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Many Get Lost at World's Largest Religious Gathering

  • Rebecca Byerly

Every 12 years in India, tens of millions of pilgrims and Hindu holy leaders travel to the Kumbh Mela, a temporary city erected on a flood plain where the sacred Yamuna and Ganges rivers merge. The enormous crowds that gather for ritual bathing are a hallmark of the world’s largest religious gathering - and a challenge for organizers who say as many as 20,000 people can get lost in a single day.

​Raja Ram Tiwari started a group that began helping lost people at the Kumbh Mela in 1947. He says that in that first year year, he used a megaphone for announcements. Now, thousands of loudspeakers announce the names and descri Organizers, using pen and pad, record missing persons names to be broadcasted on megaphone

Organizers, using pen and pad, record missing persons names to be broadcasted on megaphone

ptions of the missing all day long.

Pushkar Upadhay works for Tiwari’s group. “People come and tell their problems. We write down their names and where they are from. That paper is then given to me and I make the announcement,” he explained.

That task is difficult in a country with thousands of languages and dialects. When communication problems occur, they turn the microphone over to the lost people.

It took just a short time for these women from West Bengal to reconnect with their families.

Nearly 18,000 police are patrolling this year’s festival. Police Inspector General Alok Sharma says, although new technologies such as smart phones and security cameras are making policing easier, many still rely on the old, but reliable loudspeaker system.

“The crowds are such that they are still not that much into computers and things like that," he added. "They would just go back on the basic. That is the announcement system.”

Many of the lost are the elderly and children, whom Sharma says are particularly at risk of being kidnapped. The U.N. says India continues to have a serious problem with child trafficking.

Sharma says officers remain alert for at-risk kids. “Trafficking of kids in this area is very difficult, but we always look at the kids to see if they have been trafficked from somewhere else,” he said.

Organizers say all of the people who have been reported lost at the Kumbh Mela this year have been reunited with their families.

That is an impressive record in a country where rights workers estimate more than one quarter of the 40,000 children abducted each year go unaccounted for.

But with 20 times more police than most Indian cities and extensive coordination with local partners, Sharma says that the Kumbh Mela model of policing is not likely to be replicated in other parts of the subcontinent.