Can faith heal?

Billed as the largest gathering of humanity in recorded history, Maha Kumbh has commenced in Allahabad. Over the next few weeks, pilgrims will jostle to take a dip at Sangam—the confluence of two polluted rivers of the country, the Ganga and the Yamuna. Soma Basu reports on its impacts on the Sangam City and villages downstream, while Bharat Lal Seth analyses why the rivers will remain dirty

By Soma Basu, Bharat Lal Seth
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Can faith heal?

maha kumbh

Sometime in 1895 after visiting Kumbh Mela, Mark Twain wrote: “It is wonderful, the power of faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and the frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear, I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act borne of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold white.” Surely, the American writer was left awestruck by the grandeur of the event. But given the event’s size as it is today and associated complexities one wonders whether the centuries-old Hindu festival would still have evoked similar sentiments in him.

Kumbh Mela is held every three years at one of the four locations—Prayag, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain—where it is believed that drops from a kumbh (pitcher) containing the nectar of immortality were spilled as gods and demons struggled over it. The festival gains special significance at the end of the 12-year cycle. Called Maha Kumbh, it attracts the largest throng: 70 million devotees in 2001 made it the largest gathering in recorded history. This year, 2013, is that 12th year and the festival has begun at Prayag in Allahabad city of Uttar Pradesh. By the time it comes to an end on March 10, a staggering 100 million would have congregated at Sangam—confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. People who flock to Sangam are mostly those propelled by tradition or the urge to seek salvation. Legend has it that a dip in the holy confluence during Maha Kumbh will wash away sins of lifetime and previous births and help one attain moksha, the state of liberation from rebirth and sufferings. Then there are others who are drawn by the desire to witness the spectacular show of faith and experience the power of congregation.

The first Shahi Snan attracted 11 million pilgrims and tourists

The inaugural day of the 55-day congregation was marked by the first Shahi Snan (royal bath) of 13 akhadas, which represent different sects of sadhus. It began much before daybreak, with thousands of Naga sadhus, naked, carrying silver tridents, maces and swords, their faces doused in ash, their matted hair coiled like serpents upon their heads, sprinting into the chilly waters in religious ecstasy. There was a mad frenzy in the national and foreign media, with photographers rushing to get award-winning shots of the Naga sadhus. There were also heavily decked-up chariots, some in silver and gold, winding their way to the Sangam, with hundreds following in procession on foot, beating drums, blowing conch shells and waving saffron flags.

imageIt was a unique blend of austerity and opulence. The sadhus reserve the right to take the first dip in the confluence at an astrologically appropriate time. This year it was 5.15 in the morning. Elaborate arrangements were made at the ghat (bathing place along rivers) reserved for the sadhus and religious leaders. The fraternity was led by Mahanirvani akhada and followed by Niranjani, Anand and Juna akhadas among others. A ghat was reserved for politicians, celebrities and those considered VIP by the administration.

The inaugural day also laid bare how a sacramental congress could be turned into a fanfare of muck and mire, and exposed gaping holes in the arrangements made by the mela authorities for the world’s largest gathering of people.

Cleanliness v godliness

More than 11 million people who followed the godmen to take the ritual bath had to jostle for space at 34 ghats, extended over a little more than one kilometre. A holy bath was no less than an achievement given that each one got about 13.5 seconds to take a bath, offer prayers and move out.

Ahead of the Maha Kumbh, sadhus had protested over inadequate water in the Ganga. Tirth Maryada Raksha Samiti, a conglomerate of religious organisations, demanded additional water be released to ensure enough clean water for the holy dip. They asked the government to set up a cell to monitor river flow during the gathering. There were also interventions from the Allahabad High Court, which is hearing public interest petitions on the Ganga pollution, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who heads the National Ganga Basin Authority.

Following the pressure, on December 20, Jawed Usmani, chief secretary of the Uttar Pradesh government directed officials to release 71 cumec (cubic metre per second) of water from Narora barrage in Bulandshahr, from January 1 to February 28. The barrage is more than 500 km upstream of Sangam. The supply will be reduced to 42.6 cumec from March 1 until March 10 since fewer people are expected and only one Shahi Snan would remain. The quality of water at the confluence improved within 10 days. Even then it barely meets the bathing standards.

The authorities have put up hoardings requesting people to keep the Ganga clean

The monitoring station downstream Sangam shows several parameters of water quality have improved, though they barely meet the standards. For instance, the BOD (biochemical oxygen demands, indicating the amount of organic pollutants in water) was 4mg/l. Water above 3mg/l BOD is not suitable for bathing (see ‘A momentary sparkle’).

