Meghsingh Badouria, 75, was left freezing in his underpants after losing his clothes and his friends following a dip in the holy waters at humanity’s biggest gathering, India’s Kumbh Mela.
He is not alone. In the cacophony and chaos of the vast religious festival, it is easy to get lost among the millions upon millions of Hindu devotees.
“I got separated from my villagers and went to the sangam [the holy confluence of rivers] and gave my bag to a stranger to look after while I went to bathe,” Badouria said. “When I came back, my bag was nowhere to be seen... It was early in the morning and it was cold.”
However, help is at hand: There are 15 lost and found centers across the grounds, a dusty maze of tents the size of Manhattan thronging with people from mid-January until early March.
“We get 70 or 100 people every day,” said Shivani Singh Sengar, 21, a volunteer who spends long days making announcements over the 3,500 loudspeakers in an attempt to reunite friends and family.
As Badouria explained his story — clothed by festival volunteers, but still without his friends — a panicked mother sobbed tears of relief after being reunited at the center with her two daughters, aged five and seven.
“After the bathing ritual, we decided to shop before heading home. As we purchased some clothes, I realized both my children were missing,” mother Ranjana said. “It was a nightmare and I cried a lot.”
As many as 150 million people are expected to visit this Kumbh. On the day of Badouria’s calamity, there were 20 million people attending.
Getting separated at the Kumbh and reuniting miraculously decades later is a common Bollywood story line, but technology and the ubiquity of mobile phones — there are 830 million of them in India — means that people get lost a lot less than they used to.
The 15 lost and found centers are connected via computer and there is a state-of-the-art police command post to oversee operations. Pictures of the missing rotate on television screens.
There is a special Kumbh app helping reunite people, providing they can read, which is far from a given.
Comprehension too can be an issue, with India home to 22 major languages and hundreds of dialects.
“One lady ... it was the first time that she had left her village. She couldn’t explain where she came from. She couldn’t identify any landmark,” Sengar said. “We checked Google. We asked her about the river near her home and temples. Eventually we worked out she was from Bengal.”
Binnu has been at the lost and found center for two weeks.
“I am comfortable here, but a bit worried. Hopefully, someone from my family will turn up soon,” said the 65-year-old, who does not know her address or the telephone number of any family members.
Reuniting people is “the norm,” Kumbh official Maninath Jha said.
Those who cannot find their friends or family are eventually given money and a letter to allow them free train travel to get home.
Many of those who get lost are illiterate older people from rural areas or young children. Counselors — and toys — are on hand to help those who are distressed.
However, there is a darker side. Sometimes older people or unwanted young daughters — India has one of the world’s highest rates of female feticide — are deliberately abandoned.
A two-year-old girl with a medical condition had been abandoned at the festival, Sengar said, adding that such cases were not unusual.
“We kept her here for 20 days and then we sent her to an NGO [a non-governmental organization] where she got operated on and treated,” she added. “Now she is living there. There are many cases like that.”
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