On February 10, 2013, overcrowding at a railway station in the northern Indian city of Allahabad led to a stampede that killed 36 people. The city was full at the time. Very full. It was hosting the world’s largest religious gathering, the Maha Kumbh Mela, and the authorities estimated the number of pilgrims in the city that day hit its peak, at 30 million. The stampede made headlines around the world and is what most non-Hindus remember about the festival. But there’s another story about the Maha Kumbh Mela that hasn’t been told.
It begins two weeks earlier, about four miles from the station, on the banks of the River Ganges. It’s the second major bathing day of the festival. Dawn has yet to break, fog shrouds the river, and a full moon illuminates the crowd massing at its edge. There are thousands of people here already, but this crowd is serene, unified. There’s no pushing or shoving, let alone panic—only a palpable sense of purpose as they wade in, immerse themselves in the icy water, and wade out again. People make way for each other, give each other a helping hand. The ritual complete, purpose turns to joy. “How do you feel?” I ask a man wearing a dripping loincloth. “Rejuvenated,” he says, as two, then three, then four newcomers take his place.
Looking on is a policeman whose job is to keep the crowd moving, since no fewer than seven million people are expected to bathe here today. “Each one, on his own, wouldn’t be able to do it,” he says. “They give each other strength.” His words echo my thoughts. There’s an energy coming off this crowd, a sense that it amounts to more than the sum of its parts. The French 19th-century sociologist Émile Durkheim coined a phrase for it: collective effervescence. He was convinced it had a positive impact on individuals’ health. His ideas were sidelined during the mass violence of the 20th century, but perhaps he was on to something. Have crowds been misunderstood?