But pollution can be no deterrent for a devotee who must take a sip of the holy water as part of ritual. He must also fill bottles with the Ganga water to carry home as gifts for friends and relatives.

“How can the Ganga be dirty?” asked Pinaki Ghosh, a resident of Kolkata. “People store Ganga water in bottles for years but it never smells. Water from any other source, if kept in a container, starts smelling within weeks. There must be a reason to it.”


Anshu Patel, a resident of Vadodara in Gujarat, said, “We have read articles about the water being dirty but there are several researches that show the water has healing properties.” He escorted his parents for a holy dip at Sangam. Enthusiasm was palpable among devotees and tourists who turned up in record numbers on the day of the first Shahi Snan. The mela authorities say they are anticipating 10 per cent increase in the number of pilgrims from the last Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001. On important bathing days, which include the days of Shahi Snan, their number may go up (see graph).

To host them, a vast tent-city has sprung that has been given the status of a district for the mela period. An IAS officer, Mani Prasad Mishra, has been given the charge of managing the festival. The mela authorities have increased the fair area: from 15 sq km divided into 11 sectors in 2001 to 19 sq km and 14 sectors. Tents, hospitals, electricity lines, mobile towers, sanitation facilities, water pipelines, overhead tanks, pontoon bridges and a maze of roads; they have all been set up at a whopping Rs 256 crore. The congregation is 80 times bigger than the host city of Allahabad, five times of the country’s commercial hub Mumbai and 2.5 times of Tokyo.

Bane for farmers
While the godmen were clamouring for release of extra water into the river during Maha Kumbh, water melon planters in the downstream villages were dreading the worst damage of all.

Allahabad’s watermelon varieties are known for their sweetness and flavour. They are even exported to Nepal and Bhutan. Over 50,000 farmers depend on the crop in villages of Niva, Begumsarai, Kandhaipur, Kasrauli, Bamrauli, Asrauli, Hatwa, Mohammadpur and Rasulpur Maryadi. They grow the crop on the dry riverbed of the Ganga.

Since the Ganga receded far this winter, thousands of farmers have planted watermelon in the reclaimed land. “The irrigation authorities have already released extra water in the Ganga for Shahi Snans. Even if the water level rises a bit, it would flood our plantations,” says Md Gazi of Bamrauli, who has planted watermelon on his entire 1.2 hectares field. Besides, he adds, the Ganga has become so polluted that it makes plants wither. Farmers have installed bore wells on the sandbank to irrigate fields.

Md Giyas, a sexagenarian from neighbouring Mohammadpur, says: “When I was young, sick people used to camp near the Ganga for months. They would be healed just by drinking its water. Now, its water is not even suitable for irrigation.”

Managing such a huge population for nearly two months is no easy task. Apart from the challenge of providing them with basic amenities like food, water, electricity and sanitation facility, there is always the risk of stampede and disease outbreak.

A press release issued by the authorities claims that extra arrangements have been made to ensure cleanliness and hygienic atmosphere in the Sangam City to prevent any disease outbreak. But on the first day of the festival, it took only six hours to turn the fair ground, prepared for two months, into a cesspool.

Holy ground turns unholy

Soon after paying offerings to the goddess Ganga, the devotees had left their mark in the form of urine, faeces and plastic at the confluence, which was illuminating with sodium lamps till daybreak. Despite a ban, innumerable polythene bags, plastic bottles of ghee, honey and even beer cans were seen floating in the river or strewn on the sandbank formed in the middle of the river.

Despite the administration making claims that 10,000 people have been assigned for waste disposal, there were just 50-odd people picking rubbish from ghats after the crowd started dwindling. Officials said they had made pits of one square metre at several places for solid waste disposal.

They were too busy with the security arrangements and controlling crowd to prevent people from disposing of waste into the river. Even if they could prevent waste, what about the flowers, ghee and other scented assortments offered to the goddess Ganga?

Going by a conservative estimate, even an insignificant 100 g of ritualistic offerings by each of the 11 million people who attended the first day of Maha Kumbh would have resulted in 1,100 tonnes of solid waste. To put it into perspective, Allahabad generates 500 tonnes of solid waste daily.

The state government handout boasted 47,000 toilets, which include 35,000 dry toilets and 7,500 eco-trench toilets where excreta gets collected in a tank and is treated with microbes. About 1,000 biodigester toilets were also promised.

