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  • Peter McGuire

Deadly Festivals of Asia

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Part 5 of a series on human stampedes and crushes

Where do most human stampedes happen? At religious festivals in Asia. Here’s why:

There is a significant bias in English-language literature about crushes that is reflected in this series of articles as well. While most incidents happen in low-income countries, most materials in English discuss incidents in high-income countries. For the majority of crushes, even data about frequency and casualties is scarce.

In the data we do have, which is mostly from India, stampedes in low-income countries had 7.75 times the fatality rate of high-income countries.

As has been the case in historical crushes, lack of appropriate first aid and triage causes many casualties to become deaths. The inadequate planning that allows crushes to develop also prevents proper first aid from reaching victims. But probably saddest of all, many crushes in the non-Western world go completely unremarked upon in the press, there or here. They are too common and not deadly enough. They can be caused by something as simple as a train changing platforms in a crowded station. These stations are too small for the number of people using them and crushes can quickly develop in corridors during a rush. In unplanned mass gatherings, which includes train station rushes, fatalities were 40 times more likely than at planned gatherings.

A 2019 survey found that India was the country with the most stampedes with 34 recorded incidents between 1954 and 2012. Between 59% and 79% of those were religious events and occurred in the densely-populated northern half of the country.

The two largest mass gatherings in the world are religious gatherings that happen in Saudi Arabia and India. They are the Hajj and the Kumbh Mela. These have been increasingly carefully planned in recent times because of the incredible frequency and deadliness of crushes.

A 2009 survey found that half of the ten deadliest crushes happened during Hajj. As of today, the deadliest crush ever was the 2015 Hajj crush, with over 2,000 pilgrims dead.

While authorities are gradually bringing down the frequency and deadliness of crushes at these events, the 2015 Hajj crush occurred despite long-term planning for the event that included a specifically constructed, stampede preventing bridge. Larger-scale planning is needed to ensure that crush chokepoints aren’t simply transferred to less-prepared parts of the gathering.

Especially with religious festivals in India, there is still much work needed to ensure that mass gatherings can be safe for pilgrims.

The Kumbh Mela of Death

The deadliest human crush in Indian history happened at the confluence of religion and politics. It also happened at the confluence of rivers, at one of the sites of the Kumbh Mela. This is a major pilgrimage for Hindus that takes place at four different sites along riverbanks. It happens at a different site roughly every three years and happens at each site every twelve years. The cycle coincides with Jupiter’s cycle in the night sky because Jupiter’s twelve-year transit forms the basis of several astrological/zodiacal systems, especially in Asia.

A mela is a festival and Kumbh refers to the zodiac sign of Aquarius. It’s likely that the Kumbh Mela originated at the Haridwar site because that festival coincides with the Aquarius part of Jupiter’s cycle. The other sites had similar rituals dating back to antiquity and likely only later took on the name Kumbh.

It’s hard to make any meaningful generalization about the meaning of the Kumbh Mela because of the huge diversity of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist beliefs associated. But, generally speaking, believers gather because those who bathe in the relevant spot at the appointed time are said to be freed of their sins or worldly attachments and will be freed from the cycle of reincarnation upon death. What exactly escaping the cycle of reincarnation means ranges, but it’s generally considered to be a good thing.

Crushes at Kumbh Melas date back to at least 1820. In that year, 485 people were crushed or trampled to death at the Haridwar Kumbh Mela. Authorities responded with infrastructure changes: widening roads and building steps down to the river. Uncounted crushes happened at these events over the years but were often masked by the other violence that tended to erupt at them. These are gatherings of many different religious sects with competing ideas.

Although primarily religious, the Kumbh Mela slowly gained revolutionary significance over the 19th Century. The gathering now brought together upwards of 2 million people of the Hindu faith. Despite occasional attempts by the British rulers to suppress it, revolutionaries met at the event and planned their revolutions, culminating with independence in 1947.

