There were two streams of people – one moving towards the Raths, for people who hadn’t seen them and one moving away from them, for those who had. We entered the former stream and immediately regretted it. Let me elaborate – people had been walking on that road for hours and they were, by that time, very dirty; the roads were wet as well as the Government of Orissa had appointed people to spray the people on the road with water from these tanks on their backs to provide some respite from the heat (this was great for our faces which were being sprayed with cool water, but terrible for our feet which were covered in water and mud now); and of course, there were the people! There were reportedly more than a hundred thousand people on that road at the time and we were constantly being pushed and butted by others. Have you seen the Guiness World Record attempt where a small hatchback is fitted with as many people as possible? The record is somewhere around 30. Now, imagine being a person in that terribly cramped car and also imagine being there for about an hour in that position. Hell, you think? No, worse. That’s what it was like walking on that road. However, there was a part of me that was really enjoying the whole thing and was just nudging me forward with great zest. After the initial discomfort, I grew accustomed to the conditions and started looking at the finer details of which there were many.
At the point we were then, the Raths were barely visible and seemed like specks in the distance. However, I heard from someone that they had started moving forward which would make our journey a little shorter. I noticed the entire sidewalk, right from the place we started walking to the place where the Raths were located (the end of the road), was occupied by policemen. There were ordinary policemen, bomb squad units, anti-terror units and quick-response teams and this showed that the state government really took this event seriously. I think that everyone was quite intimidated by them too because the crowds near them were comparatively docile. Looking up, I saw that all the buildings lining the road were filled to the brim with people; people were looking out through windows, standing on balconies and also on the roofs to get a good view. Looking further up, I saw that news channels had their cameras placed atop the buildings and that the video was being broadcasted live on huge L.C.D. screens placed on the side of the road at intervals of around 100 metres. People were going crazy waving at the cameras in the off-chance that they get to appear on T.V. Suddenly, my observation of my surroundings was brought to an abrupt halt when I was pulled aside by my father to make way for an ambulance that was rushing towards the Raths. As soon as the ambulance passed us, a crowd of about fifteen young men started running behind it as the ambulance had a clear path in front of and behind it and thus, it was an easy way of getting to the front, fast. This came to be quite a regular sight as an ambulance passed by us almost every three or so minutes. This indicated only one thing to me – things up ahead must be really rough.
We were bumbling forward at quite a slow pace and with each step the Raths got closer and seemed to loom more and more over us like goliaths. Now and again we’d see small circles of people playing religious music and dancing in joy, get sprayed by some water, get pushed by some people followed by us pushing them back. After walking for about fifteen minutes, it seemed that we had almost reached the Raths. Now let me just explain something before I continue – it is believed that if you can touch the rope used to pull the Raths or in fact, any part of the Rath and see the face of the idols in the Raths, it brings good fortune. (Interesting fact: A long time ago, people would lie down in front of the wheels of the Rath and get run over by it because they believed that by doing so, they would go straight to heaven. Thankfully, it’s not done anymore.) We could clearly see the faces of the idols from the point we had reached. However, we wanted to go further and see if we could get lucky enough to touch the ropes or the Raths and then take a road behind the Raths to make our exit. That seemed quite possible to me and I thought that we might actually pull it off. But, to our great misfortune (oh, the irony), I guess it wasn’t to be as the moment that I had had that thought, all the people in front of us made a sharp 180 degree turn and started running towards us. We realized that there was no way we could muscle past this crowd and so we were forced to make a u-turn as well. Things didn’t go as smoothly as it seems – this was actually a stampede. People were shoving me so hard that it took all the strength in my body to stay upright. The sight of a man falling down in front of me almost made crumple to the ground as well, but I managed to stay on my two feet. My father and I were clutching each other’s hands and trying desperately to get out of this mess. We tried to get on to the sidewalk to escape the stampede, but the policemen occupying it sent us right back in mercilessly saying that the sidewalk was reserved for them. I had a plastic water bottle in my hand and I was using that to cushion my hand from the person in front of me as I was pushing, rather shoving the people in front of me. My senses went into overdrive, adrenaline started pumping through my veins and getting out of that mess became my only goal in life at the moment. It seemed to last forever, but after about thirty seconds the crowd stabilized and things were back to “normal” (by those standards).
It just seemed so anticlimactic to be so close to the Raths, yet not be able to touch them. I suddenly realized that my uncle and my cousin were no longer with us and they got separated from us during the stampede. My father reached into his pocket to get his phone out and call my uncle, but after searching all his pockets frantically and not finding it, we concluded that the phone had either been stolen or it had fallen out of his pocket during the stampede. Luckily, I had brought a trusty, old Nokia C-3 along with me and I quickly called up my uncle, but to no avail as he didn’t pick up. It dawned on the two of us that we still had to get out of here and then find some way back to Bhubaneshwar. I was so exhausted that I just wanted to collapse, but that wasn’t an option, so I continued forward. The long walk back to the point where we entered the road began.
On our walk back, I saw a fire engine on the left. Suddenly a fireman climbed on top of it with a hose his hand and unleashed an uber-powerful jet of water on to the people to apparently cool them. How unfortunate that just at that moment, the phone was in my hand and it and I got completely doused. I almost lost all hope when the screen froze making me realize that our only form of communication was now destroyed. However, I restarted the phone by removing and then reinserting the battery to find that it was back to working perfectly. (Nokia really makes quality products.) The rest of the walk was actually quite mundane except for one incident – I was walking when suddenly all the people next to me moved away from me. I looked behind expecting an ambulance to find, to my great astonishment, a huge black buffalo right behind me with its horns almost touching me. I quickly darted to my right to make way for it.
I was secretly considering a worst-case scenario in my head that maybe my uncle or cousin had gotten injured in the stampede and thus, I kept peering into the passing ambulances to see if they were inside. A part of me was actually hoping for it because it would make regrouping with them so much easier, but the other part was hoping that no harm had come to them. However, we luckily/unluckily never spotted them in any of the ambulances.
We seemed to be walking forever and our point of entry into the road (our future point of exit) seemed to not be coming any closer. However, after an agonising walk, we finally reached it. Now all that was left was securing a form of transportation, regrouping with my uncle and cousin and getting back to Bhubaneshwar. Seem simple? It wasn’t at all.