Based on technologies developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and IIT Kanpur, this toilet employs bacteria to feed on faeces in the biodigester tank and degrade it, and costs Rs 8,65,000. But the promised number of biodigesters are yet to be delivered.

Sangam City assumes the status of a district during Maha Kumbh

Till the last week of January the Mela authorities had procured only 78 such toilets. Mishra said the delay in procurement was because the toilet is not manufactured on a large scale. Three biodigesters that Down To Earth could spot were locked. Just like 2001, open defecation was widespread.

By noon, toilets started overflowing and the visitors were greeted with stench from open garbage pits and water holes filled with urine and human excreta. People started using cubicles, made for women to change clothes after bathing, as toilets. Despite a Central law banning manual scavenging, the authorities have employed people for scooping faeces out of dry toilets and sewage pits. But they had to race against time (see ‘Scavenging still a reality’).

Scavenging still a reality
Nilu does not like it when people ask him his full name. He has a strange sense of disassociation with his family name, Valmiki. Valmikis are a Scheduled Caste community in Uttar Pradesh who have traditionally been engaged in manual scavenging. Nilu has been lucky during this Kumbh. He is a meth, or head of 12 manual scavengers. He doesn’t have to scoop out faeces himself. In Kumbh of 2007, he was not so lucky.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993 prohibits carrying night soil on head and seeks demolition of dry latrines in the country. Following a Supreme Court order to implement the law, Uttar Pradesh had committed to complete conversion of dry latrines into flush ones by March 2011. Yet about 28,000 dry latrines have been built in the Kumbh area. The mela authorities have also recruited 5,000 people to keep these toilets clean, apart from cleaning health clinics and the maze of roads in the mela area. They are set to recruit 5,000 more. Most of these sanitation workers are manual scavengers like Nilu and are from Bhadwari, Majhima, Tandwari and Baveru blocks of Banda district.

Even the census of 2011 had found that the state has about 200,000 dry latrines. Uttar Pradesh is not the only one to violate the Act. In 2002-2003, the Union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment admitted that there were 9.2 million dry latrines across 21 states and Union Territories, and 676,000 people lifted human excreta for a living. However, when Safai Karamchari Andolan filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2003, most states denied employing scavengers and claimed that most of them had been rehabilitated in alternative professions. But the Maha Kumbh Mela exposes the lie.

During Kumbh of 2007, sanitation workers formed a union and protested against irregular and poor pay. This year, formation of union has been barred. They are being paid Rs 156 for working 24 hours and are recruited through agents. They do not have a fixed contract. This is when upper caste people like the Kushwaha and Thakur, who are taking up sanitation works lately, are recruited through Zilla Parishads and are paid Rs 15,000 a month for fixed working hours. Valmiks come to the fair with families. Their quarters are on the fringes of the mela area near open drains and water outlets. They do not have toilets for themselves and are not allowed to use toilets made for pilgrims. “We are untouchables. No matter how much the politicians give speech about us, people always call us chhote log and treat accordingly,” says Nilu.

The government claims to have laid 570 km of water pipelines and is providing 80 million litres of water a day (mld) to the pilgrims. But thousands of kalpwasis (pilgrims who stay on the riverside in tents for a month and spend their time meditating and performing rituals) complain of water shortage and foul drinking water. Jal Nigam officials admit they are supplying water from deep bore wells without filtration. However, they say, there is enough tap connection to cater to the needs.

But this is a far cry going by the WHO standards, which say a person needs at least 40 litres a day for sustenance. The water provision at the Sangam City works out to be less than two litres per person per day after taking leakage losses into account, or even lesser as sanitary workers use the water to spray on roads for settling dust. With 20,000 tap connections, there is only one tap per 2,000 people in the Sangam City. Pilgrims complain that in several pockets pipelines are yet to be laid. They walk for about three kilometres to fetch drinking water.

Wastewater treatment tank at the mela ground

This, along with other unsanitary practices, is keeping the medical department busy. Doctors at Main Hospital say they are receiving a large number of patients with stomach ailments. In one of the 14 sectors, about 50 cases of diarrhoea were reported in the first week. There is just 0.1 bed per 10,000 people against the national average of nine, and 0.04 doctor per 10,000 people against the national average of six.

