Every year nearly 10 million pilgrims attend the Ardh Kumbh Mela at Haridwar, Ujjain, Nashik and the Purna Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, India. These pilgrimages are a spectacle to behold, as spirituality flows through the huge masses that assemble on these holy grounds. Unfortunately, the huge attendance also leads to fatal stampedes and accidents. This year India woke to another such incident in Allahabad as a railway bridge at the Allahabad station collapsed resulting in a stampede that killed 40 people.
Is it that the ‘juggernaut’ refuses to leave behind its bloody history, or is it just plain bad luck or poor planning? The origin of the word ‘juggernaut’ can be linked to the yatra of Lord Jagganath, which was said to include the voluntary sacrifice of devotees under the Lord’s chariot. In modern terms it continues to retain its destructive connotation and is used to mean a mercilessly destructive and unstoppable force. Whatever the historical precedents might be, in today’s times when management and planning techniques have attained near perfection, it need not always leave a blood trail on a holy trip. Surprisingly, all such accidents gain and lose attention till the next one happens!
Today India can boast of planning for millions of pilgrims year after year, complete with modern facilities such as sanitation, temporary bridges, housing, doctors, ambulances, police, and bomb squads on standby; but the number of accidents has not declined. The Kumbha Melas attract one of the largest gathering of people in the world. Over 30 million people are reported to have visited Allahabad on Feb 10, 2013 and 100 million over the entire 55 day festival. The scale of this event deserves the attention that is given to IPL cricket finals, the Cricket World Cup or Asian Games. The planning and execution of these games is highly professional and puts India on the world map when it comes to planning international sporting events. India is already one of the favorite spiritual tourist destinations, and it is only fitting that the same professionalism is brought into the planning of the Kumbh Mela, the Amarnath Yatra and other pilgrimages.
Given the magnitude of the congregation, some mishaps are expected, but their magnitude and the casualties they cause are unacceptable. Something is amiss in the event management system of the pilgrimages in India.It is high time to take stock before another batch of pilgrims lose their lives (this year’s stampede reported 40 deaths).
India is a spiritual land that attracts westerners with its religious diversity and historical pilgrimage destinations. Indian citizens deserve better tourist facilities, given that 80 million pilgrims in the country visit destinations like Vaishnodevi, Mansarovar, Varanasi, Tirupati, Haridwar-Rishikesh; Gaya, Badrinath, Kedarnath and others every year.
Spiritual tourism is a big income generator for trusts and towns located around the places like Tirupati, Shirdi etc. The Balaji temple in Tirupati earned an income of over Rs. 1,700 crores in 2011. Better planning in crowd management, emergency medical care and provisions for sheltering pilgrims who face several hardships during long and tedious travels (as some of these destinations are difficult treks/routes demanding shelter, medical care and emergency support). As large sections of Indian pilgrims include senior citizens, utilities and facilities that take care of their special needs are certainly the need of the hour.
With some extra careful professional planning, religious pilgrimages in India can truly be a divine experience for pilgrims from across the world.