A pilgrimage of life and death

As the massive 2019 Kumbh Mela rumbles on it continues to shape the news in India. Politicians make predictable ‘surprise appearances’, competing with their rivals to be seen washing away their sins in the Sangam. A transgender ashram has joined the holy bathing, newly liberated by India’s very recent decriminalisation of homosexuality. The lead story for many Indian newspapers was the capture of a serial killer, wanting to cleanse his soul, even while planning further attacks. He was caught with a bloodied axe hidden in his robes in an operation Indian police had cryptically code-named ‘Operation serial killer’.

Death and pilgrimage are old friends: Kumbh Mela crowds are often so vast that they can be seen by satellite: a sea of people, as perilous and unpredictable as any ocean. Sudden crowd surges can be catastrophic and over recent years many have been crushed and fatally injured as a result.

Looking for solutions, a team of scientists led by the University of Amsterdam is developing a dynamic computational model designed to help manage extremely large crowds. The project combines geo-informatics and remote sensing to look for patterns and warning signs that can anticipate where and when a problem might arise. Electronic devices, including wrist bands, smart phones, drones and other sources provide real-time data which can then help predict how a massive crowd, made up of millions of individuals on the move, might shift and change at any moment.

We can imagine a time when such digital and geospatial technologies would make physical peregrination unnecessary; a time when, we could, if we wished, make a pilgrimage without leaving home, our senses stimulated by virtual reality head-set and atmospherics. But it’s hard to believe this would satisfy the fundamental pilgrim impulse for liberty. At the close of Mark Twain’s great odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, the eponymous narrator sums up the choice between the security of home and the liberation of the open road

“I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilise me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

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