Yet pilgrims feel blissful amid the chaos. “We have been attending Kumbh Melas since 1989. Dirty toilets and cramped ghats do not make much difference to us,” says Pradip Agarwal, a resident of Allahabad. “A dip in the river rejuvenates us.” Or, is it the power of congregation?

Based on studies of melas on the Ganga, Indian and British researchers have published a paper in peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS One in October 2012. It argues that despite cold weather, endless noise, poor food and risk of disease, devotees who attend such events and participate in collective rites have higher levels of mental and physical wellbeing. Maybe, the study holds the answer to Mark Twain’s quest.

With inputs from Avikal Somvanshi

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  • I think it is the faith only

    I think it is the faith only that keeps people making a beeline to Sangam and it is sheer faith that saves them from bacterial infections. The health of Ganga is pitiable and with the added muck of millions it is bound to go from bad to worse.
    We can only say Jai Gange.

    But is time that the message about keeping the rivers clean is conveyed to the masses through all types of media-else the future generations will have rivers of poop only.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The answer to the question:

    The answer to the question: Can Faith Heal? is most certainly yes.
    In offering my comments on ÔÇ£Hindu Philosophy & Environmental PollutionÔÇØ, I had offered a much better explanation than ÔÇ£peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS One in October 2012, which argues that despite cold weather, endless noise, poor food and risk of disease, devotees who attend such events and participate in collective rites have higher levels of mental and physical wellbeing. Maybe, the study holds the answer to Mark TwainÔÇÖs quest.ÔÇØ

    My comment was:
    ÔÇ£I am of the firm opinion that instead of ridiculing the people in having faith in rituals it will be better to restore the status of the Ganga.

    Look the conviction of the yatrees, the devotees and much more the sadhus is deep down at the state of the ecosystem where one can only have a feeling. It is the ecosystem that is deeper than the microenvironment (size: 10-6), or the nanoenvironment (size: 10-9) but the picoenvironment (size: 10-12) where the free energy exchange is all that matters. This free energy is what is ÔÇ£atmaÔÇØ or ÔÇ£roohÔÇØ and in terms of thermodynamics it is the driving force or Free energy of life processes. This the theme of my Book: ÔÇ£Ecosystem Approach to Life ProcessesÔÇØ: [Life Processes Health Disease & Aging, Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, 2012, Research & Development Publications, Karachi].

    According to this approach, all humans, including people who feel a sense of calm and bliss over the polluted Ganga, are under oxidative dehydration-induced stress. All of us, when under stress look for reversal of the stress which may be possible by reductive rehydration by asking or praying to the unknown but omnipresent, who may bless the stressed soul with the much needed free energy and may be the means to get the desired relief and blessing for which millions of people go for yatra and visit shrines. All yatrees who go far yatra with firm belief, are blessed in some such ways that satisfies their soul. If this were not the case, people may not have thronged to such places in ever-increasing numbers. To them the polluted water does not smell, and does no harm.

    In thermodynamic terms the stressed state of the yatree is in dire need of free energy/driving force. The yatreeÔÇÖs faith is the medium for transfer of free energy and the much needed driving force. That is how the stressed yatree earns his reward for visiting the mela.

    Interestingly, all places visited by yatrees and devotees have some source of water, may be a river, a spring or a pond. The springs these days are just as much, if not more, polluted with microorganisms and chemicals as the Ganga; they also do not have as much dissolved oxygen as the freshwater flowing in the rivers. The devotees get their stress released just the same. So, the idea is that pollution may be causing deficiency in dissolved oxygen but the water continues to have the potential to provide the free energy at the picoenvironment which provides the relief to the firm believers like the Sadhus and devotees.

    So, sir, instead of ridiculing the traditionalists for their faith, let us concentrate on purifying the Ganga chemically and biologically; while the yatrees consider it pure enough to purify their soul, and my theory considers it energetically charged adequately to undo the stress.

    So, sir, Hinduism and for that matter any religion is not insensitive to the environment; on the contrary they are more sensitive to clean environment. The plain truth is that humanity begs of the governance system to adopt sustainable approach to the environment.

    Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg
    Former Director General PCSIR Karachi

    This article lacks scientific approach. The question we need to ask is whether kumbh melas or religious practices pollute water, and if yes, to what extent. What kind of pollutants they induce in water? And what percentage of them? You will find it's the industrial waste that is almost solely responsible and not occasional celebrations.

