Lost in a Sea of People and Languages

Pilgrims gather at the third Shahi Snan in Har ki Pauri to take the Royal Bath in the Ganges, 2010. (Coupdoeil / Philipp Eyer / Wikimedia Commons)

Pilgrims gather at the third Shahi Snan in Har ki Pauri to take the Royal Bath in the Ganges, 2010. (Coupdoeil / Philipp Eyer / Wikimedia Commons)

Getting lost in a crowd can be scary at the best of times. But imagine if that crowd runs into the millions, and there’s no shared language. In fact, people in the crowd may speak hundreds of mutually incomprehensible languages.

That’s the linguistic reality at the Kumbh Mela Hindi festival in northern India. Millions of devotees travel from all over India for a ritual dip in the Ganges. Most travel in groups, and can easily get separated. Some have mobile phones. Many don’t– and even those do can’t keep them charged. Many aren’t used to travel; for some, it’s the first time they have left their home state. Lots of people get lost.

That’s where the Kumbh Mela Lost and Found camp comes in. From 1946 to 2012, camp staff say they have reunited 1,064,748 adults and 19,717 children with their traveling parties. How do they do it, if they don’t speak the same language as the lost person? They have that person speak in his or her own language over public address system.



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