Kumbh Mela: A Week at the Largest Religious Gathering in the World

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The atmosphere is as much spectacle as spiritual, with flashing neon lights, lavish parade floats, and deafening loudspeakers broadcasting religious messages around the clock.

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Musicians play in a band during the Kumbh Mela.

Every 12 years, millions of pilgrims gather for the Kumbh Mela at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers near Allahabad, India. The pilgrims bathe in the holy waters to purify themselves of sin. The Kumbh Mela is one of the most important pilgrimages in Hinduism and the largest temporary gathering anywhere in the world.

Many observers describe the Kumbh Mela as a religious fair. This description is apt. The atmosphere is as much spectacle as spiritual, with flashing neon lights depicting scenes from the Mahabharata, lavish facades decorating wealthy ashram camps, and deafening loudspeakers broadcasting religious messages 24 hours a day.

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A trained elephant takes a 10 rupee note (20 cents) from Anni. The Kumbh is as much spectacle as spiritual.

I spent a week at the 2013 Kumbh Mela with two friends. Rather than stay in nearby Allahabad or in hotel-like tents at the edge of the mela, we chose to embed ourselves in the event by staying in the temporary tent city itself. A series of chance encounters led us to stay first with representatives of a socialist political party, and later at the ashram of Swami Vivekananda Giri.

These photographs show day-to-day scenes within tent city, culminating with an insiders' view of the pre-dawn bathing procession of February 15, a particularly important bathing day.

8 February 2013

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On the main road to the sangam, the crowd swells on February 9, the day before main bathing day. The population of tent city peaks in the early morning hours of February 10. After that, pilgrims will begin leaving the Kumbh and returning to their homes all over India.

Sprinting alongside our train to Allahabad, we find every door in every car blocked by people. We can't board. Two days later, crowds at the Allahabad railway station stampede, killing 36 people and wounding several dozen more.

Finding a bus is easy. The cost? Only 105 rupees (about $2) per person. However, with pilgrimage traffic the 75-mile ride takes almost six hours.

Hungry and tired, we arrive in Allahabad at 11 p.m. and search for the accommodations we've booked. At 2 a.m. we find our camp--two canvas tents walled in with corrugated metal sheets. Nine people share our tent. The cost is 500 rupees ($10) per person per night. For a patch of straw on the ground, it seems expensive.

Strange and deafening public address systems abound at the Kumbha Mela. Beside our tent, a man's hoarse voice screeches and shouts from a loudspeaker, resembling the ravings of lunatic, sandwich-board-wearing street preachers. The loudspeaker is turned too high and shrieks with feedback and distortion. Still, I fall asleep instantly.

9 Feb 2013

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Two women perform a simple puja - a Hindu religious ritual - on the banks of the Ganges at dusk.

In late morning we leave, seeking food and better accommodations. We walk only a hundred feet before some men ask how we're doing. Very well, I tell them, but we'd feel better after lunch.

The men represent the Samajwadi Party, a socialist-democratic political group that have opened several very crowded tents at the Kumbh to offer pilgrims respite. They give us a very spicy lunch and invite us to spend the night. Later we learn their party leader is a former professional wrestler.

We wander all day to get our bearings. In the tent city, a grid of streets runs parallel and perpendicular to the Ganges. Metal sheets cover major roads so the mud-sand soil doesn't become rutted. Fifteen temporary pontoon bridges cross the Ganges, and two more cross the Yamuna. Police patrol every intersection. Water and electricity are piped to every camp. Vendors line major streets. At the heart of it all is the sangam, the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The most auspicious place to bathe, the sangam has no camps, only a large open area where bathers gather to dip.

10 Feb 2013

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Holy men relax in their tent during the heat of the day. They wear pearl and rudraksha bead necklaces, and paint themselves with what may be Shiva tridents, though they look more like sailboats.

Mauni Amavasya Snan - the most important bathing day!

Our hosts wake at 2:30 a.m. to walk the five miles to the sangam. The crowds are already immense. The red and dusty world outside the tent looks the way Mars must during its world-encompassing dust storms.

We drink chai and eat 5 rupee (10-cent) samosas. Then we leave to bathe.

We find a calm-looking spot about half a mile from the sangam. Women bathe clothed, but men bathe in their underwear. I strip down and enter the water. Unlike Indians, I don't fully submerge. I don't want river water to get in my mouth. Hindus believe the Ganges is pure almost by definition because it descended directly from heaven, but I believe in germ theory.

Afterwards, we enjoy the post-dip ambiance. A man puts a red tilak on our foreheads. Someone gives us blessed sweets, called prasad.

In the evening, we photograph the ashrams' wildly decorated facades. Most Hindu organizations in India have a presence in tent city during the Kumbh. Some of these camps - called ashrams - are small, but some house many tents and dozens of disciples.

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Presented by

Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson is a writer based in Iowa. He is writing a book about myth and pilgrimage in India.

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