    My Comment (23012013)
    This article may lack scientific approach but not common sense.
    The common sense demands that ÔÇ£The last person who can save an accident and does not save the accident is responsible for the accidentÔÇØ. Simple! The mela yatrees are asking for forgiveness through their religious practices. In doing so they are looking to purifying their atma or soul. So they take a dip of about 14 seconds, in the water of the Ganga, assuming that its water, bearing heavenly characteristics, will purify their soul. It is not the physical or biological purity that matters to them. On the contrary their conviction is so strong that they do not care about the physical or biological impurities; they consider it pure enough to purify their soul.

    This is where common sense matters. The Ganga has been physically polluted by the industries whose industrial waste is likely to cause the accident by way of harming the health of the yatree. The accident can be avoided by restraining the industries from discharging the pollutants. If not they will be the last ones which could save the accident and do not save the accident and hence will be responsible for the accident, by the universal laws.

    You do not need a scientific approach to solve your own problem. What needs to be done then is to warn all concerned: the industries, municipalities and individuals to refrain from polluting the Ganga. It is therefore the moral obligation of the Governing Hierarchy as well as all concerned to preserve the sanctity of the Ganga and all religious institutions, may be a temple, a church, a mosque or a synagogue.

    Coming back to the scientific explanation given in the earlier article, the confidence of the yatrees in the Ganga in providing purity is governed at the level where it is all in terms of energy. Despite the impurity, they consider water of the Ganga to be charged with adequate purity to provide them the sense of calm and bliss.

    Remember, some if not most of these people, have no access to the conventional system of healthcare. For them the Ganga and the springs near the shrines provide alternative therapy. Many such people are cured by what I call the Ecosystem approach to life Processes; such persons are under oxidative dehydration-induced stress; they are looking for reversal of the stress which may be possible by reductive rehydration by asking or praying to the unknown but omnipresent, who may bless the stressed soul with the much needed free energy and may be the means to get the desired relief and blessing for which millions of people go for yatra and visit shrines. This free energy is what is "atma" or "rooh" and driving force or Free energy of life processes as I have proposed in my Book: "Ecosystem Approach to Life Processes" [Life Processes Health Disease & Aging, Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, 2012, Research & Development Publications, Karachi].

    Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg
    Former Director General PCSIR
    Karachi, Pakistan

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • In an earlier comment I had

    In an earlier comment I had identified the need to concentrate on purifying the Ganga chemically and biologically. Since the yatrees are least concerned about the physical purity, let us not discourage the faith in the yatra by quantifying the impurity. It is bad enough that we cannot physically purify the Ganga, and it is worse if we cannot preserve the sanctity of the Ganga on which millions depend fo purifying their soul, and my theory: ÔÇ£Ecosystem Approach to Life Processes" [Life Processes Health Disease & Aging, Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, 2012, Research & Development Publications, Karachi]ÔÇØ considers it energetically charged to adequately undo the stress and provide the bliss.

    I now find that the departments concerned have taken the steps i) to increase the volume of freshwater flow into the Ghat areas, and ii) reduced the BOD levels from 22-25 mg/l to about 6 mg/l though for a temporary period by closing the polluting units. This has perhaps been possible when the governance system was forced by the Judiciary to adopt sustainable approach to the environment.

    Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg
    Former Director General PCSIR Karachi

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Dr Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, I

    Dr Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, I agree with you. The point we are trying to drive home is how the government has failed to take adequate steps to cap pollution. To comment on whether Kumbh should happen or whether devotees should take a dip in Ganga is not for us to preach or prevent. Our earnest attempt has been just to report the ground situation. I agree that religion do not harm environment. Almost every religious scripture preaches peaceful coexistence with other human beings, trees, plants and animals. Rivers and mountains are worshiped. At times, agitations by tribal groups have been triggered simply because mining companies desecrated their sacred hills. Your comments answered several questions that I had. Thank you.

    Posted by: Soma Basu | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Faith does not emanate from

    Faith does not emanate from the sole dip of Ganga.
    Spiritually faith comes from within through meditation and yoga. Ganga serves as the mediator between the soul and the Gods.
    The number of antisocial elements do not decline by a single sip of Ganga water. It serves as an excuse to the faithless one's who enjoy the sword of self-defence.
    Elaborate arrangements are made to ensure safety of the pilgrims at a huge cost by the administrator, however after taking a nice dip in Ganga there remains no guarentee whether the sin has been washed or being manipulated for the Indians who are effortless and live with tyranny.

    It is better to have faith on Ganga as a holy river and sacrifice everything to see it flows neatly and without the devil's archive in manifesting the divine abode.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply