, straw blankets the ground for approximately 30 meters to provide traction for millions of wet feet as they return from the holy waters. Getting nearer the water, the straw gives way to sandbags lining the river’s edge for 1-3 meters for the length of the major bathing areas. The sandbags are placed to prevent erosion and stabilize the bank, but they also have the effect of solidifying the sand for the crush of people waiting their turn to enter the water.
The river currents are treacherous, swift and changeable as the Ganga merges with the Yamuna and the water deepens precipitously as one walks from the water’s edge into the depths of the river. Periodically positioned spurs of sandbags serve to break the swift current into safer eddies for the bathers. Poles sunk into the mud and connected by cordons demarcate the deep water where hired rescue boats bob in a state of constant alertness.
Outside one of the main entrances into the Kumbh, where city roads meet Nagri roads, crowds are to be diverted into a massive corral spread over five to seven acres, where they will be encouraged to follow winding paths demarcated by bamboo fences. Some locals fear that the visitors may simply jump through the fences and attempt to cut straight through the field.
All roads leading to the Mela, and for several kilometers around, have been shut to vehicular traffic. The paths to the Sangam are packed, the bridges are full, and the sidewalks lined with sleeping pilgrims. Millions will soon descend upon the confluence for their holy bath. The atmosphere in the administrative offices is tense. The wide roads, the winding corrals, the sturdy bridges, the sandbag spurs, the rescue boats and the mounted police are in a heightened state of readiness. Long months of deliberations, design and implementation have been invested to make this one day as uneventful as possible – as uneventful as the world’s largest human gathering can be.