Some 115 Hindu pilgrims died during a stampede on a bridge in Madhya Pradesh province. The crowd was en route to the Ratangarh temple to celebrate the end of the Navratri festival when panic broke out along the unstable bridge, caused by some pilgrims suggesting it may collapse. Others drowned in the river during their attempts to avoid being crushed.
Such stampedes are not an irregular occurrence in India, much of whose population celebrates numerous religious festivals during the Hindu year. Whilst the country’s population has ballooned uncontrollably in recent years, and rising living standards have enabled more people to attend far-flung holy sites at short notice, the accommodating infrastructure in many regions has been neglected.
In Western Europe at the turn of the 20th century, when industrialised development was in a rampant expansion phase, infrastructure was improved accordingly. Increasingly secuarlised societies, these nations did not bear witness to religious celebrations and pilgrimages comparable with those seen in India, despite its equivalent stage of development.
Like China, India has grown too much too quickly. This has meant that whilst a new super-rich has been created in both countries, millions of their citizens remain terribly impoverished. The improving conditions for the working class in Western Europe at the turn of the 20th century are not reflected in India, which has a far more sizable population to contend with.
For tragedy to strike at a time of celebration is particularly harrowing, although the stampede did not prevent festivities at the Ratangarh temple from continuing.
The Navratri festival marks the beginning of Autumn and for nine days, nine different forms of the goddess Durga are worshipped. According to Hindu tradition, Durga fought a nine-day battle against a demon army before triumphing, thus defeating the forces of evil.
Seen as a period of introspection and purification by many Hindus, the Navratri festival was seldom celebrated before the 18th century. From the 1750s, the festival gained greater popularity amongst the Indian elite, who put on elaborate displays of worship. The timing of this upturn in the practice of Navratri is perhaps unsurprising, coinciding as it did with the capture of Bengal by the British East India Company and its associated ‘evil’.
As a national celebration undertaken by all, Navratri had to wait until the 20th century, when it became associated with the independence movement against the British Empire. Despite the country’s rigid caste system, the Navratri celebrations were opened to all and they became a symbol of Indian national unity.
India’s delayed development and colonial legacy are direct causes for the country’s continuing obsession with religion and its associated festivals. Despite the national economic advances being made, much of the population is poor, holding traditional (some might say archaic) views about society.
Whereas in the industralising nations of Western Europe at the start of the 20th century organised religion came to be seen as a barrier to national unity and further development, such sentiments are not shared by the majority of India’s population.
This is perhaps preventing advancing living standards and is attributable to the poor education provision for the large rural population. Improving educational standards typically coincide with a challenging of cultural and religious traditions.
Until the Indian government finds a solution to promoting even development (probably at the expense of outright growth), by tackling the educational and infrastructural problems facing the country, religion will remain a point of solace for many of its people.
It must be hoped that fewer celebrations are cut short in the manner seen in Madhya Pradesh.