ALLAHABAD, INDIA, January 2013 (The Hindu): It’s two days to the first auspicious dip at the Kumbh mela. The fair’s lost-and-found bureau is not open for business — the tin sheds and canvas tents are up, but it isn’t yet hooked up to the 4,000-odd public address speakers spread around the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna that will, in a couple of days, start announcing the names of missing persons round the clock.
Umesh Chand Tiwari is a 38-year-old shopkeeper from Allahabad. It was his father, Raja Ram Tiwari, who started this voluntary service at the 1946 Magh mela, which happens at Sangam every year between the 12-yearly Kumbhs and Ardh-Kumbhs. The 86-year-old man, who trained as an advocate, says, “I had come to the fair in 1946 with a few friends. We met an old woman who was lost. At that time, there were no tents and the whole affair was much smaller — just 1,000-odd shacks on the sand around Sangam. It was easy to take her around the fair to find her associates. Then we saw others who were lost, too. So we started the service.” The records he has maintained since show he helped some 870 men and women find their near and dear ones that year. Then a few friends joined him from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh and the bureau got organised into the Bharat Seva Dal. It’s one essential service at the fair that the government has left to the care of Tiwari’s team of volunteers. They get just the space, the tents, electricity and water from the administration. The rest of the money is cobbled up from well-wishers.
The fair has changed considerably. Fuelled by publicity and the ever-present attraction of washing off one’s accumulated sins in one big dip, tens of millions converge at the Kumbh. The official figure of the number of people on the first auspicious day for a dip, January 14, was 8.5 million. Many more millions will surely follow in the two months that this fair will be on for. The tented city this year is spread over a horizon-defying 2,250 hectares, about one-and-a-half times the size it was during the Ardh-Kumbh six years ago. It’s today the largest gathering of humans on Earth, manned by thousands of state officials and policemen. And the number the Bharat Seva Dal tots up runs into tens of thousands.