“I can’t believe God punished us this way,” said Santos Singh, one of the pilgrims at the station. “My 15-year-old son got injured. I wish police were more responsive.”
About 30 bodies covered in white sheets were visible on the train platform on Sunday evening. Several appeared to be children.
Death and loss have long been associated with the pilgrimage at the Kumbh,[ which takes place in other locations according to a different cycle]. Deadly stampedes previously occurred at the Allahabad pilgrimage in 1840, 1906, 1954 and 1986. And yet still the pilgrims come. Hindu lore says that when the Moon and Jupiter align, the Ganges and Yamuna are [joined by a mystical river, the Saraswati], bearing the divine nectar of immortality.
Those who bathe in the conjoined waters are cleansed of their sins and given blessings that extend through several generations, Hindus say. Pilgrims make the trip not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren.
Another lure is the presence of thousands of mystics, whom Hindus [revere as spiritually powerful]. But the crowds around the great [procession of naked mystics] in the predawn hours on Sunday were frightening.
Finally, the mystics rushed toward the holy waters, some with spears, tridents and swords held high.
They plunged in, scattering marigolds and sacred ash. Other pilgrims surged forward, and the mystics had to fight their way back to shore.
Behind the mystics were saffron-robed gurus on silver thrones. And behind the gurus were pilgrims by the millions, some barefoot and others so stooped they could see little more than their own feet. A few crawled.
“We have a dip here and then live happily for the rest of the year,” said Shaish Narayan, 62, a woodworker who first took part in the Kumbh when he was 5. “I put my faith in Mother Ganges.”
N. K. Auddy, a consulting engineer from Kolkata, was taking part in his first Kumbh because his daughter recently gave birth to his first grandchild, and he was hoping for a divine blessing for the child. “I want him to have a good future,” Mr. Auddy said.
Government officials estimated that 10 million pilgrims were encamped in Allahabad on Saturday night, with 20 million to 30 million expected to bathe by Monday.
If those figures are even close to being accurate, it is as if the entire population of Texas decided to visit an area the size of Savannah, Ga., all on the same weekend.
About 80 million pilgrims — roughly the population of Germany — are expected at some point in the Kumbh’s 55-day run. By comparison, 3.1 million people visited Mecca in Saudi Arabia during last year’s annual pilgrimage, [the hajj]. Each successive Kumbh breaks the record for the largest gathering in human history.
Many stay in a huge tent city built on riverbanks that were underwater as recently as October. Its inhabitants have access to drinking water, public toilets, good health care and consistent electricity — none of which India has been able to reliably deliver anywhere else.
The precautions and amenities are intended to prevent the stampedes and plagues that have so worried government officials. About 70,000 government employees provide security, sprinkle insecticide, sweep up excrement and spray bleach. But it was not enough to avert a tragedy on Sunday.
The stampede was set off by railway delays, shoddy infrastructure and overcrowding, several witnesses said. Train service was severely delayed during the early evening, they said, leaving more and more passengers stranded in the small station.
[Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was shocked by the tragedy] and promised to compensate the injured and the families of those killed.
A stampede seemed possible several times on Sunday as pilgrims jockeyed to be present at the one place and time where the gods are said to bestow their most precious gifts. One problem is that pilgrims often linger in the water and on the beach, preventing the next wave of people from entering. The police routinely charged onto the beach, blowing whistles and pushing people back with long bamboo poles to clear the way for more pilgrims.
The intense jostling separated many families, and desperate searches took place all over the beach. Thousands of children and older women ended up in tents for the lost. Loudspeakers announced names, hometowns and locations.
Devanti Devi, of Bihar, said her 70-year-old mother had been missing for three days. “She doesn’t have any money, and I don’t think she can hear the announcements,” Ms. Devi said.
For some Indians, the growing [religious fervor of the country’s Hindu majority] is a cause for concern. A right-wing Hindu group at the Kumbh called last week for continued confrontation with the nation’s Muslim minority by insisting that a Hindu shrine be built where a mosque once stood.
“These right-wing organizations use the Kumbh to mobilize pilgrims, and there’s always the threat that they can turn violent,” said Sumanta Banerjee, a researcher at the [Indian Institute of Advanced Study] in Shimla.
But politics seemed a distant concern for most of the pilgrims here. Maheshanand Giri, one of the first mystics into the water on Sunday, said that the presence of mystics was an important reason for the popularity of the Kumbh. “People come here to have a holy dip in the Ganges, and we are an add-on,” said Mr. Giri.
Madhusudhan Upadhaya, a tea seller from Hyderabad, said he had traveled for nearly two days before arriving in Allahabad. “I’ve come here for the blessing, which is best gotten here,” he said. “But I don’t know if it will work. It’s not science. You can’t test this.”
Reporting was contributed by Hari Kumar and Raksha Kumar from Allahabad, and Heather Timmons and Malavika Vyawahare from New Delhi.