The Kumbh Mela in 1954 was the first after independence and held both religious and political significance. This location for the Kumbh Mela, an area historically known as Prayag, was always tricky to organize. The festival site is submerged during the monsoon months so management only has two and half months to construct temporary infrastructure for the event. This was the first Kumbh Mela organized by the new, Indian state authorities, taking over from British administration. 4-5 million attendees arrived including several leading politicians, some of whom had used previous events to organize independence.

On the day of the holy bathing, crowds were packed in between the township and the river. The river had moved closer to the township that year, leaving less room than usual for a larger crowd than usual. During the procession of the holy men, called sadhus, to the waters, crowds packed in tighter and tighter until they broke through the barriers by the river. People tumbled over each other and into the water. By the end of the day around 1,000 were dead and 2,000 were injured. Many of the dead lay compacted into the thick river mud.

When the mob came crashing at the slope of the barricade, it appeared like waves made by standing crops when a storm strikes just before they tumble. Those who fell could not rise again. The cries of “save me, save me” rented the air in all directions as people ran helter-skelter trampling others under their feet.

The Prime Minister, Nehru, visited the event and claimed that, although he could see the crush from the balcony where he was enjoying tea, he could not tell that anything had gone wrong because he had never seen so many people in one place before.

His government was criticized for inadequate preparation and for diverting rescue efforts towards event VIPs. Nehru avoided any personal responsibility, insisting he wasn’t involved in the activities of the day, and made a rule that politicians not attend the event in the future.

The thousand or so bodies were burned in a secretive mass pyre the next day.

The government also created a commission to ensure that future Kumbh Melas go safely. Despite this, another riverside crush happened in 1986, and a crowd of people leaving a Kumbh Mela crushed 42 at a train station in 2013.

Health continues to be somewhat cavalier at the Kumbh Mela. The Haridwar Kumbh Mela in April 2021 was limited from the usual four months of celebration to just 30 days due to covid concerns. Almost a million people took the holy dip in the Ganges on April 14th. It’s unknown the exact death toll from that single event but a report from the second largest state in India stated that 99% of returnees from the event were covid positive. Presumably, far more people died from that covid superspreader event than have ever died in crushes.

Other religious festivals in Northern India have also suffered mass casualty crushes in recent years. It appears that around 2003, the population of pilgrims in northern India reached an inflection point where crushes became much more likely. A publication from 2014 entitled “We Can Not Leave Everything to God” lists 15 major stampedes since 2003.

40 people were killed and 125 injured at a river mela in 2003.

350 people were killed and 200 injured at a temple pilgrimage in 2005. This one sounds like a Final Destination movie. “Witnesses said the rush started around midday after some pilgrims slipped on the temple's steep stone steps, which were wet with coconut water spilled from fruit presented as offerings to the goddess Kalubai. A fire then broke out in shops nearby and gas cylinders exploded. Scores were crushed to death on the steep and narrow hill path leading to the temple and many others were charred.” This event, like many, was blamed in part on the drunkenness of the crowd.

162 people were crushed in a temple pilgrimage in 2008, and 250 in a different temple crush that same year. 2010 saw 63 dead at a rural temple pilgrimage. 2013 had not only the train station crush after the Kumbh Mela but a much deadlier crush with 115 dead at another Hindu festival.

It’s easy for this to become a blur of numbers, but these are all ordinary people attending joyous festivals of their faith. Many who die are women, children, and the elderly. For many, their loved ones simply disappear in these mass crushings. Each one of these deaths represents a personal tragedy. For example, In 2013, Devanti Devi 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.” These are the people who are swallowed up in nameless, underreported crushes.

The temples where these crushes happen were built in medieval times, often in rural areas, and can’t accommodate the huge numbers of pilgrims who now flock to them. However, as mentioned earlier, crushes are less about total attendance than local density, so with proper management, most crushes can be avoided by regulating the flow of people.

That said, the combination of religious and local authorities tasked with managing these festivals and pilgrimage sites rarely have the resources to deal with the enormous numbers they’re faced with and sometimes have a very cavalier approach to safety. A religious leader said of the recent covid superspreader Kumbh Mela, "Death is inevitable, but we must maintain our traditions."

Only proper funding and planning of religious events can stop the carnage, which is only slowly becoming a priority in a country with many infrastructure priorities.

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