Three years ago, while living in Shanghai, I wrote about how the world would be witnessing two ancient, amazing theatres of faith and perseverance that test the extent of human endurance and also showcase how transmittable diseases can spread much faster in a small space of time, across huge geographies.
The first is the celebration of Chinese New Year, which is celebrated across China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore as national holidays, but nowhere more so than in Mainland China. The mass exodus from cities to villages to celebrate the new lunar year involves nearly 600 million Chinese covering over 3.6 billion journeys in under 2 weeks in a grueling journey back to their hometowns, and back again. Compare this with just about 100 million Americans travelling domestically over the peak holiday season. 1
The second is India’s Kumbh Mela, an ancient pilgrimage held every 12 years in India, where the equivalent of the entire population of New York congregates daily to bathe in the sacred rivers to attain spirituality. The Mela itself is a huge planning exercise for various NGOs and health bodies who need to ensure that millions of people stay free from diseases and health risks. 2
Nearly 3 years on since my last write-up, as one gets ready for the whimsical yet wise Year of the Monkey that starts on February 8th and the Kumbh Mela reaches its auspicious 12-year cycle, it’s an opportune moment to think about how these two acts of faith invariably must have a health impact that affects hundreds of millions in just a matter of weeks.
In China, getting from one part of the country to another is an ordeal at this time. Stakes are highest on long-haul routes, and the train route from Beijing to Urumqi is about as long as they come. The trip will take over 40 hours and covers 1,998 miles to finally reach the northwest Xinjiang Province.
Passengers crammed in seats share their floor, bathroom and luggage space with the standing passengers. For the next 2 days, migrant workers rub shoulders with bubbly university students. Policemen, cooks and white collar workers face each other across cramped booths, and the combination of card games, grain alcohol, cigarettes and forced cohabitation offers an alarming chance of communicable diseases—especially when faced with travellers moving from one side of the country to the other, from all walks of life and backgrounds, alongside a lack of comprehensive vaccination posing some alarming questions. While there are no available facts on this, it is something to think about, especially if it’s giving a virus the chance to be carried from one end of China to the other in the approximately 3 billion+ journeys that are already taking place.
If one interprets the Monkey’s characteristics as an outlook for 2016, it would probably tell us to stop all this unnecessary banter about health and simply ‘Don’t Worry. Be Monkey.’ One can’t argue with thousands of years of celestial knowledge as simple as that.
Moving from humanity’s largest migration to a side of Asia that reinforces the role of nature in Asian values, the ‘Ardh Kumbh Mela’ is set to take place by the banks of all the four rivers considered sacred by Hindus in India—Ganges, Yamuna, Saraswati and Godawari. Rivers have always held a special place in Hindu mythology, as these are considered to be the carriers of life and fertility. This fair is perhaps the largest and peaceful gathering in any religion around the world. It never ceases to amaze anyone who has visited during this time.
Mark Twain, the intrepid traveller that he was, visited the Mela in 1895 and best summarized it by saying, “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining”.
You can’t mention the Mela without hearing a comparison with the Burning Man, the offbeat American gathering that takes place in the Nevada desert. While they are vastly different in size, they do share the sameness that one would experience in temporary ”pop-up” cities that appear and disappear over a matter of weeks. In terms of healthcare data, medical tents that offer emergency services see about 5,000 patients across 10 medical tents a day. In all of this, though, at the Kumbh Mela, which can swell to 60 times the attendance of the Burning Man, health clinics are likely to utilize emergency medical services only once a day. That’s a remarkable display of how massive crowds can manage themselves relatively safely and get home in one piece. This however is only one part of it. The less spiritual fact is that rivers like the Ganges (considered extremely holy) are unfortunately filled with chemical wastes, sewage and even human and animal remains which carry major health risks by either direct bathing in the dirty water (e.g.: Bilharziasis infection) or by drinking (the fecal-oral route).
I refer to these two large-scale Asian events – the advent of the new lunar year and the Mela – because they act as a perfect mirror to what drives this wide populace in its multitudes of pilgrimages and celebrations. A perfect diaspora of what represents humanity in all its colours, shapes and forms. It is at once tangible in its tribulation and intangible in providing confidence and enlightenment. The health risks are real, but not enough to keep hundreds of millions of Chinese from seeing their loved ones again, or for tens of millions of Indians to reconnect with their inner spiritual self. A ritual that has gone on for millenia.
When we interpret the world around us knowing such a mass of humanity is going to such levels of endurance, I believe it offers us a chance to understand what drives us against such odds and risks. Maybe it’s within these individuals, each striving to get home or to a new spiritual plane, that the bigger picture can be seen. Health is rational, emotions are not.
So in this age of Aquarius, while millions strip off their clothes to soak in sacred muddy rivers halfway across the world, and an entire population crams into trains, buses and any available transport to get home to see loved oneslet’s pause and say, ”What’s to worry? It’s all Monkey.”
“Gong Xi Fa Cai” – Happy New Lunar Year of the Monkey.
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